The Mirror of the Benedict Option

Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (New York: Sentinel, 2017).

One of the great sorrows that I encounter as a priest is the sorrow of parents whose children have abandoned the Faith. Their sorrow can be more bitter even than the sorrows of those parents who suffer the fata aspera of having to bury their children. To have given the gift of life, only to see that gift taken too soon, and to be able to give only the “unavailing gift” of funeral flowers, is a bitter fate indeed. But for those who have come to believe that true life is the eternal life of Christ, it is still more bitter to have brought a child to the waters of Baptism, hoping for that child to receive a share in the inheritance of infinite bliss, only to see that child trade the infinite good for the vain pomps of this world. If it were not for the hope of future repentance, this would be almost too much to bear. And yet, it is a sorrow that Christian parents have had to bear at all times. Children of believing parents have been abandoning the narrow way that leads to eternal life since the Church began. But the great falling away from the faith in Austria in the past five or six decades or so have given so many parents that sorrow. It is of course difficult to tell whether that is because hypermodern culture has actually led more children astray, or whether it has simply made straying more obvious— previous generations of worldly children were perhaps better at pretending to their parents that they were still in a state of grace. When I tell such parents that I come from a family of eight children they often ask me whether all of my brothers and sisters are still practicing Catholics. And when I answer affirmatively they invariably ask: “How did your parents do it?”

That question occurred to me again as I read Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option. Dreher’s book is largely about the question of how parents can so live their lives that they can communicate the joy of life in Christ to their children. How can they avoid the pressures of a secular culture that seems ever more successful at drawing souls away? Dreher’s book made me reflect on my own experience, and so this review will have a somewhat autobiographical character. Readers who find such an intrusion of the autobiographical boastful or self-absorbed need read no further; they are unlikely to like Dreher’s book either, since he too illustrates his arguments from his own experience. My intention is not to hold up my own upbringing and family as an exemplar of perfection, nor to suggest that parents must do something similar to my parents if their children are to keep the faith— there are contrary examples— but simply to give an illustration of one possible answer to the question of how parents can help their children keep the Faith.

Dreher comes at the question from the perspective of someone who was once a mainstream, “conservative,” American, political journalist. As one would expect, he thought that American culture was basically good, and that if only enough conservatives could get elected, and roll back the interference of the liberal elites the basic goodness of America would assert itself. But, he tells us, having children made him question this view. In his 2006 book Crunchy Cons Dreher described how he came to see mainstream conservatism as a false alternative to liberalism. When push comes to shove, Dreher saw, American liberals and conservatives were both committed to liberating human desires in ways destructive to true human flourishing. Liberals worship the sexual revolution–so destructive of the family— while paying lip-service to a concern for regulating the economy in the interests of social equality and stability. Conservatives, on the other hand pay lip-service to moral restraint in sexual matters, while extolling as “the holy of holies” a free market that is “destroying communities and turning us all into slaves of the economy.” In reality, Dreher saw, mainstream American politics were a debate among different sorts of liberals. Naturally enough, this led him to an interest in the work of the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre.

MacIntyre had long been arguing that modern liberalism sets the terms of contemporary political debate such that any quarrel or conflict with liberalism is transformed to a debate within liberalism. Political debate thus becomes a debate between “conservative liberals, liberal liberals, and radical liberals.” Liberalism, according to MacIntyre, claims to provide a neutral framework in which all individuals can pursue the ends that they themselves consider to be good. But such supposed neutrality actually embodies an individualistic, subjectivist theory of the good “inimical to the construction and sustaining of the types of communal relationship required for the best kind of human life.” He concludes that engaging in conventional modern party politics is counter-productive, since such politics is an institutionalized rejection of the tradition of the virtues that once fostered the sorts of human relations aimed at true human happiness. Participation in such politics transforms one into a liberal opposed to the true human good. (John Francis Nieto recently made a similar argument here at The Josias).

At the end of his 1981 masterpiece After Virtue, MacIntyre suggested that the alternative to participating in liberal politics was to be found in the construction of “new forms of community” in which the true goods of human life could be pursued. Just as Benedictine monasticism was a new form of community that preserved the tradition of the virtues at the time of the barbarian invasions, so we are waiting for a new St. Benedict to begin a form of community that could preserve that tradition in our time of liberal hegemony. And just as Benedictine monasticism was the seed from which the culture of the Middle Ages was to spring, so might we hope that a new St. Benedict might be the seed for a new virtuous culture of the future. (I once cited this passage with approval in a lecture on rejecting modern politics).

Dreher found MacIntyre’s argument convincing, and at the end of Crunchy Cons he spoke of the “Benedict Option,” as the choice of giving up the mainstream American conservative project, and turning attention instead to forming virtuous communities on a small scale. Now, after years answering questions and objections to the Benedict Option on his blog, and of live blogging his own attempts at taking the Option, Dreher has given us a whole book on the idea. In The Benedict Option, Dreher gives a rough sketch of the ills of our liberal culture, together with a narrative of their genesis of a sort to which I am sympathetic. He then examines Benedictine life to distill lessons from it for the “new St. Benedicts” of the Option. Benedict Option communities should learn from the monks that they have to have a life that is ordered to allow the development of virtue; a life focused on solemn liturgical prayer to God; a life of ascetic self-denial in small things to train the heart to fix itself on the goal; a life of stability that resists constant change and distraction; a life really lived in common with others whom one serves and by whom one is served, and from whom one can receive fraternal correction; a life of hospitality and charitable outreach to those outside the community; a life that embodies St. Benedict’s sober moderation— neither too harsh nor too soft. Dreher then explores practical suggestions for living out such an option, illustrated by examples of communities whom he sees as already doing so to some degree or another.

Some critics have seen Dreher’s book as too radical and alarmist. But Alasdair MacIntyre has criticized it for being on the contrary not radical enough. When asked about the “The Benedict Option Movement” in the Q&A to a recent lecture, MacIntyre claimed that it is still basically conservative— that is, that it does not really escape the liberal framework. To some extent MacIntyre’s claim is surely justified. Dreher’s arguments for abandoning the American conservative project focus not so much on the essential liberalism of the political framework, as on the fact that conservatives are unable to achieve the goals they ostensibly seek, because “the culture” is shifting beneath their feet. Clearly, from MacIntyre’s point of view, this is not to get to the bottom of the problem.

And yet, it would be unfair to dismiss Dreher’s whole book on those grounds. There is much that is truly sensible in Dreher’s exploration of how Benedict Option communities can be formed that would be helpful to more consistent anti-liberals. Dreher’s reading of the Holy Rule has its weaknesses. His understanding of the Benedictine attitude towards ordinary life seems to me to be closer to the bourgeois Puritan attitude analyzed by Max Weber than Benedict is. (I have explored the difference elsewhere). Dreher was once an American Protestant, and something of the “Protestant ethic” has remained with him. But for the most part the wisdom that Dreher gleans from St. Benedict is solid enough. Particularly notable is his discussion of education, which I take to be the heart of his book.

I am a Cistercian monk in a monastery that has been trying to follow the rule of St. Benedict since its foundation in 1133. Every evening between supper and compline at my monastery we have “recreation,” which means that the silence of work and prayer is relaxed, and for 45 minutes we sit in a parlor and converse. Once when I was novice the conversation at evening recreation happened to turn to the pop musician Michael Jackson. I mentioned that I had never consciously listened to any of Jackson’s music, and would not be able to recognize it. The (then) abbot looked at me in surprise, and asked, “Were you raised in a Cistercian monastery?” Obviously, I was not raised in a Cistercian monastery, and yet the question shows that my upbringing had incorporated some of the “monastic” elements that Dreher sees as fundamental to Benedict Option communities.

To be clear, we were never part of a community that tried to escape the “system” of capitalist neoliberalism through agrarian distributism, as some anti-liberal communities have. But then, Dreher never sets the bar so high. He envisions rather a sort of balance between integration into neoliberal society and withdrawal from it. The Benedict Option has been criticized for only really being an option for the middle classes and the rich, who can afford the leisure and stability that its practices requires. Workers, being at the mercy of the fluctuating labor market, are constrained to spend most of their time working, and often have to move to find jobs. But surely this is more a problem with unjust economic structures than with the Option itself. Certainly, my family was very privileged in this regard. My parents are academics, and my mother was able to stay at home and homeschool the children. We did move around a certain amount for the sake of my father’s academic work. But we were always able to find like-minded families in our neighborhood.

Such like-minded families are very important lest the habits that one is trying to form in one’s children are erased by peer pressure. Dreher’s beau ideal of schooling is the small, classical private school, since such schooling naturally forms communities of families. He also discusses homeschooling as an option when no such school is available, emphasizing the importance to homeschoolers of finding an analogous community of families nearby.

Dreher sees the connection between the desire for God and the love of learning (in terms similar to those of Jean Leclercq). Education is a training of the heart in the pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful. Not a mere conveying of “information” or “content.” But, as St. Benedict says of the monastic life, it is a path that can be narrow and difficult at first before the heart expands and one runs in the inexpressible joy of love. The human soul has to be trained to recognize the highest things, with which it is most deeply related. Popcorn movies are initially more accessible than Shakespeare. To be led to a love of the higher things generally requires both a negative and a positive principle. Negatively, it requires limits on the distractions of superficial “entertainment” that choke the soul in banality. And positively it requires teachers who are themselves full of love for the truth and beauty and goodness, and can therefore practice what Dreher calls “the ancient art of intellectual seduction.”

In my family, we were not allowed to watch TV or listen to pop music. But much more important was the positive wooing of the heart with the good, and true, and beautiful. My father is a passionate lover of music, and spent much time listening to recordings of the great masterpieces of Monteverdi, Bach, Mozart et al. His enthusiasm rubbed off on us children, so that by the time we were teenagers we would stand for hours in line to get good standing-room places at the Vienna State Opera. Both of my parents spent a lot of time reading books out loud to us. Not only when we were too little to read for ourselves, but even after. I remember having not only Tolkien and C.S. Lewis read to us, but also Charlotte Brontë, Daniel Defoe, and even Alessandro Manzoni. The books that my father read out loud to us after dinner made a particularly deep impression on my memory.

I was born in Rome, but we soon moved to Boston, Massachusetts, and then, when I was four years old to South Bend Indiana, where my father taught at Notre Dame. Everyday we would go to Mass at 5:15 PM at the beautiful Sacred Heart Basilica at Notre Dame, meeting my father there, before returning home with him for supper, reading out loud, and evening prayers. As a little child I was often bored in Church, as little children generally are. A colleague of my father’s at Notre Dame, who also brought his children to daily Mass, would respond to them when they said that Mass was boring with the words: “Good. Mass isn’t about you having fun; Mass is about God.” In my case the way was narrow at first, and I was often punished for misbehaving, but slowly my heart began to be formed by the beauty of God’s house. I recently returned to Notre Dame, and was struck by how much the basilica formed the horizon of memories.

We lived in South Bend till I was twelve (except for one year, when I was nine, which we spent in Tübingen, Germany). But when I was twelve, we moved to Gaming, in Lower Austria. There my family was part of the community of students and teachers centered on a former Carthusian monastery: the Kartause Gaming. The Kartause houses a catechetical institute, a study abroad program for students from Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio, and at that time it also housed the ITI, a theological graduate school at which my father taught, and which has since relocated to Trumau. My brothers and sisters and I spent most of our free time with the children of other teachers at the Kartause, and as we got older with students. I did also spend time playing soccer and watching televised soccer with local boys— especially altar boys from the local parish— but the older I got the less time I spent with them and the more time I spent with students from the Kartause, who were somewhat more distant from me in age, but much closer in their appreciation of art and literature and liturgy.

It was in Gaming that I really discovered the glories of liturgical worship. I served as an altar-boy for a Swiss priest, Don Reto Nay, who was at that time professor of Old Testament at the ITI. Don Reto was full of deep reverence for the mystery of the Holy Sacrifice. Even the ordinary form evening daily Mass with him in German made a deep impression on me on account of his connaturality with the mysteries. And then sometimes he would celebrate a sort of “reform of the reform” high Mass in Latin, ad orientem, with incense, candles, Gregorian chant, and polyphony. (He also celebrated the older form of the Roman Rite in the mornings, but I only went to that once or twice).

In Gaming I also discovered the glories of the Byzantine Rite. There were many Byzantine Catholics studying at the ITI, and a priest of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church celebrated Divine Liturgy regularly. (My younger brother, who may have been about eight or nine at the time, was so impressed by the Byzantine Rite that he once set up an altar in his room, and I found him singing pseudo-Byzantine chants to a statue of an Egyptian Pharaoh—a model that we had for art-history class—to which he was offering a sacrifice of breath mints: The Golden Calf is a perennial temptation, I guess.) The ITI students also sang the Akathist once a week with heart-rending beauty.

From Gaming I went to Thomas Aquinas College, a small “great books” school in California. The college and the community of families surrounding it have many of the features of a Benedict Option Community. Moreover, many of the students at the College were themselves coming from various versions of the Option. There were many who had been schooled at small classical private schools, and many, many homeschoolers. The cliché about homeschoolers is that they are socially awkward losers and prigs. There were certainly some homeschoolers at TAC who fit the cliché. But many did not fit the cliché at all. And the same can be said of other versions of the Benedict Option: there are dangers, but many are able to escape the dangers.

During the whole of my upbringing, my family was involved in the ecclesial movement Communion and Liberation (“CL,” often referred to by the Italian names for those letters ci-elle, from which its members are called ciellini). Dreher explicitly mentions CL is in his book (he refers to their economic organization Compagnia delle Opere), but CL seems to me less well described as Benedict Option community than other communities in which I have been involved (such as the one around the Kartause Gaming, or the one around Thomas Aquinas College).

The founder of CL, Luigi Giussani, had thought deeply about the nature of modern society, and in his books he traces the loss of the “unitary mentality” of the middle ages in a way reminiscent of Dreher. There also many parallels between what Giussani says about education as formation of the heart, and Dreher’s thoughts on education. And the emphasis on practical community in CL is exemplary of many of the sorts of things that Dreher talks about. CL is, however, a global movement, and thus its practical solidarity can have a further reach. When a brother of mine moved to Southern Italy to study architecture, he got in touch with the local ciellini, and decided to live with a group of CL students in a common apartment. There is something reminiscent of the solidarity of the early Christians in the solidarity of the ciellini. But the charism of CL is not really well described as “Benedictine.” It is compatible with the Benedictine charism. The Abbot General of my own Cistercian Order is in fact a ciellino. But it is something different.

In his provocative book Newman on Vatican II, Fr. Ian Ker argues that in each age of the Church the Holy Spirit awakens movements within the Church that respond to the needs of the time, these charismatic movements assist the hierarchy, while being moderated and ordered by the hierarchy. Simplifying Ker’s schema somewhat, one can speak of four great movements corresponding to four ages of the Church: the monastic movement, the mendicant friars, the Jesuits and other active orders, and the ecclesial movements typical of the decades following Vatican II.

First, the monastic movement beginning with St. Anthony Abbot, initially as a means of living the full radicalism of the Gospel in the Christian Empire, when the persecutions had ceased, and mediocrity was the great danger, but receiving its definitive form from St. Benedict who, in Newman’s words, came “as if to preserve a principle of civilization, and a refuge for learning, at a time when the old framework of society was falling, and new political creations were taking their place.” Benedictine monasticism was the foundation of the new Christian culture that arose out of the ruins of ancient civilization and barbarian chaos. For many centuries it continued to play a key role in European life, periodically reviving itself, as with Benedict of Aniane in the 9th century, the abbots of Cluny in the 10th and 11th centuries, and the Cistercians in 12th.

But in the 13th century, with the growth of new towns and cities, the essentially rural nature of Benedictine life made a new kind of monasticism necessary: the mendicant orders, especially the Dominicans. The Dominicans lived in the cities, and practiced the new “scholastic” or scientific style of learning. They used the insights of philosophy to give clear, systematic expression to theological truths. The Dominicans still preserved many features of the monastic life, but reduced the amount of time spent in prayer and manual labor in order to give more hours to scholarly work and preaching.

And then in early modernity St. Ignatius of Loyola began a thoroughly practical form of religious life: the Jesuits. The Jesuits gave up the audible, public recitation of the divine office, leaving each Jesuit to pray the office soundlessly and by himself. They replaced the long hours of monastic prayer and lectio with highly efficient and concentrated mediations. And the efficient simplicity and interiority of their prayer life freed them for the ruthless, military efficiency of their exterior apostolate. There is, as it were, an ulterior motive to Jesuit contemplation; it is ordered to the apostolate. Is it not fitting that René Descartes was educated by Jesuits? The typically modern spirit of reflective interiority for the sake of efficient exterior action is the spirit of the Jesuits. In the wake of the Jesuits came many other religious orders devoted to external apostolates, to action, that is, rather than contemplation.

Finally, Ker argues, we have in our own time the rise of the new ecclesial movements. Many of these began already in the period immediately preceding Vatican II, but they found in Vatican II a welcome expression of their ideals. The ecclesial movements are often called “lay movements,” but they really include members from all states of life. Thus in CL, for example, there are consecrated persons (the Memores Domini) and priests (the Missionaries of St. Charles Borromeo) as well as lay people. Ker argues that the new ecclesial movements embody the ecclesiology of Lumen Gentium that overcame the “clericalism” of the 19th century, that exaggerated the separation between the laity and the clergy, and came close to identifying the Church herself with the clerical hierarchy.

I do think that CL embodies the teachings of Vatican II. CL embodies the “third way” between traditionalism and modernism that Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI saw in the council. And this is why, much as I love CL, and much as I owe to it, I don’t “identify” with it. For I incline ever more to “traditionalism.” CL has all the advantages of the attempted third way, but also all the disadvantages. While not being blind to the deep problems of modern culture, it has nevertheless a fundamentally optimistic attitude towards engagement with that culture. An attitude that stresses the signs of the desire for God that can be found at work even in the wasteland. This is manifested on a theoretical level by the enthusiasm that one finds within the movement for the Henri de Lubac’s questionable theology of grace, which identifies the natural desire for happiness with the desire for the supernatural end of the Beatific Vision. But it is manifested on a more concrete practical level as well.

Don Giussani was a man of great appreciation for the artistic treasures of the past, and wrote eloquently on Mozart and Beethoven. But at a CL meeting one is as likely to hear contemporary guitar music as the great composers. Giussani was close friends with Pope Benedict XVI, but Pope Benedict’s project of a reform of the reform made little impression on liturgical practice in the movement. Going to Mass with CL people one is likely to find an ordinary vernacular novus ordo. To the degree that I have moved more and more towards liturgical traditionalism, I have adopted a different approach. In politics too, there is no trace of “traditionalism” among the ciellini. Italian CL politicians tend to be post-war style Christian Social democrats on the model of Alcide de Gasperi or Giulio Andreotti. This approach has its advantages of course. It provides a readily applicable practical program in the current framework. But I think that it also has serious flaws. It opens one up to being co-opted by the liberal framework. As Petrus Hispanus has argued, it is important to adopt an explicitly anti-liberal political principle in order to resist such co-opting. I am therefore a monarchist and an integralist, and would like to scrap the modern project of democratic politics altogether.

I remember once being asked by a sweet, young, Italian ciellina, whether I felt more at home in Austria or America. I answered her that I always feel like a foreigner— like an American in Austria and like an Austrian in America. She then said that it was the opposite for her. She felt at home everywhere because “everywhere I am with Christ.” A beautiful thought no doubt. I think that both thoughts are true. As Christians we must be strangers and sojourners on earth, with our hearts set on our heavenly Fatherland. But at the same time we must see that the Kingdom of God is also already among us. Both are true, and yet different members of the body of Christ can put more emphasis on one or the other. Each of these has its advantages and disadvantages.

Ian Ker is right that our time is the age of the ecclesial movements with their optimistic dynamism in engaging contemporary society. But it is also a time of revival of the ideals of monasticism. Ideals of stability, and rich liturgical tradition, and uncompromising contempt for the vanity and pomps of this passing world. And Rod Dreher is right that elements of those ideals can be realized outside the monastery in the life of Christian families. “The Benedict Option” will not ensure that children keep the faith— the mystery of iniquity and the mystery of grace cannot be controlled by any strategy— but if my upbringing can be called “Benedict Option,” then I do think that it can be a help.

In a comment on a review of The Benedict Option, Maclin Horton, once a co-editor of the now defunct Catholic counter-cultural magazine Caelum et Terra (and the subject of a profile in Dreher’s Crunchy Cons) wrote as follows:

… this discussion was being held twenty-five years ago in the pages of the magazine Caelum et Terra and other places. We must withdraw–but we must remain connected. We must turn off the TV–but we mustn’t turn our backs on the culture. We must form communities–but we mustn’t isolate ourselves. We must be critical of technology–but we should use it when appropriate. We must find ways of educating our children apart from the proselytizing secularism of the state school systems–but we must not be overprotective. Etc etc etc. All these things have actually been going on in places like Steubenville, Ohio. The children of those talkers and experimenters are grown now, and the results have been mixed. Those having this conversation with such fervor now seem to be younger, and I wonder whether most of you can quite grasp how bitterly sad it is to see a young man named John Paul or a young woman named Kateri denouncing Christian “homophobia” and “transphobia” on Facebook…

I don’t deny that the results of the attempt to achieve the balance of which Horton speaks in my own upbringing are mixed— as helpful grumblers are always reminding me. But at least this much is true: my parents have been spared the bitter sadness of seeing me and my brothers and sisters fall away from the Faith. Words fail me when I try to express how grateful I myself am for having received that gift and not (as yet) lost it: I have found in it the pearl of great price and the treasure buried in the field.