If it wasn’t clear before that the culture of the West is opposed to the Gospel and the teachings of the Catholic Church, the recent decision to legalize “gay marriage” in the United States made it quite apparent. The decision was decades in the making and cannot solely be blamed on the homosexual agenda. It goes back to contraception and no fault divorce, both of which have eroded marriage in profound ways over the decades. For Catholics, much of it is due to dissent from Humanae Vitae by clergy and laity, as well as an abandonment of moral teaching. The question for Catholics today is: Where do we go from here? The reason we need to ask this question is because there is little doubt that we will be pushed to the fringes in the coming decades. Our moral understanding and focus on Christ means that we are in opposition to the world. Christ told us:
“I come not to bring peace, but to bring a sword…” Matthew 10:34
The world has always been in opposition to the Good News. The world crucified God. The Church has been set against the world since her founding by Our Lord, and that was no different during the life of St. Benedict whose feast day we celebrate on Saturday, July 11.
St. Benedict is most widely known for his rule and as the “Father of Western Monasticism”. He lived circa 480-560 and his influence on the world was great. Even though his rule was not the first, it was the most widely used in the west for centuries. St. Benedict’s rule was comprised of several rules which could be applied to a variety of monasteries and locations. His rule’s primary emphasis was on: moderation, the integration of prayer and work, and the socialization of the monastic life.
Once monasticism was introduced to the west by St. Athanasius, it spread quickly. By the time St. Benedict composed his rule, monasteries were in Africa, France, and even Ireland. Monasticism preserved much of Europe during the Dark Ages when there was much tumult and chaos. It was through monasticism that manuscripts were preserved, as well as art, architecture, and music were developed. It was here that culture survived and lived for many years. St. Benedict could not have known how great of an impact his rule would be on the west. Blessed John Henry Newman said of him:
“St. Benedict found the world, physical and social, in ruins, and his mission was to restore it in the way not of science, but of nature, not as if setting about to do it, not professing to do it by any set time, or by any rare specific, or by any series of strokes, but so quietly, patiently, gradually, that often till the work was done, it was not known to be doing…Silent men were observed about the country, or discovered in the forest, digging, clearing and building; and other silent men, not seen, were sitting in the cold cloister, tiring their eyes and keeping their attention on the stretch, while they painfully copied and recopied the manuscripts which they could have saved. There was no one who contended or cried out, or drew attention to what was going on, but by degrees, the woody swamp became a hermitage, a religious house, a farm, and abbey, a village, a seminary, a school of learning and a city.”
St. Benedict found himself in a world of decay and difficulty. The Roman Empire had collapsed and Barbarians were wreaking havoc throughout Europe. In response, he chose to establish small cultural centers that would profoundly impact the culture when the Zeitgeist proved to be receptive. He did not know the exact changes it would bring at the time, but slowly and deliberately, by living holy lives, the culture was changed. How devastating was the collapse of the Roman Empire? Rod Dreher points out:
Rome’s collapse meant staggering loss. People forgot how to read, how to farm, how to govern themselves, how to build houses, how to trade, and even what it had once meant to be a human being. Behind monastery walls, though, in their chapels, scriptoriums, and refectories, Benedict’s monks built lives of peace, order, and learning and spread their network throughout Western Europe.
It is here that we shift to today. Once again the Church is looking at a culture in a state of decay, moral confusion, and nihilism. The West is falling into ruin once more. The societies of Europe and North America have largely abandoned Christianity in favor of secularism and now we live in a post-Christian age. As Catholics, how can we look to St. Benedict as a guide in such times? The answer is what is called the Benedict Option, which has come into usage through the work of Alisdair MacIntyre and Rod Dreher.
According to Columbia University professor, Russell Hittinge, St. Benedict taught the world of the Dark Ages: “How to live life as a whole. Not a life of worldly success so much as one of human success.” This is where our call as Catholics now lies. People have given themselves over to this age and to the pursuit of worldly success and pleasures, in doing so, they have forgotten what it means to be fully human. The culture has become so confused that even matters of nature are no longer accepted as truth. Alisdair MacIntyre paints a grim picture of the culture in his book After Virtue. Rod Dreher summarizes MacIntyre’s view:
“For MacIntyre, we too are living through a Fall of Rome-like catastrophe, one that is concealed by our liberty and prosperity. In his influential 1981 book After Virtue, MacIntyre argued that the Enlightenment’s failure to replace an expiring Christianity caused Western civilization to lose its moral coherence. Like the early medievals, we too have been cut off from our roots, and a shadow of cultural amnesia is falling across the land. The Great Forgetting is taking a particular toll on American Christianity, which is losing its young in dramatic numbers. Those who remain within churches often succumb to a potent form of feel-good relativism that sociologists have called “moralistic therapeutic deism,” which is dissolving historic Christian moral and theological orthodoxy.”
MacIntyre insists that we are now called to build, “new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained”. How is this accomplished?
Close-knit Christian Communities
We must abandon the wrong-headed rugged individualism of our age. This is especially true for Americans. The call to radical individualism and self-determination is diametrically opposed to the Gospel and the communion we enter into upon our Baptism. The Mystical Body of Christ is an organism in which we are all intimately connected with the head, who is Christ Himself. As the culture begins to more aggressively attack the Church, we need to come together in close-knit communities all focused on the same goal in Christ. Does this sound familiar?
Most of us cannot become monks. We are members of the laity and we have to provide for our families, but that does not mean that we cannot live in a quasi-communal state where we can help one another. This communal state will vary depending on the area you live and the infrastructure in place. This will become essential when people lose jobs for their faith or struggle to make ends meet. This is the call to live in authentic Christian love and community, not as separate people who just happen to come to Mass together each Sunday. Priests and laity need to be involved. In fact, priests will need to take a direct role as spiritual leaders of these communities. Yes, priest are already stretched thin, but as the Church moves to the fringes, the unfortunate by-product will be more people falling away from the Faith. The Church will get smaller for a time.
Many of the people who have already begun living the Benedict Option live in close proximity to their church or even a monastery where they can pray, attend the Liturgy, and live where a religious community is established. Some become Oblates or Lay members, but many do not. Lay Orders are no guarantee of this community either. There must be an intentional establishment and way of life within these communities. A life that is devoted to prayer, work, humility, evangelization, and holiness in a community, rather than solely as individuals or families.
What is certain is that people will need to band together in ways they have never considered before in our lifetime. We will need to focus our days on prayer, virtue, and work as we go out into the world. Rod Dreher admits when he coined the Benedict Option through the influence of Alisdair MacIntyre’s work that he did not have a clear definition. What is obvious, however, is that we Christians need to live holy lives in community as we take the onslaught that will grow in momentum over the coming decades. We must be willing to sacrifice and take care of one another as we live and serve Christ.
In my mind, the Benedict Option is essentially a call to holiness. It is a call to deep prayer, virtue, regular reception of the Sacraments, and self-sacrifice in a community setting. That is what St. Benedict was asking of his monks and that is just as true today for monks or members of the laity. Holiness is what the Church is calling us to and we can no longer do it in isolation. Close-knit Christian communities are nothing new and find their greatest model in the Early Church. We need to learn to live together, faults and all that we may serve Christ in hard times; that we may become holy and perfect as Our Heavenly Father is perfect. In fact, communal life can help us greatly on the path to holiness. Holiness is the whole point of the Christian life.
So, whether it is Rod Dreher’s suggestion or another, it is time for us to come together as Christians and live The Way, instead of in isolation and mediocrity. We will need one another in the coming decades. It will be through our witness and striving for holiness that others will be evangelized. The Benedict Option cannot be seen as an abandonment of the Church’s mission to bring the world to Christ. The most powerful witness is a person fully alive who is living a saintly life. St. Benedict, ora pro nobis.
“The age of casual Catholicism is over, the age of heroic Catholicism has begun. We can no longer be Catholics by accident, but instead be Catholics by conviction.”
Fr. Terence Henry, TOR, president of Franciscan University.