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St. Benedict, Colossus Of Western History

St. Benedict, in the piazza of his hometown, Norcia

The great Whittaker Chambers, writing in Commonweal in 1952, about discovering the legacy of St. Benedict of Nursia. Here he is talking about how, as a student, the Middle Ages (aka, the Dark Ages) were presented to him:

The Dark Ages were inexcusable and rather disreputable—a bad time when the machine of civilization in its matchless climb to the twentieth century had sheared a whole rank of king-pins and landed mankind in a centuries-long ditch. At best, it was a time when monks sat in unsanitary cells with a human skull before them, and copied and recopied, for lack of more fruitful employment, the tattered records of a dead antiquity. That was the Dark Ages at best, which, as anybody could see, was not far from the worst.

If a bright boy, leafing through history, asked: “How did the Dark Ages come about?” he might be told that “Rome fell!”–as if a curtain simply dropped. Boys of ten or twelve, even if bright, are seldom bright enough to say to themselves: “Surely, Rome did not fall in a day.” If a boy had asked: “But were there no great figures in the Dark Ages, like Teddy Roosevelt, King Edward, and the Kaiser?” he might well have been suspected of something like an unhealthy interest in the habits and habitats of spiders. If he had persisted and asked: “But isn’t it clear that the Dark Ages are of a piece with our age of light, that our civilization is by origin Catholic, that, in fact, we cannot understand what we have become without understanding what we came from?” he would have been suspected of something much worse than priggery—a distressing turn to popery.

I was no such bright boy (or youth). I reached young manhood serene in the knowledge that, between the failed light of antiquity and the buzzing incandescence of our own time, there had intervened a thousand years of darkness from which the spirit of man had begun to liberate itself (intellectually) first in the riotous luminosity of the Renaissance, in Humanism, in the eighteenth century, and at last (politically) in the French Revolution. For the dividing line between the Dark Ages is not fast, and they were easily lumped together.

Much later in his life, at age 50, having been through and come out of Communism, and consumed by anxiety over the fate of Western civilization in the Cold War, Chambers received a St. Benedict medal from a friend. He didn’t know who Benedict was, and started researching him. He learned:

For the briefest prying must reveal that, simply in terms of history, leaving aside for a moment his sanctity, St. Benedict was a colossal figure on a scale of importance in shaping the civilization of the West against which few subsequent figures could measure. And of those who might measure in terms of historic force, almost none could measure in terms of good achieved.

Nor was St. Benedict an isolated peak. He was only one among ranges of human height that reached away from him in time in both directions, past and future, but of which, with one or two obvious exceptions, one was as ignorant as of Benedict: St. Jerome, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, Pope St. Leo the Great, Pope St. Gregory the Great, St. Francis of Assisi, Hildebrand (Pope Gregory VII).

Clearly, a cleft cut across the body of Christendom itself, and raised an overwhelming question: What, in fact, was the civilization of the West? If it was Christendom, why had it turned its back on half its roots and meanings and become cheerfully ignorant of those who had embodied them? If it was not Christendom, what was it? And what were those values that it claimed to assert against the forces of active evil that beset it in the greatest crisis of history since the fall of Rome? Did the failure of the Western World to know what it was lie at the root of its spiritual despondency, its intellectual confusion, its moral chaos, the dissolving bonds of faith and loyalty within itself, its swift political decline in barely four decades from hegemony of the world to a demoralized rump of Europe little larger than it had been in the crash of the Roman West, and an America still disputing the nature of the crisis, its gravity, whether it existed at all, or what to do about it?

Answers to such questions could not be extemporized. At the moment, a baffled seeker could do little more than grope for St. Benedict’s hand and pray in all humbleness to be led over the traces of the saint’s progress to the end that he might be, if not more knowledgeable, at least less nakedly ignorant.

Chambers writes beautifully, and in detail, about what Benedict and his Rule accomplished. He concludes:

It has been said (by T. F. Lindsay in his sensitive and searching St. Benedict) that, in a shattered society, the Holy Rule, to those who submitted to its mild but strict sway, restored the discipline and power of Roman family life.

I venture that it did something else as well. For those who obeyed it, it ended three great alienations of the spirit whose action, I suspect, touched on that missing something which my instructors failed to find among the causes of the fall of Rome. The same alienations, I further suspect, can be seen at their work of dissolution among ourselves, and are perhaps among the little noticed reasons why men turn to Communism. They are: the alienation of the spirit of man from traditional authority; his alienation from the idea of traditional order; and a crippling alienation that he feels at the point where civilization has deprived him of the joy of simple productive labor.

These alienations St. Benedict fused into a new surge of the human spirit by directing the frustrations that informed them into the disciplined service of God. At the touch of his mild inspiration, the bones of a new order stirred and clothed themselves with life, drawing to itself much of what was best and most vigorous among the ruins of man and his work in the Dark Ages, and conserving and shaping its energy for that unparalleled outburst of mind and spirit in the Middle Ages. For about the Benedictine monasteries what we, having casually lost the Christian East, now casually call the West, once before regrouped and saved itself.

So bald a summary can do little more than indicate the dimensions of the Benedictine achievement and plead for its constant re-examination. Seldom has the need been greater. For we sense, in the year 1952, that we may stand closer to the year 410 than at any other time in the centuries since. If that statement seems as extreme as any of Salvian’s, three hundred million Russians, Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, East Germans, Austrians, Hungarians, and all the Christian Balkans, would tell you that it is not—would tell you if they could lift their voices through the night of the new Dark Ages that have fallen on them. For them the year 410 has already come.

Read the whole thing.

In our own time, Jackson Wu writes about how the contemporary suffering church in China is a test case for the Benedict Option:

China is “pre-Christian” in that Christianity has never been the pervasive perspective shaping Chinese culture; yet, the church in China functionally finds itself in a similar state that Dreher foresees for the American church. Here is an initial list of similarities:

  • Chinese Christians lack formal political power.
  • Constitutionally, people have religious liberty, so long as they agree with the State.
  • Chinese believers socially are a minority.
  • Chinese Christians tend to be “localists.” That is, they focus on their local congregation, they closely rely on a local network with whom they identify for practical help.
  • More Christian Christians see the importance of educating their kids apart from the official atheist system, which actively disparages and undermines Christian teaching. However, Christian schooling is illegal. Attempting to educate one’s child outside the official system has significant risks.
  • Morally, Chinese culture is relativistic. It does not affirm absolute right and wrong. Individuals make moral decisions based on personal whim, relationships, and laws.
  • Materialism runs ramped in China.
  • Christians tend to avoid overtly political activity.
  • Chinese believers regularly face “soft persecution” for their faith (economic, legal and social sanctions, as opposed to death and prison).
  • To be a faithful Christian, one has limited employment options.

The following are more “fuzzy” and subjective, but are often true.

  • Temperamentally, evangelical congregations are generally concerned with purity (whether of doctrine or practice), though they––like churches everywhere–– fall short of their ideals.

  • Traditionally, Chinese understand the primary purpose of education ought to be the development of character, not only skills and knowledge to find a job.

  • Believers see themselves as a part of a long tradition that needs to be preserved.

More Wu:

The key issue is priority. Chinese Christians prioritize the local congregation rather than attempt to engineer political change. Since Jesus is king, they need not cause undue distress trying to make him president.

What someone might call “withdrawal” simply means this: we should have wisdom in choosing which social spheres will get our attention including how much social capital we will use among outsiders versus insiders.

That’s really well said. Please read Wu’s entire post, and see what he says is a potential problem with the implementation of the Ben Op in the West, and what we can learn from Chinese Christians that would help us meet the challenge. Can any of you readers recommend a good book or two on the contemporary experience of the Chinese church? I would be grateful for that information.

And please read The Benedict Optionand add your thoughts and your voice to the vital conversation of how we in the church are to live in these darkening post-Christian times. I don’t have all the answers, and you probably don’t either. We are going to have to work this out together. But I tell you this: if you don’t see a grave crisis of the Christian faith within Western civilization, then you are either not looking, or are not willing to see what is right in front of your nose.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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