Whether you’ve read The Benedict Option or not, there is a good chance you’ve heard of it or even had a discussion about it. This book written by Rod Dreher has spurred many important discussions on how we as Christians should build community. It has also brought Saint Benedict of Nursia and monasticism into the mainstream conversation among Christians.
What Dreher is describing is real Christianity. A Christianity that asks everything of you and affects every part of your life. Christianity that is about fulfilling the two great commandments: to love God with all your heart, and, to love your neighbor as yourself. In his book, Dreher tells of a conversation a “Benedict Option event organizer” shared with him. The organizer whose name is Leah explained, “People are like, ‘This Benedict Option thing, it’s just being Christian, right?'” Her response was, “Yes!…But people won’t do it unless you call it something different. It’s just the church being what the church is supposed to be, but if you give it a name, that makes people care.”
I have enjoyed reading the book and agreed with most of it. What I have seen as being extremely useful to readers is the way Dreher breaks down different aspects of people’s lives. For example, he discusses careers and the kind of jobs Christians may need to avoid due to increasing infringement on religious freedom. He talks about going back to the trades and Christians helping support one another’s work as a way to foster Christian community. He brings up the dangers of pornography and the internet. He asks Christians to consider the importance of our children’s education and how we can educate them in a world which is quickly becoming more hostile to our faith.
I believe the author’s intent is to wake up a sleeping Christianity (especially in America). We need to take a long look in the mirror and ask ourselves, ‘Am I living out the Gospel message.’ ‘Am I ready to face persecution if it comes?’ These questions and others are meant to make us examine our lives, our families, and of course the communities we belong to and worship with, in the hope of strengthening our commitment to God and one another.
What seems to be a point of frustration for some readers is that no clear plans are laid out. Dreher does not tell anyone how exactly to form a Christian community. I think this was wise of him. He knows there are many different ways Christians can come together to serve God and neighbor. He gives examples of several in the book. He writes knowing most of us already belong to a community even if we need to be a part of it with more intention.
The Reason for Saint Benedict
What Rod Dreher has also done is set Saint Benedict, the Benedictines, and monasticism in general as an example for Christians to follow. As an Eastern Christian, this makes perfect sense to me. In Orientale Lumen, St. Pope John Paul wrote “…in the East, monasticism was not seen merely as a separate condition, proper to a precise category of Christians, but rather as a reference point for all the baptized, according to the gifts offered to each by the Lord; it was presented as a symbolic synthesis of Christianity.”
In the post-Christian world we are living in, it is ever more necessary that we turn to the tried-and-true wisdom of the Church which we can see lived out in the lives of the saints and practices of monastics. One of the greatest Church Fathers from the East, Saint John Chrysostom said, “You greatly delude yourself and err, if you think that one thing is demanded from the layman and another from the monk; since the difference between them is in that whether one is married or not, while in everything else they have the same responsibilities … Because all must rise to the same height; and what has turned the world upside down is that we think only the monk must live rigorously, while the rest are allowed to live a life of indolence.” The rigorous lifestyle of the Benedictines which is laid out in the Rule they follow is an example for all Christians on how to begin to live the Christian life.
When we view monasticism as a “reference point for all the baptized,” Christians must not look at the externals of monastic life as an end in itself (i.e. the habit, the cloister, the formal vows, etc.). Neither should we consider the individual lives of each monk, seeing their faults and shortcomings. Rather, we must learn from what all monastics are striving after: Communion with God (theosis) and love of neighbor. The example of striving for this goal at great personal cost is the one we need to focus on.
We can also learn from the traditional ways they have lived together in community and helped share Christ with the world. As a benefit of being alive in the Information Age and having the ability to travel, we no longer need to live near a monastery to learn from monks(though I do recommend you visit one). We can learn from their life stories in books and other writings. Christ in the Desert Benedictine monastery has the Rule of Saint Benedict with a commentary by Abbot Phillip Lawrence available online here. Many blogs are written by non-monastics sharing how they’ve translated monastic wisdom and practice into their lives such as this blog by an Eastern Orthodox matushka, this blog by a Roman Catholic father, and my blog Every Home a Monastery. There is a wealth of good content online providing ample information on the Christian life.
There are many places we can each begin the work of building close-knit and stronger communities. I think the best place to start is with the end in mind. The entire Christian life is a journey to the heavenly kingdom. This is why we must begin with Liturgy where we participate in the heavenly reality in the here and now. It is also where we can experience and see the source of our communion with one another and the entire Church–Jesus Christ, most especially in the Eucharist and Sacraments. We need to walk on this journey with others, sharing the struggles and joys of life together. And bearing witness to the love God has for each of us. We need to lay a strong foundation by having the right intention for our communities.
We cannot act like we are just a group of individuals who meet for worship. We must learn to function according to our true reality. That reality being we are a communion of saints, the one body of Christ, a people who are made in the image and likeness of a God who is a communion of three persons in one God. That is far greater than just individuals who get together because they are of like-mind or live in the same neighborhood.
“…at they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” Jesus’ prayer before His arrest and crucifixion is reason to strive for communion with one another. It will require we put forth hard work and the effort necessary to pass on the faith and build up the Body of Christ. If we start with the end in mind, what other kind of Christianity could we even consider living?