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Competing Benedict Options

Gracy Olmstead considers [1] whether people who choose to live intentionally separate, in some sense, from the broader society do so in a healthy way, or unhealthy way. Excerpt:

There are significant differences between this sort of “opt-out” community, and the homesteaders in Holland’s articles. One mode of life is focused on self-sufficiency; the other is focused on benefiting community. One is focused on material goods (or a lack thereof); the other is focused more on spiritual and cultural cultivation than on smoking salmon or keeping chickens.

While both Thoreau and Benedict chose to “opt out” of society’s customary mode of living, their methods of abstention were radically different. The individualism and self-focus of Thoreau’s romantic primitivism is sadly injurious to social living. Man is truly made for community—as Aristotle wrote [2], “man is by nature a political animal, and a man that is by nature and not merely by fortune citiless is either low in the scale of humanity or above it.”

Benedict’s communities were also separated from the urban centers of his time. But rather than attempting to withdraw entirely from civilization, he wanted to provide a place for those needing care, shelter, and instruction.

Read the whole thing.  [1] As I’ve said, the Benedict Option is not exclusively about running off to the woods to live hived away from everybody else (though it can be). It can be living in a more or less intentional community in a city, or a suburb. As Gracy points out, the early Benedictines did separate from the greater community, because they had to do so to live out their charism. But their monastery walls had doors in them. The point is, contemporary life is so hostile to traditional concepts of religion and virtue that to keep them alive and pass them on to one’s children, one has to be consciously countercultural — and consciously communal. Far as I can tell, nobody has figured out a one-size-fits-all model for that, because one does not exist. There will be of necessity a lot of experimentation.  I’m eager to hear from readers what works, and why it works.

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14 Comments To "Competing Benedict Options"

#1 Comment By Aaron Gross On April 7, 2014 @ 9:51 am

This question occurred to me on one of your earlier Benedict posts: Why not just join the Amish?

I mean that completely seriously. Intentional communities almost always fail.* The Amish may not have exactly the theology and way of life that you want, but they’re Christian, they’re Conservative, they’re Crunchy, and most important, they’ve proven themselves to be successful.

I’m absolutely serious here. I think you’d look pretty cool in a beard, too.

*That intentional communities fail is really the only thing I have against the idea; I don’t think anything you try would last for more than a couple generations. (And monasteries are different: they’re supported by religious institutions, and would probably die out without that institutional support.)

#2 Comment By alcogito On April 7, 2014 @ 10:12 am

By sheerest accident, I saw this film yesterday afternoon on Kcts9 our local public TV station: [3]. I paid attention because of the focus on the Mondragon cooperative in the Basque area of Spain which was mentioned years ago by a frequent commenter on your blog, John Medaille, and because of your interest in the Benedict option. From Mondragon, the film moved on to similar cooperatives in other countries including the U.S, and its potential for revitalization of depressed American cities, as it revitalized Basque Spain.

#3 Comment By Sheldon On April 7, 2014 @ 10:15 am

It’s not quite relevant to the main point, but Thoreau’s supposed “opt out” at Walden is almost entirely a myth. There have been many articles on the subject, including this one:


#4 Comment By alcogito On April 7, 2014 @ 10:23 am

And totally relevant to this discussion is a featured article today on TAC, [5]

He mentions RD.

#5 Comment By mrscracker On April 7, 2014 @ 10:33 am

Aaron Gross,
You didn’t ask me, but as a Catholic, I might have a similar point of reference as an Eastern Orthodox.
We believe that we have the Real Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, the full teachings of Christ, & an unbroken apostolic succession.
A priest once described the Catholic Church as having an entire “pie”, representing the teachings of Christ. Other denominations have a varying number of slices.
I’d say the Amish, my Mennonite friends & others do way more than we might with the amount of “pie” they have,in fact they put us often to shame, but there are still important slices missing.

#6 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On April 7, 2014 @ 11:02 am

The Amish really don’t live apart from the rest of society. They require manufactured items (e.g. glass, steel tools, lanterns, and kerosene) that they can’t produce on their own. So they participate in the cash economy like everybody else. My mom has a nice Amish made rocking chair she bought from them decades ago.

This is important because it means that the number of Amish are constrained by the market for their goods. Too many Amish would create a surplus of Amish products making it hard for them to sell them for cash.

tl;dr only the old believers you wrote about are living apart from the global economy.

#7 Comment By Sam M On April 7, 2014 @ 11:45 am

“This question occurred to me on one of your earlier Benedict posts: Why not just join the Amish?”

Building off MH’s point, the Amish not only participate in the cash economy and fill it with Amish goods, they also participate in the plain old, regular economy. Meaning they aren’t just makig pies and rocking chairs for tourists.

Amish people run their own saw mills. These are powered by diesel engines, not water wheels. They also provide labor in larger mills, which mill owners love. Why? Because they don’t have to pay workers comp for Amish workers, which is as much as $30 per $100 in wages. My sister hired Amish guys to build her a porch. They showed up in a van everyday and used cell phones to conduct their business.

Going Amish doesn’t really mean what a lot of people think it means. They just so happen to be extremely intentional and careful about which technologies they embrace and how they embrace them.

#8 Comment By J_A On April 7, 2014 @ 12:01 pm

It surprises me that I never see anyone mentioning what to me is the greatest difference between Middle Age (and contemporary) monasteries, and what I see in these pages as the Benedict Option:

Monasteries are peopled by people that individually, as adults, made the conciouss decision to join the community. They do not in any way rely in the children of the original memebers to follow up the steps of their parents. Quite the contrary, these were communities without children, and without the dinamics and pressures of children raising and family life.

On the other side, many of those that talk about the Benedict Option seem driven by the desire to create what they believe is the right environment for their children, and protect their children from the world culture. But nobody seems to consider if the children themselves want to be so protected. If you look at what happens when young adults from fundamentalist backgrounds first get out in the world, I would think that the tension will be similar, and that many -or-most- in the new generations will not be particularly happy to have been raised in the Benedict communities, and will go away to never come back.

Long story short – the Benedict option was not created as a refuge from culture, it was actually part of the culture, and it was an option for celibate adults, not for families. And it actually is still around, if you want to join.

#9 Comment By Derek Leaberry On April 7, 2014 @ 1:17 pm

It is likely that more Americans, especially religious conservatives, would opt and live the Benedictine way if health care was socialized. Shocking, right. But understand that the fear of most Americans of all stripes is a loss of health care. Most Americans are not in the situation where they can pay for a serious surgery and hospital stay out of their own pockets. Socialized medicine would provide the medical security for thousands of Benedictine families who are instead trapped in a corporation’s health insurance policy.

My family would like to live the Benedictine way but we are tied to my health insurance due to a son who has had five open-heart surgeries in his 17 years. He is due another surgery within the next year or two. I’ve seen what Johns Hopkins bills my insurance. It is a bill beyond my means and certainly beyond the means of someone who has gone country. I am a serf to my health insurance company as are millions of other Americans. I can not go Benedictine quite yet.

I have explained to other conservatives why I believe there are a half-dozen or so reasons why socialized medicine might have positive socially conservative consequences. But I might as well tell a Frenchman that California wine was better than French wine. Conservatism and socialized medicine are as likely as Ohio and seafood gumbo.

#10 Comment By Connie On April 7, 2014 @ 1:32 pm

“Why not just join the Amish?”

I recommend the book Better Off, written by a Catholic guy who joined a Mennonite-like community. From his account, it sounds like you don’t have to be an Anabaptist to live among them and be accepted. It was the simplicity principles that appealed to him.

#11 Comment By RB On April 7, 2014 @ 2:42 pm

LDS communities have a fairly good track record of survival. My husband’s great-great-grandfather founded Star Valley, WY, which is still heavily LDS and fairly self-reliant.

I love the joining-the-Amish idea. We have Mennonites and Hutterites in my area. I confess I am an Anabaptist groupie, a shameless sucker for anything plain.

When I was looking at buying a serger, the salesguy (who turned out to be my husband’s grandparents’ next-door neighbor back in their farming days–I love living here, I’m slways meeting people I already know, if YKWIM) pointed to the model the local Mennonites buy the most, and I was sold. And have never regretted it; it’s been a wonderful serger.

Anyway, my real point was, the unifying aspect to an LDS community is the nearest temple. Life tends to flourish wherever a temple stands; it’s a version of a local monastery. The adults who serve in the temples consecrate anywhere ftom a few hours a week to the equivalent of a full-time job. It’s like we take turns being monks and nuns.

It’s all voluntary–people draw near to the temple, figuratively as well as literally. I think any workable Benedictine option will need to offer something more that draws people to it. You’ve said this already, of course–we need to run to something, not just away from something.

Derek, what a trial. I’ll pray for you and your family.

#12 Comment By mrscracker On April 7, 2014 @ 2:59 pm

Connie ,
Thanks,I’ll have to look for that book, sounds interesting.
We used to spend much time with several conservative Mennonite families, sewing/quilting together, hymn singing, visiting their one room schoolhouse, etc. I still keep in touch with some of those Mennonite friends who run a dairy with their extended family.
There are doctrinal diferences between us, but I’ve never found a kinder,joyful, more charitable people. It was wonderful to spend hours sewing with a group of ladies & never hear one unkind word or any gossip whatsoever.
In spite of our denominational differences, they helped me sew my daughter’s First Communion veil.
And the use of technology’s kinda handled on an individual basis.Our friends used a small airplane to check fencelines, had a computer, and the very latest in milking parlors.The cows got on at one end & the the platform rotated to let them off at the other after milking. It’s only when technology interferes with lifestyle, family, & values that it might be rejected. Large scale farms can use modern equipment & not be in conflict. I realize that the Amish & Old Order Mennonites do things a bit differently.

#13 Comment By Aaron Gross On April 7, 2014 @ 2:59 pm

Thanks for the “Amish” answers, especially @MrsCracker’s, which I think really answered my question: “theological” differences are more important than I’d first thought. I forgot for a moment that Orthodox and Catholic theologies agree on some essential things on which Anabaptist theology disagrees. So I guess that would be a deal-breaker.

I did know that lots of Amish are integrated into the economy and use all sorts of modern technology. I was talking about what Rod was talking about: passing “traditional concepts of religion and virtue” on to your children (and grandchildren, which is already getting very iffy). That includes the crunchy virtues, which are not anti-technology.

@J_A’s point about monasteries is a big part of what I meant when I said they were, crucially, supported by outside religious institutions. It’s those institutions that “feed” the monasteries new members in various ways.

I still think that the only viable Benedict options, if they’re to include children, are the Amish and haredi option, and maybe others of that same type that I haven’t heard of. For other so-called Benedict option communities, come back and show me their grand-children keeping their traditions a hundred years from now and I’ll admit I was wrong.

#14 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On April 8, 2014 @ 11:29 pm

Benedict options generally get absorbed into the surrounding society. About a century ago, there was a socialist experiment in Milwaukee called Garden Homes. It was a block or more of perfectly normal individual family homes, but the title was collectively owned. It made it easier for families to move into their own home, with all the use rights, but in an economy in which credit and family capital are based on the negotiability of one’s home, there was irresistible pressure to distribute individual title.

In Iowa, a utopian commune decided to sustain themselves making high quality refrigerators. Their descendants sold their shares to a big bad corporation. The Amana brand is still prominent, but the underlying community is long gone.

So it goes.