In the preface to After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre makes a curious admission:
Ever since the days when I was privileged to be a contributor to that most remarkable journal The New Reasoner, I had been preoccupied with the question of the basis for the moral rejection of Stalinism.
Wait–what’s there to be preoccupied with here? Rejecting Stalinism should be easy, shouldn’t it? Could there be anything simpler, less risky, than soundly denouncing Stalinism? What could he possibly mean?
MacIntyre, in those days, was a committed Marxist philosopher, and Marxists had every reason to distance themselves from the perceived corruption of socialism by Stalin. In practice, however, contemporary Marxists seemed to rely on the language of natural rights to explain why Stalin’s regime was monstrous. But natural rights were one of the things rejected on principle by Marx and his followers. This didn’t seem to dawn on other Marxists, that they were willing to grab at an idea that was incompatible with their deepest convictions in order to…get themselves off the hook? So MacIntyre saw that he faced a dilemma: either find the resources within Marxism to denounce Stalinism or give up on Marxism.
A similar contradiction began to irritate me when I became Prior of the community and had to give conferences to the brothers on the Rule of Saint Benedict. There are large portions of the Rule that no one follows today. Worse, we don’t even really talk about why we don’t follow them. Let’s use the most obvious example. Consider the following:
“Those [monks] who are evil or stubborn, arrogant or disobedient, [the abbot] can curb only by blows or some other physical punishment at the first offense. It is written…, Strike your son with a rod and you will free his soul from death.” [2: 28-29]
“If even then [a brother] does not reform, let him be excommunicated, provided that he understands the nature of this punishment. If however he lacks understanding, let him undergo corporal punishment.” [33: 4]
I could go on. The point is that Saint Benedict, whom we Benedictines claim as our patron, routinely prescribes the punishments of excommunication and blows with the rod. I know of no community that follows this, and I’m not going to recommend it exactly. But what are our reasons for rejecting these parts of the Rule? A large portion of the text is devoted to this kind of discipline. What gives us the right to ignore it?
I suppose that the usual answer is something like, “Well, we don’t believe in that any more.” But why not? What gives us the right to be selective in the teachings of a man so obviously our spiritual superior? Here, I would suppose that we would appeal to modern notions like rights again. But this is highly problematic, especially since we Benedictines not infrequently portray ourselves as an alternative to dehumanizing modernity. Can we be sure that we aren’t letting modernity sneak in the back door of our cloisters by not taking seriously such large sections of the Rule?
My point here is not to argue for corporal punishment (yet…wink). What I am suggesting is that in Benedictine life, we experience the same sorts of disconnects and discontinuities that MacIntyre began to feel in his early career as a Marxist. We seem to think nothing of importing a foreign concept into what we would otherwise like to think is a coherent worldview. How can we be sure we aren’t sawing off the branch we’re sitting on when we do this? In any case, what seemed to be an obvious, uncontroversial part of the program for monks until maybe fifty or a hundred years ago (Michel Foucault is helpful here), seems hideously impossible to us today. What has changed, exactly? How did we lose this thread? Surely we didn’t drop the practice of excommunication and corporal punishment from a sustained engagement in our own tradition of monasticism–this came about rather because modern monks became different sorts of persons. And there’s no easy way to know whether this was a good thing overall or not. Yet surely if anyone has a stake in calling into question pervasive cultural norms, it would be men and women whose whole stated purpose is to flee just those norms, so as to live the gospel radically.
I suggested yesterday that modern Benedictines have been slow to take up the challenge issued by MacIntyre over thirty years ago to be a witness to what is now being called The Benedict Option. Here I propose the main reason: like the rest of the Western world, Benedictine monasticism has undergone a series of disasters that has caused a rupture in our tradition, a tradition that had been robust throughout the founding of Western Christendom. First, I suppose, we were victims of our own success. Monasteries became a part of the temporal power structure in the Middle Ages, and this brought about a number of incongruities in the tradition. Then mendicant orders began the long process of the redefinition of ‘religious life’, a concept that didn’t exist in the Early Church, and still is foreign to Orthodoxy. More seriously still, the Reformation saw the forcible emptying of ancient monasteries with especially disastrous results in England and Calvinist Switzerland. The French Revolution resulted in the brutalization of a number of ancient monasteries. Napoleon looted monasteries, forced monks into armed service or other ‘productive’ work. The ‘Enlightened’ Emperor Joseph II forced monasteries to operate schools and other socially useful institutions. Similar pressures were brought to bear as a result of Bismarck’s Kulturkampf. Anti-clerical laws in the early twentieth century forced the emptying, yet again, of French monasteries. During the Spanish Civil War, Communists exterminated whole communities (but just remember, only Franco is worthy of derision by correct-thinking moderns), such as one monastery of our congregation, El Pueyo. And lest we let the United States off too easily here, let’s call to mind the almost-complete annihilation of Monte Cassino, one of the most important historical Benedictine monasteries, founded by St. Benedict himself in about the year 530, and the location of his tomb.
Given this track record, the amazing thing about Bendictines is that they keep popping everywhere and stubbornly refusing to go away. But there has been a cost. The sustained, lived, wisdom tradition of monastic life has largely been disrupted in the West, and every time a new community springs up (like our own in Chicago), it does so without the direct benefits of that ongoing tradition. This connection needs to be painstakingly reestablished. I believe it can be done. But there are difficulties to this process. The biggest danger, I think, is that we monks are apt to be unaware of just how much of the past tradition we are lacking and too quick to assume that just following the Rule (or, as I pointed out above, deceiving ourselves about the tendency to ignore large parts of the Rule!), we have somehow resurrected “Benedictine” monasticism. How does one go about making this recovery? Alasdair MacIntyre’s whole mature program of philosophy provides the key, I believe. So do other thinkers, and so, of course, do the saints. There is no cause for despair here; but there probably is ample need for heroic self-denial, especially in the way of self-criticism. But this is supposed to be a part of the whole monastic project. From Benedict’s Prologue:
If you are ready to give up your own will, once and for all, and armed with the strong and noble weapons of obedience…do battle for the true King, Christ the Lord…Never swerving from his instructions, then, but faithfully observing his teaching in the monastery until death, we shall through patience share in the sufferings of Christ that we may deserve to share in his kingdom. Amen.