“The Rule of St Benedict” and Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option for Modern Christians in a Post-Christian Culture

 

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Canterbury Cathedral in Canterbury, Kent, is one of the oldest and most famous Christian structures in England.
Founded in 597, completely rebuilt from 1070 to 1077.

England of the fifth century A.D. was a society in flux, in which stability was a scarce resource amidst upheaval and unrest. Centuries of conflict had fallen upon the small island as the final cadences of Pax Romana expired, giving way to barbarian invasions from the North. It was a time in which many cultures were colliding, consorting, and clashing. Chaos was the order of the day, and England was decidedly post-Christian. The few Christians that remained struggled to protect the moral life of their dwindling community whilst carrying out the task of evangelizing an often hostile pagan culture. Modern western Christians might resonate with these realities, for they are not far from what we experience today.  In his recent book The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, Rod Dreher writes that though we are not threatened physically from barbarians taking advantage of the loss of Roman protection, we are threatened nonetheless with the moral chaos left over in a society in which Christianity is no longer an effective stabilizing force. He proposes that modern Christians should look back to our medieval brothers and sisters to learn how they were able to protect and pass on Christian culture despite the turbulent times in which they lived. He contends that “we need to embed ourselves in stable communities of faith” modeled after the medieval monasteries, in particular.[1] The potential to learn from the Benedictines is great indeed, for many of their organizing principles, with emphases on order, prayer, and community, in addition to the practical balance struck between inward and outward focus, provide important (and convicting ) correctives for modern Christians who have lost their way in the darkness. The effectiveness of the Benedict Option will depend upon the willingness of Christians to resist the fragmenting forces of modernity, taking stock where we have uncritically absorbed its ethos of individualism, and, like the communities of our medieval counterparts, the communities we form must be willing to submit to oversight and wise counsel if these are to be protected from the numerous ways in which they can succumb to the dark.

Dreher writes that an important shift has occurred in the modern age in that the West has moved away from seeing the pursuit of happiness as inextricably linked to virtue and community towards seeing it as one of radical individualism and self-fulfillment. Modern man is no longer “born to be saved” as in the past, but is “born to be pleased.”[2] In essence, what past generations would have recoiled from as selfishness and sin, modern man has institutionalized and made a virtue. Leaning on the analysis of philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, Dreher writes that we live in a time in which belief in an objective moral order has been almost completely replaced by relativism. Faith and reason no longer guide us in ordering our lives, but rather something he terms emotivism, or “the idea that all moral choices are nothing more than expressions of what the choosing individual feels is right.”[3]

Dreher calls this society post-virtue, but this does not mean that “it is anti-virtue. Because of the Imago Dei, one can still detect goodness in the modern world. The key is that these virtues are untethered from any uniting foundation that enables them to cohere and harmonize with each other. Instead, these lone virtues tend to “swell to madness in their isolation,” as C.S. Lewis wrote in his work The Abolition of Man.[4] In his 1908 classic Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton called them “wild and wasted virtues” that roam about inflicting more damage than their corresponding vices, becoming caricatures of themselves, as a result. “Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless,” he writes while “some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful.”[5] In in the end, what we have is a form of fragmented morality, not unlike that of the barbarian times after the fall of Rome.

Just as moral order and stability are scarce today, so they were in the besieged early years of the medieval period. Men and women sought the solitude and structure of these small, semi-insulated communities in which they could intensely pursue the Christian virtues away from distraction. In approximately 540, St. Benedict composed what is called The Rule of St. Benedict, as a guide to living in these monasteries. Life in them was ordered around a fundamental and unifying principle that, as Benedictine writes, “God is present everywhere and that the eyes of the Lord watch the good and the bad in every place.”[6] For them, “humankind dwelled not in a cold, meaningless universe but in a cosmos, in which everything had meaning because it participated in the life of the Creator.”[7] Contrary to the modern belief that we give meaning to the things of the world, the Benedictines saw a world in which “meaning exists objectively, within the natural world created by God” and order is to be found by seeking to align their wills and passions with this cosmic logos.[8] This was seen as the life calling of all Christians and, guided by the greatest commandment to love God and neighbor, the Benedictines sought to create an environment in which this calling could best be achieved. Dreher writes that “the entire way of life of the monastic community was ordered by this telos or end.”[9]

This telos had a direct effect on how they pursued loving God, both through prayer and work, or contemplation and action in Benedictine language. Unlike the modern practice to structure one’s life around a career, in which work takes center stage, The Rule intentionally ordered the day around seven times of prayer, or offices, following Psalm 119:164.[10] Contemplation for them consisted “of psalms, hymns, Scripture readings, and prayers,” in which one seeks “to free oneself from the cares of the flesh to adore and praise God and to reflect on His truth.”[11] In modern parlance, these can be likened to spiritual disciplines.

These disciplines contrast with the life of work or vocation, but neither is dispensable or disconnected from one another.  Dreher writes that for the Benedictine, “work is as sacred as prayer,” and “ordinary life can and should be hallowed.”[12] This aiming towards God cannot be confined to a small corner labeled sacred, tucked away into a prayer closet. Everything is “charged with His grandeur” as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, rushing past the artificial sacred/secular divide created by modernity in an attempt to control it.[13] In the end, prayer and work, the spiritual disciplines in our personal lives and the pursuit of God-honoring work in our public, are absolutely necessary activities that depend upon each other.

An important key to applying these disciplines for the Benedictines was to limit diversions that undermined the order of their daily routines. This is all the more needed today with the numerous distractions that technology hath wrought in our lives. Purposely structuring our day, even in the smallest of ways, enables us to step back from a world that seems to be careening at ever increasing speed down a river of temporal things. St. Augustine, who composed his own guide for monastic living, wrote of this not long before the time of St. Benedict:

The river of temporal things hurries one along: but like a tree sprung up beside the river is our Lord Jesus Christ … Are you rushing down the stream to the headlong deep? Hold fast the tree. Is love of the world whirling you on? Hold fast Christ.[14]

Modern technology has created a world that is exhaustingly overstimulated and disharmonious. It is a roaring torrent of an “eternal present” that will carry us along in a fury of temporal demands and meaningless pursuits if we let it, leaving little energy left for those activities that are timeless. We must be wary of pursuits that we do allow into our lives, especially with regards to entertainment. All that we choose to consume must be measured against the standard that Paul sets forth in his letter to the Corinthians that though we have freedom in Christ and the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, not everything is beneficial or constructive to the life of the believer.[15]

Outside the confines of a cloister, the modern Christian will certainly have a more difficult time applying these principles, for modern culture seems crafted to undermine them at every point. An important key to Christians being able to achieve such an ordering is the formation of communities of like-minded families and individuals that can serve a similar role, albeit smaller, that the monasteries served for their monks. Dreher writes that “the forces of dissolution from popular culture are too great for individuals or families to resist on their own.”[16] These communities must stand in direct opposition to the prevailing worship of individualism, the telos towards which modern society is structured (and fractured). Christians must resist the pressures to conform, making the spiritual disciplines, worship, and community the priority regardless of the situation. Like the sixth century Queen Bertha and her daughter Ethelberga, we must be unwilling to sacrifice our practices and the centrality of them in our lives for worldly success, political stability, or temporal possessions. As part of the Bride of Christ, we can look to these medieval brides who insisted on being given the “freedom to hold and practice [their] faith unhindered,” being willing to shun any alliance, big or small, that will not respect this value.[17]

The size of these communities must be manageable, again resisting the modern idea that “bigger is better.” At a certain point, integration and accountability become impossible. A certain level of insulation will be necessary within such communities, too, especially when it comes to educating the young. Public education might need to be shunned, as a result. Still, like the Benedictines, the call to evangelization must be taken seriously as well. They show us ways in which we can practice hospitality and serve the community without sacrificing orthodoxy and disrupting the communal life.  Benedict writes that “all guests who arrive should be received as if they were Christ,” and “special care should be shown in the reception of the poor.”[18] Yet, it should be clear that these are to be worked into the warp and woof of the community. By this practice, monasteries were able to serve their communities without losing their saltiness, becoming beacons of virtue and care in the darkness.

Orthodoxy and stability must be maintained by seeking accountability from outside the community. Being willing to submit to oversight by an outside source will protect them from being steered off course and/or losing heart, two pitfalls that the medieval Christians consistently faced. We see this accountability modeled with St. Augustine and Pope Gregory I, the former asking for counsel, aid, and encouragement from the more stable and established church in Rome. This relationship of accountability was to extend through the Middle Ages, providing a much-needed support structure during particularly chaotic societal changes.  During these, Benedict’s Rule often “suffered distortions” requiring “repeated reform programmes” and visits by “bishops whose duty is was to … report irregularities.”[19] These communities cannot become utopian, writes Dreher, and “the idea of community itself should not be allowed to become an idol.”[20] Balance must be sought in all aspects of communal life in order to maintain joy and mercy.

In the end, the ordered souls of the medieval Christians would help create order for a society in flux. The idea of the ordered soul leading to an ordered society is not new or exclusively medieval and Christian. Plato’s Republic is based on the same premise. Medieval Christians were able to integrate Christ’s love with Plato’s philosophy, bringing to life the latter’s abstractions with the Biblical commands to love God and neighbor. Christ then becomes the connection between the individual and society, the bond or bridge of Plato’s Triad that brings them together in harmony.[21] Imitating their “exile in place,” modern Christians can form a “vibrant subculture” that looks “to Scripture and to Benedict’s Rule for ways to cultivate practices and communities” that create the necessary order that can reintegrate a fragmented culture.[22]

Monastery-of-Christ-in-the-Desert-

Monastery of Christ in the Desert – Abiquiu, New Mexico

[1] Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option (New York: Sentinel, 2017), 50.

[2] Ibid., 41.

[3] Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option, 16.

[4] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1955), 56.

[5] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, (Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson Publishers, 2006), 26.

[6] Benedict, The Rule of St Benedict, trans. Carolinne White (London: Penguin Classics, 2008), 40.

[7] Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option, 25.

[8] Ibid., 55

[9] Rod Dreher, “Benedict Option FAQ,” The American Conservative, accessed September 5, 2017, http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/benedict-option-faq/

[10] Benedict, The Rule of St Benedict, 36.

[11] Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option, 58.

[12] Rod Dreher, “Benedict Option FAQ.”

[13] Malcolm Guite, The Word in the Wilderness (London: Canterbury Press, 2014), 145.

[14] Augustine, “Homily on I John 2:14-16,” New Advent, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/170202.htm, accessed July 6, 2017.

[15] 1 Cor. 10:23, NIV: “I have the right to do anything,” you say–but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”–but not everything is constructive.”

[16] Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option, 50.

[17] Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English Peoples, trans. Leo Sherley-Price, ed. D.H. Farmer (London: Penguin Books, 1990), 75.

[18] Benedict, The Rule of St Benedict, 78.

[19] Ibid., xxiv.

[20] Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option, 139.

[21] C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 43.

[22] Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option, 18-19.

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2 thoughts on ““The Rule of St Benedict” and Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option for Modern Christians in a Post-Christian Culture

  1. Pingback: The Lost Light of the “Dark Ages” | Along the Beam

  2. Pingback: The Rule of St. Benedict for a Chaotic World – VIRTUAL BORSCHT

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