On Cultivating Patient Irrelevance: The Benedict Option 2.0


“The monks waited.”
~ Walter M. Miller, Jr.

It seems that I’m more out of touch than even my teens realize. Here’s how I know.

The Wall Street Journal’s “House of Worship” column appears every Friday, and I always make a beeline for it. For someone interested in religious matters – as I am – it’s a feature that never fails to inform and enlighten. Sometimes theology and politics, sometimes spirituality and culture; Christianity one week, Islam or Judaism the next, and occasionally Buddhism, Hinduism, and other world religions – you never know what will be there, but it’s always a fruitful, provocative read.

This past Friday was no exception. Evangelical author David Skeel’s concise summary of Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” and the controversy it has lately engendered was elucidating, but, for me, a revelation – how could I have missed this? Apparently, this is a big deal on the web, but I don’t recall encountering it. In fact, my first thought as I read Skeel’s article was that he must be referring to retired Pope Benedict XVI – the “option” part was a mystery.

Obviously, I’m clueless, for Dreher’s idea has been around at least since 2013 when he floated it in an American Conservative article. After a brief review of the Benedictine history of tactical disengagement and cultural preservation, Dreher asked,

Is there a lesson here for Christians? Should they take what might be called the “Benedict Option”: communal withdrawal from the mainstream, for the sake of sheltering one’s faith and family from corrosive modernity and cultivating a more traditional way of life?

That’s the gist of Dreher’s proposal, and he’s gone on to write about it extensively on his blog and elsewhere. Moreover, plenty of others have commented on, expanded, and/or criticized Dreher’s scheme, and yet I’m just now running across the whole business – and this pleases me, you see. I suppose I take it as a sign that I’ve naturally gravitated to a certain degree of disengagement myself, even without Dreher’s recommendation.

That might sound like a backhanded compliment, so let me hasten to add that the basic Benedict Option thesis definitely resonates with me, especially when it comes to Dreher’s prognosis of our crumbling civilization. “We are fighting a losing game,” Dreher declared in a recent interview. “This is not our culture anymore. Maybe it never was our real home, but we have got to prepare ourselves and our families and our churches through intentional living, through disciplined living, and through an awareness of the cultural moment to deal with perhaps even persecution.” Yes, yes, and yes, I say, hear hear!

Yet, really, this is old news, and that’s my only complaint about Dreher’s suggestions. For example, he recommended in that interview that Christians “stay involved in the outside world, but let’s also do a strategic retreat” – join the club! Any Catholic who has paid the price of taking Humanae Vitae seriously already has scads of strategic-retreat experience, and that’s only the beginning.

In the interests of expanding the applicability of the Benedict Option for those who’ve already been fighting the good fight for a while – decades for some, even generations – I’d like to attempt a slightly different spin on the idea. Dreher acknowledges that the whole concept occurred to him after reading Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, and he included a paraphrase of one particular passage from that 1981 book in that recent interview:

MacIntyre says, “We’re waiting for a new and doubtless very different Saint Benedict to bring those who want to live the moral life together in community to survive through this current darkness.”

In a prologue for a new edition of After Virtue published in 2007, MacIntyre himself commented on that passage: “So it was twenty-six years ago, so it is still.”

So, while we’re waiting, let’s look to some other saintly Benedicts from the past that might help orient us to the resurgent Christian culture that a future Saint Benedict will presumably usher in.

  1. BENEDICT THE MOOR (1524-1589): Despite his first name, St. Benedict the Moor was a Franciscan, and his title derived from his African heritage, not his religious background. His parents were slaves in Italy, although Benedict won his freedom by his late teens. Known for his piety and intense prayer life, Benedict held various leadership positions in his order, but his preference was always to return to the kitchen where he’d long served as a cook. After a lifetime of service – including enduring the mockery of those who derided him for his skin color and lowly family background – he begged to be returned to his pots and pans that he might live out the rest of his life in obscure and humble service.
    *BENEDICT OPTION PRINCIPLE #1: In a world given over to acquisition and status, strive for downward mobility.
  1. BENEDICT JOSEPH LABRE (1748-1783): This lowly son of a Belgian shopkeeper desired nothing else than a monastic vocation. His youth held him off at first, but later his sickly constitution and personality quirks made his admission to any religious community an unlikely prospect. Consequently, St. Benedict Joseph took to the road, and he became a freelance mendicant, ever on the move, ever homeless, and ever given over to a rich life of deep prayer. He rarely bathed, dressed in rags, and begged alms – never keeping more than he needed for a day, giving away any surplus to his fellow beggars. The end of his life was spent primarily in Rome where he made the rounds of the various pilgrim churches there, often sleeping in the shadows of the Colosseum.
    *BENEDICT OPTION PRINCIPLE #2: In a culture obsessed with image and aggrandizement, have a healthy disregard for self.
  1. BENEDICT XV (1854-1922): A relatively overlooked heir of St. Peter, Pope Benedict XV is an exemplar of attempting the good despite overwhelming odds. Shortly before Benedict’s election, World War I had erupted, and the new pontiff made every effort to alleviate the ensuing wide scale human misery as well as bring a halt to total war. In 1917, Pope Benedict sent a seven-point plea for peace to all the nations involved in the conflict. This entreaty was met with polite demurrals that essentially translated into a continental and very public rebuke. “The debacle of this peace effort,” writes W.H. Peters, “was perhaps the greatest disappointment that Benedict XV suffered during his pontificate.” Nevertheless, the Holy Father never gave up on his vision of a reunited Europe, and at the war’s conclusion, he issued his encyclical Pacem Dei Munus Pulcherrimum“On Peace and Christian Reconciliation.”
    *BENEDICT OPTION PRINCIPLE #3: In a society fixated on security and the elimination of enemies no matter the cost, remain steadfast in a fundamental peace orientation.

That last principle – the peace-orientation principle – is an especially important one. We face growing violence and threats of violence these days, both here at home and from abroad. Nevertheless, our faith demands that we stand with Benedict XV, as well as John Paul II and Pope Francis, in our insistence that any war or potentially lethal violence carried out in our names must be an absolute last resort – and that’s simply not the case today. Thus, it’s all the more disturbing when we read that Dreher nimbly lumps together “we conservatives” with “we Christians.” To the extent that “conservative” is associated with support for targeted drone killings, “acceptable” collateral damage, and a constant national war posture, then political conservatism is something the Benedict Option ought to shun just as much as political, pro-abortion liberalism.

Putting aside political labels in an age of extreme partisanship is a good way to hemorrhage membership. No matter. It has never been about numbers anyway. In that regard, it’s helpful to turn to one more Benedict – the one I mistakenly called to mind when reading Skeel’s article the other day: Pope Emeretus Benedict XVI. Here’s what Pope Benedict had to say about the “remnant” Church when he was still Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger:

From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge—a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so will she lose many of her social privileges.

But when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church…. She may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but she will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.

That’s a vision that encapsulates the principles of the other three Benedicts listed above – downward mobility, disregard for self, and peace – with the added dimension of endurance. The real Benedict Option, in other words, is simply waiting out the storm, be it cultural, moral, political, or otherwise. In a word, it’s persistence – a refusal to give in to the prevailing anti-Church, come what may.

Intentional communities subsisting on the edges of society might be part of that, but they aren’t necessary. However, I certainly agree with Skeel when he recommends “perhaps turning off the TV more often.” If nothing else, that’s a good place to start.

A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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  1. On Cultivating Patient Irrelevance: The Benedict Option 2.0 | God-Haunted Lunatic

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