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The Benedict Option As Preparation

'Something big is coming,' said the college student. 'I feel it. We can all feel it'

My thanks go to John Davidson for citing The Benedict Option as one of The Federalist’s Notable Books of 2017. He writes, in part:

The gist of Dreher’s argument is that American Christians will soon find themselves an unwanted and persecuted minority in an aggressively secular nation, and that the only form of faith that’s going to be passed on to future generations of American Christians is one that’s anchored in ancient Christian traditions and lived out intentionally, in community, and set apart from the main stream of society.

Of course, this was always going to be true about America sooner or later. The long détente between church and state in America was never going to last forever, and when it at last breaks down, Christians will return to what is a more historical norm. As the number of Christians dwindles, the ones who remain will tend to be those who are rather more strident about their faith—people for whom the Benedict Option is neither Benedictine nor optional, to paraphrase one reviewer.

I spent Friday morning in the company of a college student from Texas who traveled to Baton Rouge to interview me for his honors thesis, which focuses on The Benedict Option concept. At one point, we were talking about the spirituality of his generation, and why some of them have trouble understanding the Benedict Option idea.

He said — and I’m going from memory; I took no notes — that men and women of his generation are anxious and scattered. They want something firm to anchor themselves in, but they doubt that such a thing exists, and in any case they are afraid to commit themselves to anything. About the Benedict Option, he said he runs into fellow Christians in his peer group who keep asking some version of the question, “What does Dreher really want? What is he really trying to say?”

I responded by telling my interviewer that there is no hidden agenda in The Benedict OptionMaybe, I said, they’re wanting a cut-and-dried, ten-point plan for BenOpping your life. That doesn’t exist. True, the book is full of real-life examples of countercultural Christian living, of Benedict Option principles in action, but every reader is going to have to do the hard, creative work of discovering what it means to incarnate those principles in their own lives and communities. There is no clean-cut formula.

My interviewer told me that there’s a strong tendency among his Christian peers to dumb down Christian worship — to make it instantly accessible to anybody, without having to do any work. He said he struggles to understand the anti-intellectualism of all this, especially as it manifests itself among college students. What’s more, they act as if anti-intellectualism was an egalitarian virtue.

This, I responded, is exactly the wrong approach. It’s not that they ought to be making worship more complex and demanding, necessarily, but this stance assumes that we stand over worship asserting the right to mold it to fit our preferences. You end up with a ritual that worships yourself, not God, whether you mean for it to or not. Similarly, if you see the Christian tradition that way, as a repository from which you can pick and choose this or that thing, and make a bricolage of it, you may soon find that you have decorated a temple to yourself.

Contrast this to the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, the most celebrated liturgy in the Orthodox churches, as well as in Eastern Rite Catholic churches. When you first encounter it, it is a strange, opulent, and mysterious thing. You won’t be able to figure it out, but you can tell that you are in the presence of something awesome and real. It’s a ritual of great age, with its core going back to the 5th century, and most of its elaboration having taken place in the first millennium. With experience, the liturgy gradually discloses its meaning to you, and what you find is that it will have called you outside of yourself. It’s like the experience of a medieval cathedral: you don’t understand it all when you first walk into it, but as you get to know its features, you become overawed by its complexity and meaning. The Divine Liturgy changes you by, to borrow a phrase from the cultural anthropologist Paul Connerton, sedimenting the Christian story into your bones. In the Christian East, people would no more consider tampering with the liturgy than they would wreckovate an old cathedral.

The point is not that God prefers elaborate ritual over simple ritual. God prefers prayers from the heart of the truly penitent, in whatever form. The point here is that when you approach the form of worship with the idea that it ought to be molded to be easy to digest, you rob it of its transformative power. The same is true of the entire experience of the Christian religion.

I learned something interesting from my interviewer. He said that at one level, he interprets The Benedict Option in light of my previous books: Crunchy Cons, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, and How Dante Can Save Your Life. I had never thought of it that way, but I think he’s on to something.

The first book articulates a longing for home, rootedness, and tradition. The second describes a form of re-entry into rootedness that presented itself to me — and ended with a surprise barrier to that re-entry. The third explored the consequences of that failed re-entry, and the hard lesson it taught me. Which brings us to The Benedict Option.

What’s the link? As I told the interviewer — and this only occurred to me in response to his question — the common thread is the discovery of dead ends out of the dark wood.

I once thought that being a communicant of the Roman Catholic Church would rescue me from alienation and rootlessness. But that was not true; I had made an idol of the institution.

Conservative politics were never my religion, but I used to find a sense of home, of belonging, of meaning within that tribe. But that was false too.

I once thought that if I could somehow find my way back to my childhood home, and to my family there, I would be okay. But that was painfully untrue. I had made an idol of family, and place, and of my father, as had the entire family, with tragic results for everyone.

So what is the Benedict Option connection?

First — and this is a lesson I learned from reading Dante — to put your hope for meaning and deliverance in anything that is not God is idolatry, and it will not end well.

Second, even good things — Church, Family, Place, Causes, etc. — can be destructive if you place your ultimate hope in them. To do so is to expect more from them than they can provide. These things only derive their goodness — if indeed they are good in particular instances — through God, in from their subordination to Him.

Third, knowing God is a pilgrimage, not a static state, e.g., affirming certain intellectual propositions. Here was my error with the Church (and it’s an error that anybody could make in any church; mine happens to have been Catholic). Without realizing what I was doing, I located my identity in the Roman Catholic institution. There is nothing wrong with the concept of an institutional church, but it is only good insofar as the institution serves the purpose of leading its people to what Evangelicals would call a saving relationship with God, and Orthodox would call theosis (though, to be sure, we mean significantly different things by that). The point is that the Church — any church — is not a destination, but the body of pilgrim believers moving together through history in a sacred pilgrimage toward the destination, which is unity with God. The institutional church is necessary, but not sufficient.

The result of all this was to realize that none of us can be delivered from history. This liquid modernity we’re going through, this era in which all our institutions — church, state, school, family, everything — are called into question, there is no way to escape it. The best we can do is to ride it out. For Christians, the only way to hold on through this flood is to make one’s faith nothing less than a way of life. 

This is what the Benedictine monks do. We laypeople in the world are not called to live by the Rule of St. Benedict, but as I explain in the book, we can learn a lot from the practical spiritual insights the monks discern from their 1,400 year old way of life. As I write in The Benedict Option:

Though it quotes Scripture in nearly every one of its short chapters, the Rule is not the Gospel. It is a proven strategy for living the Gospel in an intensely Christian way. It is an instruction manual for how to form one’s life around the service of Jesus Christ, within a strong community. It is not a collection of theological maxims but a manual of practices through which believers can structure their lives around prayer, the Word of God, and the ever-deepening awareness that, as the saint says, “the divine presence is everywhere, and that ‘the eyes of the Lord are looking on the good and evil in every place’ (Proverbs 15:3).”

The Rule is for monastics, obviously, but its teachings are plain enough to be adapted by lay Christians for their own use. It provides a guide to serious and sustained Christian living in a fashion that reorders us interiorly, bringing together what is scattered within our own hearts and orienting it to prayer. If applied effectively, it disciplines the life we share with others, breaking down barriers that keep the love of God from passing among us, and makes us more resilient without hardening our hearts.

We are not trying to repeal seven hundred years of history, as if that were possible. Nor are we trying to save the West. We are only trying to build a Christian way of life that stands as an island of sanctity and stability amid the high tide of liquid modernity. We are not looking to create heaven on earth; we are simply looking for a way to be strong in faith through a time of great testing. The Rule, with its vision of an ordered life centered around Christ and the practices it prescribes to deepen our conversion, can help us achieve that goal.

The Benedict Option is an attempt to discern from the Benedictine tradition rules of living that can help all of us lay Christians in the 21st century stay faithful during a time of civilizational dissolution reminiscent of the fall of the Western Roman Empire. What I didn’t see until this college student interviewer pointed it out to me is that it is also, in a sense, its author’s attempt to discern wisdom from his own messy pilgrimage.

Here’s what I learned from that pilgrimage:

    • That the home we seek cannot be found in this world; the best we can do is approximate it. That we should prefer nothing to the pursuit of the living God.
    • That church will fail you, family will fail you, politics will fail you, every single thing you try stands to fail you — and you will fail them in turn — because that is in the nature of temporal things. That is in the nature of all things defiled by the curse of Adam.
    • That this is to be expected, but it should not discourage or dissuade you from the pursuit of God, on pilgrimage with other Christians.
    • That the surest way to stay on the straight path is the way of tradition, particularly embodied in the life of the monks: a life of regular prayer, worship, fasting, feasting, worship, repentance, consecrating our work, showing hospitality, and faithfully stewarding the things we have been given.
    • That none of these things will protect us from suffering or persecution. But they will make us more resilient in the face of suffering and persecution. They will teach us to live like Christians, and if it comes to it, to suffer, even die, like Christians.

Finally, hope is necessary, but optimism about the future is foolish. Stefan Zweig, the Austrian Jewish writer who fled Nazism, wrote in 1941: “None of us in Germany and in Austria in 1933 and even in 1934 thought that even a hundredth, a thousandth part of what was to break upon us within a few weeks could be possible.” Zweig also wrote about the Austro-Hungarian empire in the first decade of the 20th century, saying that it seemed impossible for the people living in its peace and prosperity to grasp that it could ever end.

“People believed in ‘progress’ more than the Bible, and its gospel message seemed incontestably proven by the new miracles of science and technology that were revealed daily,” Zweig wrote in his memoir. And then came the Great War.

Yesterday, the college student interviewing me said, “Something big is coming. I feel it. We can all feel it.”

Me too. Prepare while you can.