A Benedictine on the Benedict Option
One day in Norcia, Casella and I had lunch with Father Cassian, the prior of the Benedictine monastic community, the hometown of St. Benedict. Father Cassian is an American who founded the community in 1998, and moved them to this monastery in 2000. It had been emptied out in 1810 by the Napoleonic laws, but now, there are once again monks living in it.
Over the course of our lunch, I had the opportunity to mention the Benedict Option to Father Cassian. I told him it had to do with the final paragraph of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, which he indicated he understood. I said that I’m not talking about everybody running for the hills and living in an armed compound, but I am talking about forming communities within which we can make meaningful withdrawals from an increasingly hostile, increasingly chaotic society. The idea, I told him, is to be able to hold on to our knowledge and tradition in a dark time.
I was surprised, and gratified, by his answer.
He said: of course, that makes perfect sense. People have to start doing that in their own lives and families. There must be prayer and ascetic discipline, and we must find ways to do that in community. Those who sit around waiting for the institutional churches to get their acts together will wait in vain. The only way Christians are going to come through the present and future days with their Christianity intact is if they have been formed through small communities of faith and practice.
I mentioned the community of Catholics who have gathered around Clear Creek Monastery in Oklahoma (I wrote about them for TAC here, in my cover story on the Benedict Option). Father Cassian said yes, he had heard about them, and he believes communities like that are important. “There are Italian families who live not far from our monastery, who are doing the same thing with us,” he said.
I told him that it frustrated me that so many people reject the idea of the Benedict Option out of hand because they think it requires running off to the wilderness and living in a kind of survivalist compound, or in some other way cutting yourself off completely from the world. In fact, I said, I’m advocating a partial withdrawal for the sake of forming oneself and one’s children in Christian faith and morals in the face of a powerful mainstream culture opposed to those values.
“I’m not talking about hiding your light,” I said. “I’m talking about not walking out into a hurricane and expecting your candle to stay lit.”
“That’s why they make hurricane lamps,” the prior said. “Here at the monastery, we withdraw in an institutional way, but you’re right — the laity has to understand that these are not normal times. If they want their descendants to be around for the rebuilding, families can’t live as if these were normal times. St. Benedict faced the same thing.”
Father Cassian had to return to the monastery for prayers, so our lunch was cut short. He did say before he left that without prayer and the sacraments, we are going to be in trouble if we try to live the Benedict Option. There must be real, and constant, spiritual nourishment to build the presence of God within our hearts and communities, or our efforts will be in vain.
I don’t want to give the impression that Father Cassian is a gloomy man. He gives the impression of being a man of deep prayer and serenity, as you would expect in a monk, which made it all the more impressive that he has such stillness within him even though he believes the world is headed into a dark age, at least as far as the Christian faith is concerned.
“Where do you find your hope?” I asked.
“In the Lord,” he said, firmly. “And only in the Lord. Nothing else lasts. He is the only one who will not disappoint.”
Later, Casella and I were reflecting on our lunch with the prior, and marveled that such a place as this wonderful Norcia monastery exists in the world. When the Norcia monks arrived here to re-open the monastery in St. Benedict’s birthplace after two centuries of abandonment, there were only three of them. The community is now almost twenty monks strong. And seeing them in church singing the hours, I can tell you that they are all young. They come mostly from America, but there are men from other parts of the world.
They come here, I see, because the Monastery of San Benedetto is a spiritual lighthouse and a spiritual stronghold. They chant in Latin, and celebrate the old mass. If I were a young Catholic man who thought I might have a vocation to the monastic life, I would be on the next plane to Italy and make my way to Norcia for a retreat. By the way, they welcome pilgrims here too.
Casella and I left Norcia today thinking of ourselves as friends of this monastery. This small community of monks are keeping the faith alive in the birthplace of the saint who did more than any single man to preserve it in western Europe through a time of chaos and fragmentation. And he didn’t do it by coming up with a Grand Plan To Save Civilization. He did it by becoming a man of prayer, and of prayer in community. A man who believed that one’s life should be about work and prayer. He gathered like-minded men around him, and over time, they taught the people of Europe how to pray and how to live. Because of the mustard seed of faith St. Benedict had, he gave birth to modern Europe.
He faced very hard times, harder than we face today. But he didn’t surrender to them, nor did he deny their seriousness. He responded instead with faith, hope, and determination. If an avalanche is coming, you don’t surrender to it and slide down the hill with the rocks, and you don’t get yourself killed by standing in front of it hoping that God will stop it before it hits you, or that someone will show up at the last minute to rescue you. You get out of the way, and take shelter where you can until it passes you by.
This is the Benedict Option, as I see it. It inspires me to know that the prior of the monastery built over the birthplace of St. Benedict shares my vision of our cultural crisis, and the response it requires from serious Christians. I’m going back to America with a new sense of hope and discipline, and a sense that I and people like me need to get busy. I’m not a Catholic, but I’m going to keep this monastery in my prayers, and support their presence and work in Norcia however I can. Please you do the same, especially if you’re Catholic. And if you think you might have a vocation to Catholic monastic life, come to Norcia to see what their life is like here. Just do it.