Have you heard of the “Benedict Option?” If not, you may hear a lot more about it soon. Rod Dreher is working on a new book that will presumably help to explain the concept that he coined. But even before the book comes out, important blogosphere voices have been engaging in spirited discussion of it.
What is it? In the conclusion to the highly influential book After Virtue, philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre said that Western culture is waiting for “another–doubtless very different–St. Benedict.” Understanding precisely what MacIntyre meant is part of the difficulty of explaining the Benedict Option, but in the main the idea is that Western culture has undergone a radical disaster, but a funny sort of disaster because it is hidden from the sight of most of us. The disaster unfolded gradually over many centuries, beginning with the (hold tight for a moment…) introduction of voluntarist and nominalist philosophy in the late Middle Ages, continuing with the abandonment of Aristotelian teleological categories around the time of the Rennaisance and Reformation, and finding a kind of culmination in the triumphalism of the Enlightenment. The result was the slow disintegration of moral philosophy, to the point where today we find it impossible to agree on anything like first principles when we argue about practical ethical matters of the highest importance: abortion, war, same-sex marriage, and so on. We live in interesting times. The cultural disintegration that we are experiencing today has roots so deep that all of us are infected with the incoherent mindset that contributes to it. Therefore attempts to fix the problem by making adjustments to the current political and educational systems will be futile.
Saint Bendict faced a similar situation. Sent off for the equivalent of university studies as a teenager just before the year 500 A.D., he discovered in the city of Rome, the decaying former capital of the empire that had ruled the world for hundreds of years, a broken educational system. In particular, he was horrified by the morals of his fellow students. As his biographer St. Gregory the Great put it, “He was afraid that if he acquired any of its learning he, too, would later plunge body and soul, into the dread abyss.” So he did what a few old hippie acquaintances of mine did: he dropped out.
But he did more than that. After a period of time of intense prayer and self-denial as a hermit, he went on to found a series of monasteries. The last of these monasteries was the famous Monte Cassino, where Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI used to make his annual retreat before his elevation of the see of Peter. It was also at Monte Cassino where Saint Benedict wrote his famous Rule for Monks, the blueprint for the living of small-scale, intense community life based in the virtues. Note well that these included intellectual virtues: Saint Benedict’s laying down of studies (to use Jean LeClercq‘s phrase) was not based in any kind of fideism. In fact, the Rule presupposed that the main work for monks, aside from the liturgy, will be the reading–and therefore the copying and manufacture–of books. MacIntyre has all of this in mind when he calls for a new St. Benedict: the cure for our cultural malaise is some kind of strategic separation from the pervasive worldview in order to construct “local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us.”
For Dreher, as I understand him at this point (and I think it’s fair to say that none of us quite understand the idea in any systematic way; this might turn out to be a good thing, if we take MacIntyre seriously, as I hope to show later), someone takes the “Benedict Option” when he or she undertakes to construct this sort of community.
Ever since I read the last page of After Virtue seven years ago, I’ve been trying to find ways of implementing MacIntyre’s ideas in our monastery. If anything seems clear, it is that Benedictine monasteries should somehow or other be at the forefront of such a movement as the Benedict Option, if only because we should understand more directly what is involved in strategic withdrawal from the world. Part of the difficulty of getting real, live Benedictines directly involved goes along with Joseph Bottum’s illuminating critique of the intersection of religion and sociology in An Anxious Age, “the problem of the usefulness of useless religion.” That is to say, if someone comes to the monastery primarily because he seeks to do something culturally useful like erecting survival cells for the coming dark ages, he may well not last. People come to monasteries to seek God alone. We can’t live our life in the monastery for the worldly benefits, but that doesn’t mean that we lack insights on what it might take to exercise the Benedict Option “in the world,” whatever that turns out to be. My hope in this series of posts is to accomplish two things: 1) to begin to lay a theoretical groundwork for a Benedict Option (others will need to supply the practical bases) rooted in MacIntyre’s insights, and 2) to show why these insights are necessary for actual Benedictine communities (and, I hope, for liturgical music as well).
In my experience, there are two other problems with turning to contemporary Benedictines for illumination on the Benedict Option. The first is that many modern Benedictines are, for better or worse (usually better for short-term society, sometimes worse for the long-term good of the monks), tied into the System through participation in education. I have tremendous respect for my fellow Benedictines who teach and administer schools, reliably of the very highest quality. There is a lot to be learned from their engagement (see last year’s documentary, The Rule, about St. Benedict’s Preparatory School in Newark, for a great example). However, institutional education necessarily entangles a community with one of the things that BenOppers are supposed to be fleeing.
But there’s an even greater difficulty for contemporary Benedictines. I will cover that in tomorrow’s post.