On Cultivating 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. It definitely resonates with me, especially when it comes to Dreher’s prognosis of our crumbling civilization. “We are fighting a losing game,” he 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. Since we’re “waiting for a new and doubtless very different Saint Benedict,” as Dreher acknowledges, quoting Alasdair MacIntyre, let’s look to some other saintly Benedicts that might help orient us to the resurgent Christian culture that’s just around the corner.

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, and 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 race 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.

In a world given over to acquisition and status, strive for downward mobility.

2. 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 highly unlikely. Consequently, St. Benedict Joseph took to the road as 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, often sleeping in the shadow of the Colosseum.

In a culture obsessed with image and aggrandizement, have a healthy disregard for self.

3. BENEDICT XV (1854-1922): A relatively overlooked heir of St. Peter, Pope Benedict XV is an exemplar of attempting to do the right thing despite overwhelming odds. Shortly before Benedict’s election, World War I erupted, and the new pontiff made every effort to alleviate the ensuing wide scale human misery as well as bring a halt to the bloody conflict. In 1917, Pope Benedict sent a seven-point plea for peace to all the nations involved, which was met with polite demurrals that amounted to a continental 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.”

In a society fixated on security and the elimination of enemies no matter the cost, remain steadfast in a fundamental peace orientation.

Promoting role models and values like these might seem calculated to hemorrhage membership – who’d want to be that kind of Catholic these days, right? Maybe so, but no matter. The Faith has never been about numbers anyway, and 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…. 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. That’s the essence of Benedictine success down through the ages: 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.

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Rick Becker is a husband, father of seven, nursing instructor, and religious educator. He serves on the nursing faculty at Bethel College in Mishawaka, Indiana. You can find more of Rick’s writing on his blog, God-Haunted Lunatic, and his Facebook page.

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