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The Ben Op Chesterton

Caleb Bernacchio sends this incredibly timely essay by G.K. Chesterton [1], first published in 1927, about the fact that we are now living in a new Dark Age — and what to do about it. Excerpts:

A much truer way of stating the parallel is this; that history is here repeating itself, for once in a way, in connection with a certain idea, which can best be described as the idea of Sanctuary. In the Dark Ages the arts and sciences went into sanctuary. This was true then in a special and technical sense; because they went into the monastery. Because we praise the only thing that saved anything from the wreck, we are actually accused of praising the wreck. We are charged with desiring the Dark Ages, because we praise the few scattered candles that were lit to dispel the darkness. We are charged with desiring the deluge, because we are grateful to the Ark. But the immediate question here is historical rather than religious; and it is a fact attested by all historians that what culture could be found in that barbarous transition was mostly to be found in the shelter of the monastic institutions. We may regret or admire the form which that culture took in that shelter; but nobody denies the storm from which it was sheltered.

More:

I believe we have reached the time when the family will be called upon to play the part once played by the Monastery. That is to say, there will retire into it not merely the peculiar virtues that are its own, but the crafts and creative habits which once belonged to all sorts of other people. In the old Dark Ages, it was impossible to persuade the feudal chiefs that it was more worth while to grow medicinal herbs in a small garden than to lay waste the province of an empire; that it was better to decorate the corner of a manuscript with gold-leaf than to heap up treasuries and wear crowns of gold. These men were men of action; they were hustlers; they were full of vim and pep and snap and zip. In other words, they were deaf and blind and partly mad, and rather like American millionaires. And because they were men of action, and men of the moment, all that they did has vanished from the earth like a vapour; and nothing remains out of all that period but the little pictures and the little gardens made by the pottering little monks. As nothing would convince one of the old barbarians that an herbal or a missal could be more important than a triumph and a train of slaves, so nothing could convince one of the new barbarians that a game of hide and seek can be more educative than a tennis tournament at Wimbledon, or a local tradition told by an old nurse more historic than an imperial speech at Wembley. The real national tone will have to remain for a time as a domestic tone. As religion once went into retreat, so patriotism must retire into private life. This does not mean that it will be less powerful; ultimately it may be more powerful, just as the monasteries became enormously powerful. But it is by retiring into these forts that we can outlast and wear down the invasion; it is by camping upon these islands that we can await the sinking of the flood. Just as in the Dark Ages, the world without was given up to the vainglory of mere rivalry and violence, so in this passing age the world will be given up to vulgarity and gregarious fashions and every sort of futility. It is very like the Flood; and not least in being unstable as water. Noah had a house boat which seems to have contained many other things besides the obvious household pets. And many wild birds of exotic plumage and many wild beasts of almost fabulous fantasy, many arts counted pagan and sciences counted rationalistic may come to roost or burrow in such stormy seasons in the shelter of the convent or the home.

I couldn’t have said it better myself, though heaven knows I’m trying. Read the whole thing. [1]

There’s a reason why the absolute best Benedict Option kind of community I’ve yet seen is the Tipiloschi, Italian Catholics in the city of San Benedetto del Tronto. Their community school is the Scuola G.K. Chesterton [2]. One of their leaders is lawyer Marco Sermarini [3] (above), head of Italy’s G.K. Chesterton Society. None of this is a coincidence.

I’ve learned that more than one American reader of this blog is thinking of traveling to San Benedetto del Tronto to see how this community is accomplishing these great things. I cannot encourage you strongly enough to do this. It’s a revelation, and enormously encouraging.

Marco will be in the US from August 4-6, speaking at the American Chesterton Society’s annual conference [4], held this year at Slippery Rock State College in Slippery Rock, Pa. I strongly encourage you to go and meet him. It might change your life. I’m not kidding.

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34 Comments To "The Ben Op Chesterton"

#1 Comment By DFB On April 22, 2016 @ 12:02 pm

In a lengthy essay about the English painter/sculptor George Fredric Watts published in 1904, Chesterton observed:

“He knows a great moral fact: that there never was an age of assurance, that there never was an age of faith. Faith is always at a disadvantage; it is a perpetually defeated thing which survives all its conquerors. The desperate modern talk about dark days and reeling altars, and the end of Gods and angels, is the oldest talk in the world: lamentations over the growth of agnosticism can be found in the monkish sermons of the dark ages; horror at youthful impiety can be found in the Iliad. This is the thing that never deserts men and yet always, with daring diplomacy, threatens to desert them. It has indeed dwelt among and controlled all the kings and crowds, but only with the air of a pilgrim passing by. It has indeed warmed and lit men from the beginning of Eden with an unending glow, but it was the glow of an eternal sunset.”

[5]
(p. 48)

#2 Comment By Charles Cosimano On April 22, 2016 @ 12:06 pm

Remember that the ultimate fate of the monasteries was to be reduced to rubble, by the will of the King, by the hands of the peasants they oppressed or by the bombers of the New Civilization that saw them for what they were really worth. They were ultimately despised for a reason.

One man of action is worth the babble of a million monks. If it had not been for them, those precious monasterys would have all been mosques. It was not psalm singing donkeys that beat the Moslems at Tours, Constantinople in 750, at Lepanto and at the walls of Vienna. What good would those gold leafed manuscripts, (Where did that gold come from Chesterton? Did the monks mine it themselves? Did the Blessed Virgin drop it from Heaven?) do against a real threat?

I’ll take his barbarianism any day over that. His words are but hot air, the overlong complaint against a world that just did not want to live the way he thought that it should. His world would have kept piling rocks. Ours has stood on the moon.

#3 Comment By suburbanp On April 22, 2016 @ 12:19 pm

For the last year or so, my husband and I have been planning on taking our kids on a year long excursion to Europe. I’ve added San Benedetto del Tronto to our places to hit in 2018, Lord willing!

#4 Comment By Court Merrigan On April 22, 2016 @ 12:31 pm

Good stuff, although another conclusion you could draw from this would be that every generation thinks it’s living in the End Times, and so far not a single one has been right.

[NFR: Why could you draw that conclusion from this? Chesterton wasn’t talking about the end of THE world, but rather the end of A world. Which was true. And is true today. — RD]

#5 Comment By mrscracker On April 22, 2016 @ 12:36 pm

Thought this kind of tied in:

Today’s college students:

“They have no sense of the great patterns of world history, the rise and fall of civilisations like Babylon and Rome that became very sexually tolerant, and then fell. If you’ve had no exposure to that, you can honestly believe that ‘There is progress all around us and we are moving to an ideal state of culture, where we all hold hands and everyone is accepted for what they are … and the environment will be pure…’ – a magical utopian view that we are marching to perfection. And the sign of this progress is toleration – of the educated class – for homosexuality, or for changing gender, or whatever.

“To me it’s a sign of the opposite, it’s symptomatic of a civilisation just before it falls: ‘we’ are very tolerant, not passionate, but there are bands of vandals and destroyers circling around the edge of our civilisation who will bring it down.”

Camille Paglia

[6]

#6 Comment By R.S. Rogers On April 22, 2016 @ 12:43 pm

For what it’s worth, repeated essays about or citing Chesterton by Rod and a few TAC colleagues have spurred me to start reading Chesterton. So far, it’s been a mix between C.S. Lewis for grownups and Mencken with a British accent. Bracing, challenging stuff – that is to say, rewarding. I’m grateful to Rod for spurring me to the encounter.

#7 Comment By Andrew On April 22, 2016 @ 12:59 pm

Rod, I hope this doesn’t sound trivial, but I’d really like to know what specialty of law Marco practices. I’m wondering if it complements his work in the community, or if it’s detached from it. It’s wonderful that a lawyer would lead a community such as this.

[NFR: Criminal defense law. — RD]

#8 Comment By Eamus Catuli On April 22, 2016 @ 1:37 pm

I’m not a Chesterton reader, but I took it from his reputation that he was a serious thinker. I had no idea he actually thinks in these broad caricatures. Now, maybe it’s partly mitigating that he was writing before the “Dark Ages” myth had been properly disproven. But from these excerpts, it sounds like he regards history as a series of moralizing fables, featuring simply drawn characters who wear either black hats or white.

Chesterton:

In the old Dark Ages, it was impossible to persuade the feudal chiefs that it was more worth while to grow medicinal herbs in a small garden than to lay waste the province of an empire; that it was better to decorate the corner of a manuscript with gold-leaf than to heap up treasuries and wear crowns of gold. These men were men of action; they were hustlers; they were full of vim and pep and snap and zip. In other words, they were deaf and blind and partly mad, and rather like American millionaires. And because they were men of action, and men of the moment, all that they did has vanished from the earth like a vapour; and nothing remains out of all that period but the little pictures and the little gardens made by the pottering little monks.

I will leave it to others here who know the details better to cite chapter and verse, but I’m pretty sure almost none of these statements is true. Feudal chiefs were, among other things, the lay founders and patrons of monasteries. That included the Benedictine monstaries; Cluniac Abbey, the center from which arose the great Cluniac reform that gave us the Christian Europe of the High Middle Ages, was founded, and its first abbot appointed, by the Duke of Aquitaine.

Further, the idea that the purely secular adventures of the feudal chiefs merely vanished from the earth like vapor, and that nothing remains but what the monks did….. Well, how is it possible even to write such a sentence? The “men of action” fought off Viking and Muslim invaders and helped to Christianize Europe, which was not just a missionary enterprise but a matter of political “hustling” and deal-making. Far from vanishing, the results of those efforts are deeply imprinted on the map and in this history of Western civilization.

But I realize it’s basically useless to tell the true believers any of this. Chesterton seemed to have a gift for “truthiness,” the composing of parables that are better than reality because they neatly prove what we already think. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Or even if it never became fact, I guess.

#9 Comment By Eamus Catuli On April 22, 2016 @ 1:40 pm

Cluny Abbey, make that. (The Order was the Cluniac.)

#10 Comment By Axon Parker On April 22, 2016 @ 1:57 pm

Chesterton was full of metaphors…and I think metaphor might be the only way to effectively communicate the Ben Op…maybe combined with story? You should have readers contribute/debate metaphors!

#11 Comment By Woody On April 22, 2016 @ 2:38 pm

And here, Rod, is a similar piece by the Servant of God, Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ: [7]

#12 Comment By Recusant On April 22, 2016 @ 2:41 pm

The monasteries were not at all despised, it’s really ignorant to suggest otherwise. Duffy’s “The Stripping of the Altars” showed that popular piety of the time was very supportive of the pre-reformation Church.

#13 Comment By Court Merrigan On April 22, 2016 @ 3:24 pm

Rod,

The “End Times” was a bad choice of phrase; what I meant was, every generation thinks it is uniquely historically special, and no generation really ever is. Only constant in human culture is change, right?

Chesterton thought that barbarians were at the gate, and in a sense they were, but those barbarian’s kids went on to keep the free world free in World War II, so I’d say the definition of barbarian is somewhat fluid.

#14 Comment By bt On April 22, 2016 @ 5:09 pm

It really is true, every age feels like the good old days are long gone. Politicians of all stripes go on about restoring honor, dignity, prosperity, etc. In a sense even The Garden of Eden might even fall under that umbrella. It seems an inescapable bug of human nature.

There is a similar pattern in the adults always lamenting the shortcomings of the youth. Just look at the cultural colonoscopy the ‘establishment’ put first the Baby Boomers, then Gen X, now the Millennials. Each in turn lazy, selfish, etc.

The telling thing is that usually the people who most feel this way are getting on in years themselves. Boil it down and It usually goes something like: “Those darn kids today, they got no moral code”.

[NFR: Utterly trite analysis. — RD]

#15 Comment By gk On April 22, 2016 @ 5:12 pm

We must be “uber-blessed” or something around here. The BenOp is widely available. Maybe it’s cuz there’s 10,000 reasons.

“??? ?????????? ?? ?????????? ‘??? ? ?? ? ????????’ ?? ???? ????? ??? ??? ???????? ??????? ??? ????????? ?? ??? ??????: ???? ??????????? ?? ????.” [GKC]

#16 Comment By cecelia On April 22, 2016 @ 5:49 pm

Important lesson Charles – the monasteries were destroyed because the men of action were bankrupt and needed to bolster their perpetually declining treasuries by taking the wealth of the monasteries. This is the problem with men of action – action is expensive. We like men of action when they are defeating hordes but another problem with men of action is that they must always be in action – so even when there are no hordes to defeat – they make threats up.

It is men of action who destroyed the libraries in the monasteries thus destroying thousand of years of human knowledge.

Furthermore – the monasteries were the centers of innovation – the first industrial revolution started in a French monastery. It is because of the monastic communities that we are not pounding rocks today.

True story Charles – stee was discovered in a English monastery in the 1500’s – but man of action Henry XIII destroyed that monastery before the technology could be dispersed and its full implications understood. Because of a man of action – we pounded rocks for 200 more years when steel was re-discovered.

#17 Comment By Giuseppe Scalas On April 22, 2016 @ 5:50 pm

Uncle Chuckie:

Remember that the ultimate fate of the monasteries was to be reduced to rubble, by the will of the King, by the hands of the peasants they oppressed or by the bombers of the New Civilization that saw them for what they were really worth. They were ultimately despised for a reason

Well, this is the ultimate fate that awaits almost everything.
But I don’t know why you are so obsessed by Montecassino. I suspect that some good monk from there burned the tail of some Reinassance ancestor of yours by sprinkling holy water on it.

(By the way, yesterday was Rome’s 2769th birthday, and Montecassino is still there, as beautiful as ever. You know, for a civilization almost three millennia old is normal to cure destruction through patient rebuilding)

#18 Comment By cecelia On April 22, 2016 @ 5:51 pm

pardon – that is steel – fortified iron – they were making axes and shovels from it –

#19 Comment By Giuseppe Scalas On April 22, 2016 @ 6:39 pm

Eamus,

What Chesterton meant is that, with very few exceptions, the hopes and desires of those men for themselves and their heirs didn’t last. Their kingdoms were replaced by other kingdoms, their bloodlines dried up and disappeared.
When St. Benedict died, his hopes and desires lived on and grew. Not so much those of his secular contemporaries: after his death, two hundred and fifty years of vain struggles, of which memories, if one excludes the work of the monks, are so scanty to be almost comparable with those of the Bronze Age, had to pass, before the idea of the Empire was relived in the West by a Christian emperor.
Without St. Benedict there wouldn’t have been a Charlemagne.

#20 Comment By Anne On April 22, 2016 @ 7:11 pm

Chesterton’s overriding goal seems always to have been to defend his beloved “orthodoxy,” which eventually meant Catholicism, down to the finest detail. For that purpose, he went all over the map logically, claiming to delight in his own paradoxes, which were many: He was proud to be a conservative AND a liberal, or neither; an anti-socialist and an anti-capitalist yet a little bit of both. He’d lampoon the bias of moderns who disparage “the dark ages,” then refer to modernity in the very same terms. Because he was also an entertaining writer, few noticed the disengenuity beneath the cleverness or how virtually guaranteed he was of appearing “prophetic” to one group or another in time. And so it goes. I get the sense that, had he lived today, by now he’d have penned a clever piece for First Things, or maybe The Guardian, extolling the BenOp as in keeping with the best in Distributism and all that’s truly Catholic and therefore true and beautiful, and yet noting how there’s just no way at all it’s going to work out as planned. Or words to that effect. Sigh.

#21 Comment By Robert Levine On April 22, 2016 @ 7:17 pm

True story Charles – steel was discovered in a English monastery in the 1500’s – but man of action Henry XIII destroyed that monastery before the technology could be dispersed and its full implications understood. Because of a man of action – we pounded rocks for 200 more years when steel was re-discovered.

Steel was being made in the Indian sub-continent hundreds of years before the birth of Christ.

#22 Comment By TR On April 22, 2016 @ 7:38 pm

Chesterton said a lot of silly things and completely overused his specialty–the paradox. But he was an overworked journalist, not someone who could take forever polishing a text. He was also somewhat anti-Semitic, though nothing like de Maistre, who has been quoted favorably around here lately, and not nearly as much as his friend Belloc.

So, I find him hard to appreciate, but I wish he had had the opportunity to live in a Ben-Op community and I would certainly like to see how a community inspired by his distributism actually works.

#23 Comment By TR On April 22, 2016 @ 7:45 pm

Recusant: Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars is certainly popular at the moment, and I must confess I haven’t read it. But I have read Duffy’s combative pieces in several upscale British newspapers, and I must say he is entirely too partisan for me to totally trust as a historian.

Given the pattern of all historical discourse, I suspect in the next twenty years a new “major” study will appear “debunking” his take on the role of the monasteries.

Please note I’m not saying he’s right or wrong. It’s just that in history, nothing is ever settled finally.

#24 Comment By David On April 23, 2016 @ 2:07 am

Wow. The Dark Ages actually never happened and is a bit of a misnomer. Uninformed article.

#25 Comment By Eamus Catuli On April 23, 2016 @ 3:02 am

What Chesterton meant is that, with very few exceptions, the hopes and desires of those men for themselves and their heirs didn’t last. Their kingdoms were replaced by other kingdoms, their bloodlines dried up and disappeared.

When St. Benedict died, his hopes and desires lived on and grew.

Giuseppe, that’s fine, and I’m certainly sympathetic to the value system he’s expressing: I’m living the life of the mind myself, not reading Soldier of Fortune and planning my next combat adventure. The mistake, then, as I see it, is presenting advocacy for values like Benedict’s as if it were a historical description of what actually happened in Europe. In doing that, Chesterton evidently felt quite free to view history’s complexities through a bunch of stereotyped narrative tropes and caricatures. That’s not historical analysis even if it’s clever storytelling.

And I still don’t see how the “men of action” were such obvious failures. What were Charles Martel’s hopes and desires? Evidently they included a non-Muslim, non-Arab Gaul. Well, he got that, and it did last; it lived on and grew. (Cue certain other contributors here chiming in with “Until now, maybe…..”)

#26 Comment By galanx On April 23, 2016 @ 6:56 am

“They have no sense of the great patterns of world history, the rise and fall of civilisations like Babylon and Rome that became very sexually tolerant, and then fell.

The fall of Babylon had nothing to do with sexual tolerance; it was conquered by the Medes.

The Emperor Constantine (in the Orthodox Church as Saint Constantine the Great, Equal-to-the-Apostles), converted to Christianity in 318; Theodosius declarted Nicean Christianity the state religion in 380 and launched persecutions of pagans and Arians; Rome was sacked in 476, at a time when the entire Empire was Christian both officially and among the population.

#27 Comment By EliteCommInc. On April 23, 2016 @ 9:50 am

I remain skeptical about some kind of community that lives in some “retreative” state. There will be natural separation form society because Christ calls one to such a life. But nothing about Christian walk exercising faith in the US.

This press is not oe that I get is a spiritual leaning but a kind of acquiescence to what is being demanded from a small portion of the society at large. I am not sure that the failure of the political class to stand a firm ground against what continues to social experimentation with against biology, and the objective world demands running for the hills. At least not yet.

I am going to maintain my oilitical incorrect observations that women have been the largest group pushing for inclusion and safe spaces based soley on one’s feelings. I am shocked that they are bocking at the consequences. The advance by the psychiatry since prior to the APA 1973 conference seems to be that identity and reality rests on how one feels. If one does not feel safe, then one must not be by definition. And it is incumbent on society to work out spaces for the emotional protection.

Nevermind that is a nebulous and impossible standard to codify or enforce on its face.

________________________

I think there are enough women in places of authority in our history that indicate women are not any less likely to use force to advance their agenda.

Catherine the Great, Queen Isabella, and number of Ehglish Queens, Cleopatra . . . one need not even go that far back. Sec Clinton, is more than willing to take charge after advancing mayhem, death and destruction and in the case of Libya (willing to do so on the backs (deaths) of her staff), Sen Feinstein, Boxer, and the NOW were all to happy to rip up the museums, and history of states in the name of democracy for women — Indira Ghandi, Prime Minister Thatcher, etc.

The ladies here who have been men the ills of human existence are playing game that daily bites them where it counts.

#28 Comment By DeclinetheEnjoy On April 23, 2016 @ 11:55 am

And ironically Charles, standing on the moon is proving to be just as useless as he said. We did it, and then realized that the resources and the harshness of the lunar surface would make anything else impossible. We haven’t and probably never will make a lunar base, and even now all they can do is send unmanned probes for brief times before they escape our solar system and fall apart. The space program more or less died in 30 years, not even the lifetime of a single person.

Definitely an Ozymandias moment, if any.

#29 Comment By Rob G On April 23, 2016 @ 12:21 pm

“Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars is certainly popular at the moment”

You do realize, don’t you, that the book’s been around for almost 25 years? It’s not like it’s some current popular non-fiction bestseller.

#30 Comment By Chris 1 On April 23, 2016 @ 1:36 pm

Shorter version: Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. 😉

Chesterton does pinpoint the correct barbarian, not the sexually licentious (and there was plenty of that in the Roaring 20s), but financial elites unburdened by governance.

The “creative destruction” so praised by traditionalist intellectuals laboring at sponsored thinkeries like Heritage and Acton is of the very foundations of civilization, of communities and the families they support. As risk continues to devolve downward and reward upward those bearing the risk will either be ground to dust, or will band together to provide mutual aid and thus survival. A Benedict Option could be part of that…

…every generation thinks it’s living in the End Times, and so far not a single one has been right.

To the contrary, not only has every preceeding generation hit its own End Times, but the world into which they were born no longer existed by their passing. A person born in 1897 lived in an fundamentally different world in 1987.

#31 Comment By Giuseppe Scalas On April 23, 2016 @ 7:50 pm

Eamus,

Charles Martel was two centuries younger than St. Benedict. In those two centuries, the Frank kingdom was built around Christianity and its monasteries. I doubt that without the unifying Christian ideal the Franks could have rallied against the Muslim and defeated them.

#32 Comment By LaughingBoy On April 24, 2016 @ 1:08 am

I am so glad that “imagination” was mentioned above as a leading, needed virtue towards implementing the BO option.

And that is because some of us members of the National Space Society have been encouraging talk of BO as part of our general effort to inspire interest and support in space colonization. We think the BO also helps us envision more concretely the kinds of extraplanetary communities we want to see, as well as the kind of motivations and incentives that might inspire people to bring them to life.

While this suggestion may just amuse, or bemuse, your readers, there are many clear-eyed realists in the Space Movement who believe that we need to exit earth for all kinds of reasons related to long-term survival as a physical species. Your BO theme, although too religious for some, actually adds the element of human continuance as a spiritual species, as well.

Just a thought, however off-the-wa

#33 Comment By Eamus Catuli On April 24, 2016 @ 11:13 am

@Giuseppe:

That’s all very interesting, but it doesn’t go to the question I was addressing, which was whether Chesterton knew what he was talking about. What he said was:

These men were men of action; they were hustlers; they were full of vim and pep and snap and zip. In other words, they were deaf and blind and partly mad, and rather like American millionaires. And because they were men of action, and men of the moment, all that they did has vanished from the earth like a vapour…..

Now, you’re surely not going to tell me that somehow the men of action of Benedict’s time fit this description, but within two centuries they’d been replaced by an entirely different type of man of action, like Charles Martel, to whom Chesterton’s characterization wouldn’t apply? Come on. Chesterton was just wrong. What about Clovis? He was a man of action and a slightly older contemporary of Benedict’s; can we seriously say that nothing he did had any lasting effects?

Again, I’m a natural sympathizer with the point Chesterton apparently wanted to make; men of action leave me cold too. But that doesn’t mean I think I can wave away all their achievements, or that we’re not in fact in their debt, some of them, for having got some things done that needed doing.

#34 Comment By Jeremy Buxton On April 25, 2016 @ 3:46 am

Chesterton was a mixture of wisdom and foolishness: he once declared that beer drinking was “catholic” but tea drinking was “pagan” – a logic that escapes most of us.
In this essay he is right to praise the monasteries who preserved not only literature but science, and who shared their scientific discoveries with the secular world. Yet his comments on “barbarians” are part of his stupid disdain for capitalism. The real barbarians were soon to emerge wearing black and brown shirts.