In the last week, you may have heard the phrase “the Benedict Option.” It was coined by the Christian commentator Rod Dreher in reference to Alasdair MacIntyre’s assertion in his seminal work After Virtue that in the midst of ideological and moral confusion, we need a new Saint Benedict to build communities of ecclesial culture and learning. Many are saying that the time has come for Christians to retreat and withdraw from the culture in order to regroup. They sense that it is better to engage the culture from a position of strength than a position of anemia and weakness, and while the talk of withdrawal may be overblown, the idea is that in hastening our exile from the spheres of influence, the Church has the opportunity to shed the moorings of cultural Christianity and build a robust witness. Damon Linker writes that the Benedict Option is:
the idea of traditionalist Christians choosing to step back from the now-futile political projects and ambitions of the past four decades to cultivate and preserve a robustly Christian subculture within an increasingly hostile common culture.
As many have pointed out, including Christian Smith, the generation of younger Christians have been undone by modern heresies – what Smith calls “Therapeutic Moralistic Deism” (God helps me be a better person). Others, like Thomas Bergler, have said that over the past 60+ years, American Christianity has become “juvenilized” to the point of being unrecognizable as traditional Christianity. These cannot be opposed to the rising currents of death and licentiousness because they have been swept away by those currents themselves, and will ultimately be cast upon the rocks in their inability to swim upstream.
What we have is a culture problem.
The Benedict Option
The Benedict Option envisions the need for communities like the Benedictines of old to preserve the old ways in the midst of a ruinous and dilapidated culture. For my part, I find it fascinating and exciting at the same time. I see that young people are forming these small communities of prayer and fellowship already. Just this morning, I read Morning Prayer with a group of students at our local university who have pledged to pray for each other and support one another in their Christian lives. They pray Morning Prayer every weekday, and have for several months. They are not so concerned with being a counter-culture, but with being an “alternative” culture, indeed a life-giving culture. I see also the movement of Christians seeking to form community quite outside of conventional norms. They believe that there is something inadequate about a parish church you visit once or twice a week. They want to establish ecclesial community in the places they live, work, and study. They want to rediscover the heritage of the domestic church.
While Saint Benedict seems to me to be as apt a patron of this movement as anyone else, and by the way, get hold of After Virtue – it’s a classic! – he was not alone in his project. He was part of a whole generation of Christians who had been formed by a culture of catechesis in the ancient Church. In that vein, I’d suppose that Ambrose, or Augustine, or Cyril of Jerusalem, or St. John Chrysostom, or Maximos the Confessor would do just as well! The Ancient Catechumenate attempted and succeeded in eclipsing the Roman world even and especially as it was collapsing. This was the project, as Saint Augustine called it, of the City of God, in which the collapse of Rome was insignificant, for a new and greater city was forming. Augustine carried this out in practice as a catechist, one completely committed to forming and instructing pagans into citizens of this new Kingdom. The Ancient Catechumenate included rites, norms, and a body of knowledge meant to establish and continue an ecclesial culture which could endure just as the secular culture was falling in on itself. Augustine and indeed every great catechist of the ancient Church aimed their labors at producing mature Christians capable of taking the Church with them wherever they went.
For my own part, the Benedict Option includes all of this and more. By Christians articulating with clarity an identity and culture which is distinct from the age, and no longer concerned with keeping it from falling off a cliff (which was, in hindsight, a rather naive enterprise to begin with), the Church can once again be “in the world but not of it.”
This cultural project will require firstly, that pastors and teachers commit themselves to instructing the Church and those coming to faith for the first time with doctrinal clarity and precision. It will involve clarity in both the face-to-face incarnational exchanges as well as a project of the pen – writing new volumes, just as Saint Augustine did, to continually clarify and enunciate the distinctiveness of Christian believing to a pagan world.
Discipline of Prayer
Second, it will involve the immersion of the Church in a disciplined life of prayer. Recently, one teenager who had been recruited online by ISIS operatives, claimed to the New York Times that she enjoyed the formality of Islamic prayers, finding that the Christian ability to pray “anywhere at anytime” seemed informal to the point of impiety. We Christians have a rich heritage of spiritual direction and ascesis. If we are to invite the coming generations to radical faithfulness, we must invite them to radically disciplined and radically mystical prayer. We Anglicans would do well to revitalize the practice of the Daily Office not only in parish chapels, but in living rooms, dorm rooms, and in all the places our people dwell. We pastors must make the transition (a difficult one) from being executives to being spiritual directors and, like the Desert Fathers, fountains of wisdom and prayer. The catechists of old were intent on this work – and they raised up communities just like that of Saint Benedict.
Catechesis Formed Communities
Third, the Benedict Option will require catechesis which forms close-knit communities of Christian practice and behavior. The modern epidemic of isolation and loneliness is horribly intimidating. Modern Church life struggles to overcome the inclination of our people to privacy and worse, seclusion. But, overcome it we must. Christian virtue is formed by the work of the Holy Spirit in and through vital Christian fellowship – a closeness of life which results in generations of Christians who have not only the resources, but the courage, to live lives of faithfulness in the midst of a culture which sees them as their enemies.
I must note, in closing, that some have expressed concern over whether or not the Benedict Option can rightly be called an “option.” They wonder if, for faithful orthodox Christians, it is an option, but rather our unavoidable fate. This is undoubtedly true. Our only prospect is martyrdom, pure and simple. All others will have chosen apostasy. But, for now, while we have it, this way of witness and life is an option, and one that, speaking for myself, my family, and my church, we are already joyfully taking!
The Rev. Lee Nelson, S.S.C. is a priest, church-planter, and catechist. He is currently planting churches in Waco and College Station, Texas with the aim of making disciples on college campuses through the planting of Anglican churches. For the last several years, he has served on the Catechesis Task Force of the Anglican Church in North America which produced To Be a Christian, an Anglican Catechism. As a part of this work, he is currently developing a catechetical consulting practice, aimed at coaching and training clergy and laypeople for the work of catechesis.