In this excerpt from his new book, Benedictine Options: Learning to Live from the Sons and Daughters of Saints Benedict and Scholastica, Patrick Henry takes on the idea of a “Benedict Option” put forward by Rod Dreher in his popular book The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. Henry’s book draws on some of the same ancient sources relating to Benedict, but also offers a different view of contemporary life and expands his vision to reflect on the lives of Benedictines he has known at Saint John’s Abbey and Saint Benedict’s Monastery. As Abbot John Klassen writes: “Henry’s is a generous, capacious view of human faithfulness to the Gospel in the midst of the real and actual world we find ourselves in.”
Option or Options?
Rod Dreher, in The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, offers one. I, in Benedictine Options: Learning to Live from the Sons and Daughters of Saints Benedict and Scholastica, offer another. Neither of us is a monastic. Our proposals are fundamentally, even antithetically, different.
Dreher takes his cue from the conclusion of Alasdair MacIntyre’s 1981 book, After Virtue: the world awaits “another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.”
Dreher purports to introduce readers to people he calls “today’s Benedicts,” who are seeking “arks capable of carrying them and the living faith across the sea of crisis—a Dark Age that could last centuries.”
The ark is a vivid and compelling picture for the Benedict option—the boat built by Noah to ride out the flood. My alternative image for Benedictine options is less precise, less circumscribed, but that is part of its point.
Someone I know once said that “we are in a saltwater marsh, where there is constant motion, teeming life, and an ever-shifting boundary between sea and land. Our task is . . . to notice what is going on all around us.” We are knee-deep in the marsh, not floating above it.
Benedictine options do not carry us across a sea of crisis. They are both a clue to what sort of place the world is and a prescription for reason and virtue and living faith in that world.
“Turning His Back” and “His Spirit’s Enlargement”
Pope Saint Gregory the Great’s biography of Benedict, written several decades after the fact and based on interviews with some of Benedict’s disciples, provides two stunningly disparate starting points for Dreher and me.
Here’s Dreher: “Gregory writes that young Benedict was so shocked and disgusted by the vice and corruption in the city that he turned his back on the life of privilege that awaited him there, as the son of a government official. He moved to the nearby forest and later to a cave forty miles to the east. There Benedict lived a life of prayer and contemplation as a hermit for three years.”
I begin elsewhere in Gregory’s Second Dialogue: “According to [Benedict’s] own description, the whole world was gathered up before his eyes in what appeared to be a single ray of light. … Of course, in saying that the world was gathered up before his eyes I do not mean that heaven and earth grew small, but that his spirit was enlarged. Absorbed as he was in God, it was now easy for him to see all that lay beneath God.”
So, Dreher and I have different sixth-century springboards—“turning his back” and “his spirit’s enlargement.”
Equally significant is the difference in where we look for evidence, especially contemporary evidence.
Dreher introduces us to some contemporary monks—sixteen of them—but they are all men, and in one place, the Monastery of Saint Benedict in Norcia, Italy, Benedict’s hometown. Its life today, with prayers in Latin and the pre-Vatican II Mass, is only one of many Benedictine options, and an uncommon one at that.
If you’ve seen one monastery, you haven’t seen them all. Even if you’ve seen all the men’s monasteries, you’d have seen only half the evidence.
Among the 476 entries in the index to The Benedict Option, “monks” appear fourteen times, but there is no entry at all for “sisters” or “nuns.” There are about two dozen names of women, nearly all of them contemporary American evangelicals who are exemplars of life according to Dreher’s “Benedict option.”
Benedictine Options looks to the sons and daughters of Benedict and his twin sister Scholastica, for signals of the life-enhancing and world-affirming possibilities in lives lived according to their reading of the Rule. My most important and formative research has been my more than four decades spent in the company of monastic people.
“How Does a Person Get To Be that Way?”
“How does a person get to be that way?” asks the protagonist in the Jamaica Kincaid story ”Mariah.“ I realize instantly: this is what drives my curiosity and research. It’s the scholar’s fundamental question: How does the person, virus, cosmos, institution, society, poem, language, statue, statute—whatever it is I am studying—get to be the way it is?
The question has to be asked about every Benedictine individually—there is no one “way” that they are. There are many options.
I do not believe the modern world is outer darkness; Dreher says “there is no middle ground,” but there is actually lots of it. Benedictines have known many “modern worlds” during their millennium and a half. They are skeptical both of Dr. Pangloss’s contention that this is the best of all possible worlds and of Chicken Little’s warning that the sky is falling.
Dreher quotes, with evident approval, Father Cassian, prior of the Monastery of Saint Benedict in Norcia, talking about the reception of guests. “‘It’s both that we reject what is not life-giving, and that we build something new. And we spend a lot of time in the rebuilding, and people see that too, which is why people flock to the monastery. … We are rebuilding. That’s the yes that people have to hear about.’”
Here is how Dreher interprets what he heard: They “saw themselves as working on the restoration of Christian belief and Christian culture. How very Benedictine.”
There is a big difference between “restoration” and “rebuilding.” I’m reminded of aphorisms by two of the greatest historians of Christianity. Adolph Harnack wrote, inviting restoration, “No religion gains anything through time; it only loses.” Saint John Henry Newman wrote, inviting rebuilding, “In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”
The Benedict Option is about restoration. Benedictine Options is about rebuilding. These are not the same thing.