The Benedict Option Without Benedict

The Technologically Backward and Cold Romans

“Saint Benedict did not peacefully live out his life in the wilderness detached from society. He never did write off decadent Rome.”

Many conservatives are facing the brutal reality of a culture that undermines their Faith and destroys their values. Not a few have made the logical comparison to the Christians facing both the Roman Empire’s decadent “establishment” and the ruthlessly aggressive ways of the barbarians who threatened to destroy what remained of civilization.

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And so, the tendency of modern Christians is to write off today’s establishment and neo-barbarians. Our decadent establishment has facilitated the culture of death by supporting abortion laws and other modern evils. Today’s wired neo-barbarians in their turn have departed from Christian norms and adopted aggressive attitudes and lifestyles that threaten our own, which can be especially seen from the constant attacks on the traditional family.

That is why many say the only thing to be done is to admit defeat and strategically retreat into close-knit communities in which they might intensify their Christian Faith. Writer Rod Dreher has called such retreats the Benedict Option since it seems to imitate the strategy of Saint Benedict of Nursia who in the sixth century withdrew to live an intensely liturgical life in isolated communities far from both decadent Rome and raging barbarians.

It is true that Saint Benedict did gather together monks and established a rule centered on the liturgy. As the founder of Western monasticism, he laid the foundation of Christendom. But if there was someone who did not exercise the Benedict Option, it was Saint Benedict himself.


Saint Benedict did not peacefully live out his life in the wilderness detached from society. He never did write off decadent Rome.

It must be admitted that in the beginning, he did try to flee civilization. He became a hermit and gradually attracted followers from which he established small monasteries in the rocky and inaccessible valley of Subiaco.

Saint Benedict learned the hard way that he could not isolate himself from the decadent culture, which would not leave him alone. The horrors from which he fled followed him to the isolated valley. Some of his monks rebelled and tried to poison him. A group of impure women entered to tempt the monks. Saint Benedict exercised another option and returned to civilization.

He soon established his main monastery in Monte Cassino, which was on one of the great highways to southern Italy. This brought the place into frequent communication with the outside pagan world. Saint Benedict confronted and actively engaged the culture. In fact, he himself overthrew the idols in the region and converted the population to the Faith. He built Monte Cassino on the site of a pagan temple, and composed there his famous Rule to govern his communities.

His monasteries not only defied the dominant decadent culture but actually became centers of influence and culture themselves wherever they were established. Even in Benedict’s time, the monks established schools for the poor, developed agriculture and preached to the people. At the same time, however, Benedictine monasteries, including Monte Cassino, never lived happily ever after in peace since they had to ward off the constant attacks of barbarians and adversaries.

The lessons we can learn from this are many.

The first is that there is nothing wrong with living in a rural area or developing an intense spiritual life. Vibrant and faith-filled families and communities are much needed in the fight against our decadent culture.

However, the focus of our actions should be outward not just inward. All these measures should be seen as means toward securing the goal of our salvation and the building of a culture that facilitates, not conspires against, our sanctification.

The second lesson is that we cannot escape from our decadent culture. Like Saint Benedict, evil influences will always come looking for us. We must always defend ourselves against the evils of the day, resigned to the fact that good Christians will never be left in peace. The best defense is a well-planned offense.

Finally, we need the “neo-barbarians” that so persecute us. Many fervent free subscriptionChristians today are those who were once “neo-barbarians” in the sense that they formerly embraced the culture of death. They saw the futility of our postmodernity and enthusiastically entered the Faith. Indeed, the Church never wrote off “barbarians” but went out in search of them. We should do the same. It is in the clash of the cultures that we can expect the conversion of many of them and the strengthening of our own Faith.

We can thank God that Saint Benedict did not exercise the so-called Benedict Option. Had he done so, history could well have been different.

As seen on cnsnews.com

 

  • The rule of hospitality stays necessary.

    • no more mr. nice guy

      Never play nice with evil!

  • Fernanda

    Well said. I totally agree. Good Catholics should always be seeking to engage the people around them. It starts with getting integrated into parish life (however imperfect that “life” may be and however strongly you feel you can “do it better” with just your family), and works outward from there.

  • Paul Tran

    Even if we were to retreat where would we retreat to ? our Church is also afflicted with a sense of moral flux with progressives like Cardinal Kasper, cardinal Marx, Bishop Koch and Bishop Galantino amongst the midst. We have no choice but to engage them & make a stance for what we believe in.

  • dcepa

    Being
    a Christian is less about cautiously avoiding sin than about
    courageously and actively doing God’s will………….Eric Metaxas

  • scott

    I’m thrilled to see such a well thought out article on a much debated subject. The reading that I have come across on the so-called “Benedict option” looks like more than a retreat if given some thought. There is absolutely no way to be certain how long a retreat would last, which would then turn inadvertently to an outright refusal to live the words of Christ’s command to convert all nations. I understand the exhaustion that many families are facing in trying to hold the front lines against a culture that abhors the one true faith, but this strategy is an anti-gospel for families to try and live.

  • doomsdae

    So no matter how you look at history, it keeps repeating itself. The persecution of Christians, the conversion of barbarians…………. We will have Peace and its not going to be here on Earth….

    • no more mr. nice guy

      Why doesn’t evil fear good?

  • Ethel Grimes

    Many thanks for this article! It’s both enlightening and comforting. Admittedly, it would be easy to want to “go live in a cave”, as it were; but this is not what we are called to. As Paul stated, we have not just the “pagans and barbarians” to contend with, but those within our own churches and ministries…not to mention, our own fallen natures. As Mahatma Ghandi once said, “Be the change you wish to see in this world.”

  • Pam

    Jesus told us were to be “salt and light.” Also, a lamp does not have a basket put over the top of it to hide its light. Jesus didn’t stay in heaven, wring His hands over the plight of mankind, and stay sitting on His comfortable throne. He came out to us and confronted evil, head-on. We must do the same.

  • Stephen_Phelan

    Mr. Horvat,

    I generally agree with your perspective on these social and economic questions, and there is a great deal of sanity in your analysis and recommendations.

    But you would do your readers a greater service by presenting Dreher’s argument more completely before presenting your contrary argument, and one that isn’t very contrary at all, to Dreher’s.

    First of all, Dreher arrives at the Option not directly from Saint Benedict but via MacIntyre. Read After Virtue, or at least the last chapter to see the context of Dreher’s starting point. We don’t even have a shared moral vocabulary with our surrounding culture, much less a similar appreciation of the institutions, practices, traditions and other cultural elements required to build an authentic “culture.” If we are to recover a solid foundation that will last beyond the current compromises and confusion, we are actually talking about a new start.

    Second, after glossing over a portion of Dreher’s argument as if it were the whole, you oppose it and then almost immediately affirm the point you opposed. Benedict did, in fact and as you note, retreat for a time and led others to do the same in monasteries and surrounding communities. Some of these monasteries and communities went so far as to build walls around them, and several lasted for a very long time. But granting that rather obvious historical point, what remains of your criticism of Dreher, if his point (which, again, I don’t think you accurately or completely present) was that such strategic retreats might be the way to go?

    Dreher, as far as I understand him (he isn’t doing difficult theology, but his position is much more nuanced than you present here, I just don’t read him all the time), acknowledges that we must engage the culture and that there is no such thing as a complete retreat. So what you present as a serious disagreement really isn’t. You may have a stronger criticism and way of making your point contra Dreher, so I look forward to seeing this. I bet I will continue to agree with you overall, and that Dreher will as well. But let’s engage each other at his strongest point, seriously considering proposals before discounting them.