I have seen this expression – Benedict Option – being bandied about on the internet. Here is an article by the American conservative Rod Dreher – Benedict Option FAQ. I am sceptical about anything coming from across the Atlantic, because an idea is taken, institutionalised and mechanised and made like the system from which it sought to escape. It becomes a new conformist paradigm. The same happened with Romanticism when the word and the inner ideas came to be banalised and made into sentimental slush about boys meeting girls and falling in “love”. Eventually, the Beast assimilates everything, and this Benedict Option will go the same way down the drain-hole of political correctness.
On first view, it seems attractive. The French monastic movement stemming from Solesmes and Dom Guéranger came straight out of the Romantic movement as did Anglo-Catholicism and Arts & Crafts and the various rebel movements away from the Establishment and the Machine. It is all coming together for me as a global vision – but there lay the seeds of its destruction and assimilation by political correctness and a new vice of conformity and intolerance of diversity. Anything can get too big for its own good.
John Senior and other American intellectuals dreamed of ways that the Christian ideal as a form of Romanticism could survive the collapse of society as happened with the end of the Roman Empire and the Civitas Dei of St Augustine. It was in the sixth century that St Benedict picked up elements of the old monastic traditions and the Fathers and produced a new vision of the balanced and moderate monastic life that could be realistically lived, whilst maintaining the essential of prayer, work, asceticism and community life.
Rod Dreher compares the Roman Empire with the current state of the American imperium. Indeed, the USA looks like becoming a new totalitarian empire (without comparing it with the Nazis) that continues to conquer territories to which it has no legal or moral right and thereby exposing s all to the spectre of a nuclear war. “Killary” or Trump, it seems to make no difference. The empire is still waging war everywhere and is trillions of dollars in debt. Sooner or later, it will crack, and many will die or be thrust out into destitution and exile.
New communities? So far I have heard of none other than traditional monasteries with celibate and professed monks and nuns living under the Abbatial crozier and the Rule. Is there a community life possible for ordinary people other than marriage and the nuclear family? I did some time ago write about intentional communities, which are not always religious or Christian. Those communities are not always easy to discern as to their intentions, or whether they consist of a few free souls or yet another form of political correctness and totalitarianism.
I suppose that the Benedict Option is an idea of individual persons and small communities, perhaps families in a few cases, consisting of breaking away from the system to build an alternative way of life. That is what the Hippies and some of the old Romantics did. Human nature being what it is, the community usually lacks stability and falls apart due to differences between persons and various forms of intolerance. Among strictly Christian communities, the monastery has abided because of its system of authority and obedience, therefore an imitation of the world and the Establishment. The only difference is that it is smaller. The only alternative is the kind of community with tolerance and encouragement of diversity built into its constitution so that people live between community life and life as free individual persons.
In Dreher’s article, we note the rejection of the Enlightenment and the yearning for tradition or some aspiration that lies beyond the limits of earthly life. That is the basis of Romanticism, also something that can go horribly wrong and dark. Dreher also notes that it is not simply a question of going to the “right” church on Sundays, when most people are living in consumerist conformity. I am also limited by the fetters of being married and paying for a house, and to a wife with personality issues.
I understand the aspiration towards a kind of “lay monastery”. Who is going to be the infallible leader to keep it all together? If there is no infallible leader, on what principle can such a thing be founded so that it will stay together and prosper. Dreher cites no example of something that has worked out, and this creates suspicion and scepticism. Perhaps individuals with such aspirations can join a community founded on vaguely Romantic foundations and not seek to convert everyone to Christianity or that person’s understanding of Christianity. In which case, as individuals, we live in the catacombs in the ordinary secular world and get on with other people with a strict self-discipline of discretion and respect for diversity. That is the beginning of the contemplative aspect of Christianity as opposed to the imperium.
Americans often winge and lament the disappearance of institutional Christianity from life. They should come to France, where “true” secularism is not tolerance of all, but a narrow form of atheism and anti-clericalism. Much of post-Communist Europe is sterile and devoid of Christianity. Is there any Romanticism left either? Difficult to say.
St Benedict founded monasteries, and that is a very special vocation to live in a small totalitarian society in which you accept having your personality crushed and made compliant as is not even found in military life. I was a working guest at Triors from December 1996 to July 1997 and installed two organs in their Abbey church. I esteemed the Abbot, Dom Hervé Courau, an austere but just man. He agreed with me that monastic life is the ultimate form of socialist totalitarianism, except that it is accepted voluntarily as a form of asceticism. If this is so, alternative living cannot be based on monasticism. I loved the Offices and the context of the buildings and their lands – but monastic life was not for me. I might have become an Oblate, but my future orientation of life was too uncertain.
In the nineteenth century, many attempts were made to inspire parish life from monastic spirituality. One example was Mesnil Saint Loup and Fr Emmanuel. There is still a monastery there to this day. I have known parish priests who were Benedictine secular Oblates and went to the Opus Sacerdotale retreat each year at Fontgombalt. These priests often has a Romantic outloook on life, loved the liturgy and would promote reverence and Gregorian chant. They would continue to wear the cassock and be assiduous with their daily Office and times of private prayer and reading. Another effect was the love of simple life and not being afraid to build things with one’s own hands.
Of course, there are the fundamental principles that can rule our lives even if we are lay people or secular priests. The first is our fundamental purpose of life and vocation, to devote ourselves to God in an utterly singular way, a notion especially but not exclusively familiar to people with Aspergers Syndrome! Connected with this vocation is a notion of self-discipline and being down-to-earth by means of prayer and work. Another is resisting our flights of instability and believing we will find paradise on earth. Paradise is elsewhere, and we can be on pilgrimage towards it just where we are, unless we are truly threatened by evil. Much of the “greener grass” on the other side of the fence is illusory, and we will regret it if we go that way. Another is community, communion, the life of the Trinity reflected in us all who bear the image of God. The community needs to be designed for the reality of totalitarianism or a form of democracy and participation. We have to choose. Another essential element is hospitality: welcoming visitors and people in need. There has to be balance between Christian hospitality and self-defence against evil people and enemies. We can forgive our enemies, but we have the duty of defending ourselves from them.
I am also sceptical about intentional communities, which are often cult-like with totalitarian leaders. Perhaps a more realistic possibility is the “eco-village” where people with compatible outlooks on life can buy a small plot of land, build something to live in and take on a commitment to an agreed amount of community work (farm work, gardening, crafts, etc.). Most people in such a setup would not be Christians but would also have a defined and identifiable vocational motivation. The Christian keeps it to himself, but is open to others enquiring about the Christian way. That I could see working, as long as the basis of the entire community is not political correctness but true love of diversity and freedom. Watch out for bureaucracy and the “managerial” style!
Dreher does mention some existing communities, and they need to be looked into. Some monasteries let or sell land around the outside of their buildings to oblates. Clear Creek in America does that. They would have to be extremely selective! The Brüderhof of German origin are intriguing. As with a monastery, it depends on your vocation and your ability to live according to their rules and criteria, and accept the upheaval in your life (selling one’s house, dispersing ones possessions, etc.).
The alternative is living the ideal where one is, with all the constraints of “feeding the Beast” and living at home with screaming kids and the television blaring. Can we impose our vocation on an unsympathetic wife and the needs of children in the modern world? I don’t think so. Yesterday, I mentioned Oscar Wilde who was imprisoned for his various turpitudes, and had to discover suffering as asceticism and a source of transformation. Most men who are punished in this way suffer the broken heart of a good man or become worse when they are bad. Suffering can be accepted as asceticism, but is not in itself asceticism. Asceticism is the ability to discipline oneself and limit the effects of fallen human nature and sin. A contemplative life is possible in the worst of distractions and noise, if the interior is silent and in peace. That is probably the most difficult thing in the world. We need breaks from “normal life” and go frequently on retreat. That can be a monastery or something like sailing or a hike in the forest or the mountains. The Romantic love of nature meets the inner contemplative life. If our life is true, it will be its own living witness and will be detected by those who have intuition and sensitivity. There is no need for marketing or preaching!
I am sceptical about using labels because they set trends. When this happens, the wrong sort of people are attracted, the so-called wannabe or super-ego that imitates and caricatures an idea, and reduces it to banality and a marketable consumer product. This goes as much for Romanticism as Benedict Option or Classical Anglican or anything else. This is the phenomenon of the market brand and the world of money, conformity and status. The Romantics did not call themselves by that term. The fact that Oscar Wilde did brought him down somewhat in my esteem. If they did not call themselves anything but gave priority to the idea rather than the super-ego, perhaps the idea had some hope.
I admire Dreher’s attempt at saving Christianity. I don’t think Christianity is something to be saved, but rather something that is just there and waiting for us to embrace it and our own souls. My big discovery in life is that genius resides in individual persons and not in collectivities. A church committee takes three hours to decide on changing the vestry light bulb: who is going to do the job with what safety precautions, who is going to pay for it, and all the rest. The individual buys a bulb, climbs up a stepladder and changes the bulb. The committee is still discussing it. Plurality of humans makes for inefficiency and stupidity. Individually, we have a strangely consistent and coherent system of ideas, and we all think in similar ways. Together, the intelligence and good sense go out of the window and stupidity enters the picture. It’s a hard judgement on my part, but an indicator of what makes communities fail, not so much because of a difference of personalities, but the collective bêtise. This is a fundamental intuition of the Romantic, before that word got assimilated by the collectivity.
If this alternative community idea gets assimilated by the institutional Church, it has already failed or become a part of the corporate world. From the beginning of my time as a Roman Catholic (1981-1997), I intuitively felt stifled and forced into a mould in which I did not belong. My vocation was made illusory and I became unstable. The roots are in my own experience of life together with a system that could not bring me anywhere near my aspiration that was in any case unattainable in this world. I can live in the ACC as an institutional Church because the process of mechanisation isn’t even begun, let alone completed! It is still a community of inspired persons. Conservatives complain about individualism because they believe that human life can only be lived under the domination of the wealthy and strong in a class system – as opposed to the creative genius of the individual person. I believe that assumption is wrong. Community comes from consensus of aspiration to the highest.
There is the notion of the apprenticeship, a different kind of relationship between the master and the disciple. This is the way Christ did everything with the small group and the larger group of disciples. We are not masters of crafts spontaneously. We need to be taught by someone we esteem and view as a father. This is something different from the infallible leader, but things can quickly degenerate. This notion has disappeared from the world, and relationships between younger and older people are now reduced by political correctness to occasions of sin, just like in the nineteenth century – or calls for “same sex marriage”. Note, the ancient Greek idea was person to person, and there lay creative genius and the basis of community.
Language gets distorted into ideology, just as is probably happening in my own writings. I feel what is wrong more than rationalising or understanding it completely and globally. I make slow progress, but feel I am getting there.
We are not going to see the fruits of our labours. There may be none if World War 3 breaks out and they push the red button. If there is not a single human left on the earth, then it won’t matter. Either we will be annihilated as the atheists believe, or we will experience a new world in another dimension (or whatever analogy we choose). We hope to bring hope and joy to those still in via as I still am (otherwise I wouldn’t be bashing away on a computer). I hope yet to give back something for what I received from God.
I am not bothered with big institutional Churches like Rome or Lambeth. They don’t matter. What does matter is the Mustard Seed and the Kingdom it conveys. Dreher seems to understand the Romantic message even if he does not use the word (because of the contemporary understanding of “romance” or the turpitudes of men like Byron, Shelley and Keats). We do not live up to our own ideals, but we must have the ideals and vocational aspiration.
I see people without this vocation or what makes them real. I see the super-ego, the possessing spirit, and it is very ugly. It makes the closest loved one unrecognisable in the ugliness of a satyr or a gargoyle. It is frightening, and I ask myself what protected me from that hollowness and death in life. There but for the grace of God go I…
Very few will ever be up to a “Benedict Option“, because they have to have something that is not bought with money or taken from other people. Many are called an few are chosen, which does not mean I believe that most people will go to hell when they die, in the manner of the Jansenists and Calvinists. The mystery is beyond heaven and hell. God is above God. I do believe that souls will be given the chance to receive illumination even after bodily death. We all need healing from the effects of our sins but also from our faulty creation.
Hold on through the dark night? We are already there, and we will only find the light within ourselves, from the spark of divinity that the Demiurge and the Archons are unable to destroy (I use Gnostic terminology as an analogy, which was intended in the first place). We face a future not unlike Europe in the 1930’s, but much, much, worse.
You who are reading this, if you feel called to a community or form a new one, go for it. Some people have the freedom of not being tied down by marriage, debts or jobs. Be prepared to give up a lot to buy the precious pearl.
Another thing is that to be Christians, we don’t have to look like the stereotypes. Under persecution, Christians retreat to the catacombs and look like ordinary folk when they go to work, buy food and participate in cultural activities. Our community life as contemplatives can be spent temporarily with those with whom we come into contact in ordinary life. Their capacity for community, as ours, is limited. Not too much can be expected. We can only give so much before getting it thrown back in our faces. My monastery is where I live, the work I do and my privileged moments of retreat in the chapel or out in nature, whether in the boat or on foot.
It all depends on ourselves, none other. Simple as that…
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Erratum: I am not as informed about Clear Creek Abbey as I thought. I have just received this message in a private e-mail:
I have visited Clear Creek as a lay retreatant on three occasions and I am writing to correct one mistake that you (or some source of yours) made about the developments of community in that region:
The monks do not sell land to neighboring lay persons. To the extent that lay persons have moved to the area to be near the monastery, they have purchased land from the Baptists or whoever were the native inhabitants of the place; they have not bought it from the monks. Insofar as Dreher and others write about the “Clear Creek neighborhood,” it is a notional space that includes people who drive as far as 40 minutes to attend Mass. It includes very few people who live close enough to walk to the monastery on any regular basis.