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.

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.

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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.
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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.

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Finally, we need the “neo-barbarians” that so persecute us. Many fervent Christians 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.

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