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The Benedict Option Doesn’t Exist

A recent exchange between Rod Dreher and John Goerke has highlighted some concerns I’ve had for some time regarding the so-called “Benedict Option” of cultural engagement (or disengagement, depending on how it’s understood). My sneaking suspicion, and what I argue in this essay, is that the Benedict Option, at least as defined by Dreher, doesn’t really exist.

Last December, Dreher profiled two examples of the Benedict Option in The American Conservative: Clear Creek, OK and Eagle River, AK. Goerke responded on Monday at Crisis Magazine by critiquing these examples, claiming that they do not truly qualify for what MacIntyre envisioned when he closed After Virtue with his claim, “We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.” Goerke writes,

Is this the Benedict Option? The answer is: no. First and foremost there is the obvious point. The members of Clear Creek and Eagle River are not monks. Their lack of organized prayer life betrays this fact. While the laity of the Church may be confused as to the nature of vocation, they ought to know that a married man, such as Mr. Andrew Pudewa, is not called to live out a monastic life. Simply storming the altar and reciting the Eucharistic prayer does no more to turn a man into a priest than does moving next to an abbey turn a man into a monk, much less a Benedictine. To paraphrase a great man, standing in a garage doesn’t turn you into a car. If taking the Benedict Option means a strict imitation of Benedict’s move to the wilderness, then it is an option to be taken only by monks.

Goerke further elaborates on the central place of prayer and work in the Benedictine life, arguing, “Rather than retreat, the father of monasticism ran, and ran forward, with all due haste to his, and our, Father.” Thus, to Goerke, Dreher’s account of his two “Benedict Option” communities does not fit the bill.

Dreher was quick to point out, however, that Goerke had misunderstood him: “As MacIntyre said, we await a new and very different St. Benedict—one who can teach us all how to live amid narrative collapse. As a Christian, I expect that a new Benedict, or new Benedicts, will find a way to make the old story live amid the ruins of postmodernism.”

To Dreher this task is urgent, apocalyptic even. He predicts a coming “Endarkment” of narrative collapse in our culture. This, it should be noted, also comes from MacIntyre: “What matters at this stage,” he writes, “is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us.”

“When I talk about the Benedict Option,” writes Dreher,

I don’t mean—or don’t mostly mean—a physical retreat to a quasi-monastic community, but rather an intentional and thoughtful retreat into narrativity, by which I mean a reclaiming of the church’s story, inculcating commitment to it within the lives of its members, in defiance of the narrative collapse around us. To achieve this, one must be aware of the conditions in which we live, and under which we are raising our children.

The “conditions” would be the “new dark ages,” which according to MacIntyre “are already upon us.”

Goerke claims a discontinuity between the historical St. Benedict and Benedictines and Dreher’s Benedict Option. Dreher responds that 1) he awaits “a new and very different St. Benedict” and thus some discontinuity with the old one should be expected, and 2) the likeness to the historical Benedict comes from “an intentional and thoughtful retreat into narrativity.”

For my part, I am still sympathetic to Goerke’s critique, but actually I don’t think it goes far enough. St. Benedict died in the fifth decade of the sixth century. Yet as Owen Chadwick noted, it was not until the early ninth century, and that due to strong papal support, that the Rule of St. Benedict became the standard rule in the Frankish Empire. Until that time, the dominant rules were often Celtic, especially the Rule of St. Columbanus, as well as a strong influence from St. John Cassian, St. Basil the Great, and the fathers of the Egyptian desert.

And the Celts, importantly, were not retreating from the world but rather from Ireland in feats of what they termed “green martyrdom,” [Edit 8/13/2014: “green martyrdom” should be peregrinatio, and this term comes more from scholars than the Celts themselves], missionary exile as ascetic discipline. If Thomas Cahill is even half-right, the Irish played just as much a part in saving civilization as the Benedictines, if not far more so. Far from a retreat, their approach was quite confrontational (as was St. Benedict’s, as Goerke points out).

Of St. Columbanus, for example, Philip Schaff wrote,

He reproved by word and writing the tyranny of queen Brunehild (or Brunehauld) and the profligacy of her grandson Theodoric (or Thierry II.); he refused to bless his illegitimate children and even threatened to excommunicate the young king. He could not be silenced by flattery and gifts, and was first sent as a prisoner to Besançon, and then expelled from the kingdom in 610.

Later, in Zurich, “His preaching was accompanied by burning the heathen idols.” While I would not necessarily condone every aspect of St. Columbanus’s approach, it is fair to characterize it as a mixture of austere asceticism, charismatic personality, and direct engagement that proved effective in evangelism.

Thankfully, we need not wait for a “new and very different” Irish people as the Irish are still with us. Indeed, the equal respect accorded to Roman Catholics in the United States today is the result (in large part, at least) of a hard-won, confrontational battle of Irish immigrants to carve out an equal place in American society for their children and their cultural and religious heritage (see, e.g. Dagger John). Perhaps traditional Christians looking to preserve a moral culture today have more to learn from them.

If that is not enough, however, it must additionally be noted that the Dark Ages themselves did not actually exist. Even if they did, I would still object to the comparison, but no medievalists worth their salt would seriously use the term anymore. Certainly Rome was sacked (and, importantly, saved by the pope), and that did cause serious political instability, but the idea of an intellectual Dark Ages is an Enlightenment myth.

Thus, St. Benedict and the Benedictines did not save Western civilization from the Dark Ages. St. Benedict’s Rule had only just gained ascendance by the latter half of what is commonly referred to as the Dark Ages today, and even so, they were not nearly as dark as they are often portrayed.

Where does that leave Dreher’s Benedict Option? With no real connection to historical fact, the analogy becomes a mixed metaphor. The grounding that made the Benedict Option viable—viz. it happened once, why can’t it happen again?—does not exist, and therefore the Benedict Option doesn’t exist either.

That said, I nevertheless respect Dreher’s work. He is one of only a handful of thoughtful, Orthodox Christian cultural commentators, and as an Orthodox Christian myself, I am very thankful that he, at least, exists.

Furthermore, no doubt Dreher is right that much can be learned from the intimate, semi-liturgical community life of places like Eagle River and Clear Creek. I’m just not convinced that one cannot “retreat into narrativity” just as well in New York City. Ascetic and liturgical living is for everyone, not just a few small towns and monasteries.

But waiting for “a new and very different St. Benedict”? Well, that may as well be waiting for Godot. So far as I can tell, neither of them is coming.


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  • Aaron Taylor

    Love it.

  • Fred K

    such academic flatus.

    • Andrew

      I think a distinction needs to be made between Clear Creek Monastery and any lay community that grows up around the monastery. To say “the members of Clear Creek…are not monks.” Is obviously false if talking about the monastery. They’re not only monks, but, wait for it….Benedictines.

      • Dylan Pahman

        Good point. I had the same thought when reading Goerke, but his broader point still seems worth hearing to me (though I would quibble with other details there as well).

        That said, I do not think this really affects my main point that Dreher’s Benedict Option has a dubious historical foundation, undermining its viability.

  • Dan Hugger

    Really helpful. I wonder whether people who advocate such an option really just want a subculture resistant to modernity. There are plenty of institutionalized sects that do that with varying degrees of success.

    • philadelphialawyer

      Yes. That seems to be the alpha and the omega of it. Remove the false history of Benedict and his monasteries “saving” Western civilization, remove the long debunked notion of the “Dark Ages,” remove the high fallutin’ but mostly inaccurate references to McIntyre and the pretentious but ultimately meaningless jargon such as “narrativity” and so forth, and with or without the alternate references to the Irish monks and desert Fathers, what we have is an appeal to try and create a subculture, distinct from mainstream American life, but not hermetically sealed from it. Not necessarily a bad idea, as long as one understands that (1) it has little or nothing to do with St Benedict, (2) it has little or nothing to do with the Benedictine Order, (3) it has little or nothing to do with McIntyre, and (4) it has little or nothing to do with monasteries.
      Basically, it is a misnomer, based on a misunderstanding of McIntyre, who’s name is there mostly to supply second hand intellectual heft and firepower, and using Benedict (and/or his Order) as an ahistorical sock puppet.
      What it really amounts to is that trad Christians should become like the Amish, the Mennonites, the Orthodox Jews, and, perhaps, the Mormons (in the modern sense, not in the pick up and move to Utah 1800’s sense). Again, not necessarily a bad idea, but one wonders why the fancy title or the need for it.

  • Christopher Hall

    Definitely food for thought. However, I think what I come away with, from this essay, is actually more and more that we do need a new St. Benedict (or new St. Benedicts), in the broad sense that we need a resurgence of asceticism and monastic spirit in order to ahve a more powerful evangelization and cultural engagement. I don’t think this was ever about mere retreat, but about “retreat” that would draw the world with it. Even appealing to St. Columbanus (whom I absolutely love) simply highlights the fact that monasticism and flight from the world winds up becoming central to converting the world. So it seems that it is precisely here where we need to focus a lot of energy.

    The Celtic saints are a great place to look, because they were reconverting already Christianized territory–which is exactly what the Church needs to do in Europe and the Americas. Columbanus is particularly an excellent saint upon whom to call, because he so perfectly combined the monastic ideal with fervent missionary work–because he made monasticism missionary work.

    I don’t think this really clashes inherently with the point that MacIntyre makes in After Virtue, or a lot of what Dreher says, either. I wonder if a lot of the criticism of this interpretation comes from a view of it as pusillanimous and pessimistic. I don’t think we need to view it that way, however.

    Forgive me. It’s early in the morning.

  • Dylan,

    Thank you for this. You make an important point when you observe that the wide ranging cultural success of Benedictine monasticism depended on a wide range of factors. Without wishing to slight divine grace and the sanctity of St Benedict, part of his success was the strong support of the papacy. Nor can we discount the contributions of Irish monastics and their “green martyrdom.”

    To take MacIntyre’s term somewhat out of context, there is something “emotive” about the Benedict Option not unlike the late, though hardly lamented, WWJD? Maybe to put it more gently, the Benedict Option is more aspiration than operational; an ideal to guide us rather than a concrete plan of how to proceed. Dreher I think acknowledges this (at least implicitly) when he writes that “we await a new and very different St. Benedict—one who can teach us all how to live amid narrative collapse. As a Christian, I expect that a new Benedict, or new Benedicts, will find a way to make the old story live amid the ruins of postmodernism.”

    While I appreciate the rhetorical elegance of Dreher’s appeal to “narrative” and his reference to making “the old story live amid the ruins of postmodernism” he’s analysis is less precise than it might be. The Gospel has not collapsed much less does it need to be revived. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is alive and well even if the faith of individual Christians is in need of restoration.

    But when has this NOT been the case? Read the sermons of St John Chrysostom and you see that even during the “Golden Age” of patristic theology many Christians took their faith lightly. Again, without wishing to slight divine grace, the indifference of the faithful (laity and clergy) to the Gospel played a significant role in motivating the first monastics.

    And then of course there are the words of Jesus Himself: “[W]hen the Son of Man comes, will He really find faith on the earth?” (Lk 18:8, NKJV)

    Being a Christian has always been hard and just as the Church includes among the saints both martyrs and warriors, cultural engagement and withdrawal from the culture are both legitimate options.

    While I appreciate the attraction of the communities Dreher describes and can see their value, they aren’t for me. And without any cynicism, I say thank God for that they are not for me. The “secret” of monastic life, like any other way of life worth living, is vocational fidelity. For some that might take the form of an intentional community. But for others it means a life hidden in Christ. Thank God for both.

    • Dylan Pahman

      The charge of emotivism would be a bit ironic since MacIntyre, at least, is at pains to reject it.

      To be fair, I think Dreher truly believes that the culture war has been lost. (Personally, I don’t think “culture war” is the right way to frame civil—or not so civil, as the case may be—interaction between adherents to traditional morality and revisionists in the first place.) Given that assumption, he sees a “retreat to narrativity” to be necessary as the current moral collapse, as he sees it, is attributed to narrative collapse. The practical side seems quite clear to me: form communities that cultivate the old way of things and live on the old narrative. But if our current state of society cannot accurately be characterized as a new Dark Ages, then I’m not sure that practical step will prove effective (nor am I sure it would be effective even in that case).

  • Daniel Qualk

    I think you are making the same mistake as Goerke. Dreher is not saying it’s literally like St. Benedict and whatever the reality of what St Benedict did it is pretty clear what Dreher means. And just to illustrate further by how much you miss the point, I am about certain Dreher would agree that you can retreat within NYC. The point is simple, to partly disengage from the mainstream intentionally. That will mean something different for everyone, but it is useful to recognize this as a new theme, of disengaging to more thoroughly reengage. St Benedict is a nice analogy because he withdrew from society and maintained the narrative of civilization and he became a symbol for this withdrawing and maintaining the narrative.

    • Dylan Pahman

      The part about NYC is a minor point. Perhaps you are right, but Dreher’s examples typically are small, intimate, rural communities—he does not seem to expect to find a “new and very different St. Benedict” in Chicago, for example.

      Dreher’s Benedict Option is connected to the real St. Benedict inasmuch as it presumes that St. Benedict saved the West from the Dark Ages by a “retreat into narrativity,” so why can’t it happen again? The main point of this essay is that that never happened, undermining the viability of that option. On the other hand, I offer an alternative approach in the ancient Celts and modern Irish, grounded in real history.

  • Perhaps the Acton Institute is one Benedict Option locus?