St. Benedict vs. Dreher’s ‘St. Benedict’
Surprisingly, Dreher says little about the historic St. Benedict. In his rendering, the saint lived when the Roman world was entering the “dark ages”—barbarian invasion spurred the decline of government institutions, which in turn led to widespread moral decay among the population. In response, St. Benedict is said to have deliberately left the Roman world behind in order to establish a new and independent community where the practice of Christian life could survive the trials to come.
The reasons for this ought to be clear in the book: because I’m riffing off of Alasdair MacIntyre’s reference to Benedict as the founder of intentional religious communities in the sixth century, and how we need “a new — and very different — St. Benedict” in our time. Of course the analogy only goes so far! MacIntyre himself wrote:
It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman Empire declined into the Dark Ages. None the less certain parallels there are.
An analogy doesn’t have to be perfect in every way to be instructive and helpful.
I spent the whole book talking about the kinds of chaos and decadence this new and very different Benedict would have to deal with. There’s an entire chapter on a contemporary monastery of traditionalist Benedictines, who talked to me about how some of the core aspects of the Benedictine monastic life can be adapted to help lay Christians live in the contemporary world.
Among other things, he asserts historical causality where there is no evidence for it. For example, he implies that the moral decay of Roman civilization in St. Benedict’s lifetime was caused by the barbarian invasions. I’m not sure how we are to measure moral decay in any society, especially a pre-modern one, but I don’t know of a single Christian text from the ancient world that attributes moral decline among Christians to the presence of “barbarians” or the failure of the Roman government to respond to the barbarian challenge.
No. If anything, I would say that the barbarian invasions occurred because of the weakness of the Roman state and Roman civilization — a weakness that was due to a number of factors. Historians still argue over why Rome fell, but the overall point is that it succumbed to barbarian invasion because it had become internally weak. MacIntyre says that today
the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament.
My book is an argument not that barbarians are coming over the frontier, but that they have already been governing us (broadly speaking, to include media, entertainment, academia) for some time. They accomplished this because of our own moral weakness and religious infidelity.
Given the book’s thesis, an even more problematic assertion of historical causality lies in Dreher’s suggestion that St. Benedict established his monastery in order to escape a world that was collapsing both politically and morally—for Dreher, the political and the moral are always intertwined.
In this regard, it is noteworthy that Mr. Dreher seems to have ignored the famous Life of St. Benedict, which was written by St. Gregory the Great, a great ascetic teacher in his own right. From a close reading of the Life of St. Benedict, one learns not only that Benedictine communities had widespread interaction with the world outside of their monasteries but that the saint himself routinely engaged with the Roman secular elite and even with barbarian warlords who had little interest in Christianity.
Well, let’s go to the tape. From the prologue of the Life of St. Benedict, which I certainly did read:
There was a man of venerable life, blessed by grace, and blessed in name, for he was called “Benedictus” or Benedict. From his younger years, he always had the mind of an old man; for his age was inferior to his virtue. All vain pleasure he despised, and though he was in the world, and might freely have enjoyed such commodities as it yields, yet he esteemed it and its vanities as nothing.
He was born in the province of Nursia, of honorable parentage, and brought up at Rome in the study of humanity. As much as he saw many by reason of such learning fall to dissolute and lewd life, he drew back his foot, which he had as it were now set forth into the world, lest, entering too far in acquaintance with it, he likewise might have fallen into that dangerous and godless gulf.
Therefore, giving over his book, and forsaking his father’s house and wealth, with a resolute mind only to serve God, he sought for some place, where he might attain to the desire of his holy purpose. In this way he departed, instructed with learned ignorance, and furnished with unlearned wisdom.
He withdrew from the world precisely because he did not want to fall “into that dangerous and godless gulf.” As I say over and over in the book, the Benedictine monks could not have done so much to preserve and proclaim Christian civilization in the West if they had holed up and had no contact at all with the outside world. Never do I claim that they did that, or that we lay Christians today should do that. In fact, here’s but one example from the book of what I actually advocate:
This is not just about our own survival. If we are going to be for the world as Christ meant for us to be, we are going to have to spend more time away from the world, in deep prayer and substantial spiritual training—just as Jesus retreated to the desert to pray before ministering to the people. We cannot give the world what we do not have.
To imply that I argue for total withdrawal indicates to me an eisegetical reading of the book. To put it diplomatically.
I don’t mind critical reviews, but I do wish people would review the book I actually wrote instead of the one they believe I wrote, according to their own presuppositions. I know, I know, same song, seven-hundred-and-seventy-seventh verse…