Monday, February 20, 2017

Benedict, Jeremiah, or Gregory: Options for Living the Catholic Life

The "Benedict Option" is a phrase you might hear a lot in the near future. It was first coined by Rod Dreher several years ago, referring to “pioneering forms of dropping out of a barbaric mainstream culture that has grown hostile to our fundamental values.” And now he's got a book coming out which, as is Dreher's way, is controversial. So I thought I'd mention it ... along with my two cents, of course!

St. Benedict delivering his rule to the monks of his order,
Monastery of St. Gilles, Nimes, France, 1129
The Benedict referred to by Dreher is St. Benedict of Nursia who founded many monasteries and whose rule for living monastic  life is still the foundation of many monasteries today. The Benedictine monasteries are often credited with preserving Christianity, culture, and knowledge during the Middle Ages. Not surprisingly, St. Benedict is often called the father of western monasticism.

When he originally coined the phrase, Dreher wrote about literal flight from modern society. Many (including me) rolled their eyes. This is not the Christian way. What was that last command Jesus had for his followers?
He said to them, “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature. (Mark 16:15)
These followers had something so good and true that they were on fire to share it with the world. The Benedictine monks weren't running away when they built their monasteries. They were spread all over because they were taking the gospel, the good news of Christ, to the ends of the earth. The fact that they took medicine, farming, engineering, art, and more with them was just because that's how they lived. And also how they made life better for those they went to help.

I forgot all about the Benedict Option until the Wall Street Journal ran an article about Christian creating their own small communities. It mentioned Dreher's term and that he'd written a book about it which is coming out next month.

I took to the internet to refresh my memory and discovered that Dreher had expanded his concept when questioned about the problem of isolationism as a Christian lifestyle.
If all the churches did what they were supposed to do, we wouldn’t need the Ben Op. Thing is, they don’t. The term “Benedict Option” symbolizes a historically conscious, antimodernist return to roots, an undertaking that occurs with the awareness that Christians have to cultivate a sense of separation, of living as what Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon call “resident aliens” in a “Christian colony,” in order to be faithful to our calling.
("If churches did what they were supposed to do." If the government just did what it was supposed to do. If the school did what it was supposed to do. And then there's my next door neighbor. And so on and so forth. Ok, let's ignore that attitude and move on.)

First of all — the church is made up of the people. Therefore, if we all just did what we were supposed to do — I'll say it — we might not have this big mess right now. But we didn't, so here we are. Now, how do we live as Christians in a fallen world? (Not so sure what is new about all this, by the way.)

I found Dreher's expanded FAQ unclear and somewhat muddled largely because, I think, that's part of the problem with living as a Christian anyway. You can't nail down a lot of things especially when it comes to how we become better, more devout Christians. However, what I've gleaned is that he wants us living intentional lives devoted to Christ, prayer, and others. With a Church that supports, teaches, and defends authentic faith.

Well, duh. That is how every serious Christian I know is living their lives already. Certainly every serious Catholic. And I know a lotta them. Again, I'm not sure what is so new about this.

It would be nice if more Christians did that. And knew their faith better. And so forth. Who's going to teach them? Oh, the church. That is to say — us. One more time, not sure what is so new about this. Read the Acts of the Apostles. This is the continual struggle. And it is almost always in a hostile environment from the secular world.

Musing over the matter this weekend I realized that our parish could be considered a direct descendent of those Benedictine monasteries in a lot of ways. It isn't perfect, because what in this world is, but it is a shining beacon in so many ways, beginning with the marriage enrichment retreat I was helping with while I was musing.

Twice a year, we invest considerable time, effort, and money into helping enrich marriages. We do it for the couples. But it also overflows into the church and the world, because marriages are the cornerstone of society. Which overflows into the children, friends, co-workers, and acquaintances of those who attend. It's how you change a society with moral decay — which is much how the 1st century Christians did it, come to think of it.

I can list many more of our parish's good works which include facilitating not only personal relationship with Jesus but the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. I won't subject you to the laundry list but you get the point. And there are plenty of other good parishes and churches around who are doing the same thing, beginning with the gospel women's prayer breakfast that was rocking the conference room next to ours on Saturday.

We all have to do our parts, but everything I read about Dreher's concept always left me with a sense of turning inward or retreating.

Gregory the Great dictating the Gregorian Chants
That's when I came across other commentary on the Benedict Option. Lots of other commentary. Most interesting to me were the other options people came up with. Because it is all about models of living, right?

My favorite is the Gregorian option. To be fair, it's kind of how I roll already. But these are all worth reading and pondering.
  • The Benedict Option: What Does It Really Mean? — briefly explains main points of Benedictine Rule for the modern world, from a Benedictine monk

  • What Would Jeremiah Do? — lessons from Jeremiah and the Babylonian exile for modern life in a hostile environment. "The piety that God encourages, therefore, can be practiced by ordinary people living ordinary lives under difficult circumstances. God enjoins the captives not only to live in Babylon, but also to live in partnership with Babylon. Without assimilating, they are to lay down roots, multiply, and contribute to the good of the greater society."

  • The Benedict Option or the Gregorian Option? — Take the bull by the horns, charge into that morally bankrupt void and claim it for Christ. Who knows? You might wind up with a new calendar, musical form, or economic model ... and change the world.

  • The Other Benedict Option — Bad Catholic comments and holds up the example of the other Benedict, Pope Benedict XVI

  • Strangers in a Strange Land by Charles J. Chaput — Chaput wrote one of my favorite books about Catholicism and politics in America (Render Unto Caesar). This one will be out soon and I can't wait. A vivid critique of American life today and a guide to how Christians―and particularly Catholics--can live their faith vigorously, and even with hope, in a post-Christian public square.


  1. I'm really looking forward to reading both Dreher's and Chaput's books, which sound like they will be good counter-points to each other.

    Dreher's made a bit of a career out of thinking about how to put the "Benedict Option" into practice, but the concept didn't originate from him, actually. It was first subtly proposed by philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre in his most well-known book on moral theory, "After Virtue," which was first published in the 1980s. The book traces the development of virtue in society as well as the disintegration of moral and political discourse (though the 1980s look quite good to us in retrospect...), and ends with the conclusion that there are some ways in which modern society is more or less irredeemable by an attempt at transformation by the inside, and might only be saved by a "new Benedict," or small communities forming away from the center of modern society in that spirit. Standard reading in most philosophy curricula nowadays.

    I don't know if you have a different perspective on this as a convert, but I think it is easier for cradle Catholics, or at least myself, as a cradle Catholic, to entertain the idea of striking out on a Benedict Option-esque project, because in some ways, growing up in certain Catholic family cultures feels thoroughly like being the "stranger in a strange land," to borrow the phrase from Chaput, and after putting up with so much, just setting off on your own to be free of that can look attractive. Personally I'm pretty torn about both approaches, but I think that absent anything else, the Benedict Option is already alive and well in cloistered and monastic communities throughout the world. I don't think it's an either-or, but a both-and equation.

    1. Hey JoAnna - my preferred option is the Gregorian one. Rush in and fill those moral vacuums! :-)