St. Benedict (March 14)

MEMBERS OF MANY RELIGIOUS GROUPS in the West have become concerned about the number of people divorcing themselves from the religions of their parents or grandparents. Some join other communities but most cease to identify with any religion at all. They identify themselves as “nones” – members of no religion.

An growing number of these “nones” come from minimally observant families who may attend church from time to time but whose religion has little impact in their lives. Their congregations may encourage this kind of minimal observance by functioning more as social clubs than as true faith communities.

Young people who are raised in such families and congregations are especially susceptible to the influences of the wider society, even when its values contradict traditional values drawn from the Scriptures. Modern life in the West is based on a radical individualism in which truth and morality are completely subjective. When people define truth as “what works for me,” they are not likely to submit themselves to any religious tradition.

In this country most people, even the poor, have more at their disposal than the elite of other ages and cultures. We do not feel the need to look to God for “our daily bread” when we have four TVs in the house. In these circumstances people whose only idea of prayer is begging God to meet their needs find they no longer need to beg and, that therefore, they no longer “need” God.

This situation has led some commentators to observe that churches which are just coasting along as social communities simply will not survive in a secular age. They feel that religious people need to construct communities in which they can live out their entire lives formed by their authentic faith and a Christian culture, rather than a media-driven and dysfunctional popular culture.

Some thinkers have found hope in the words of Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. In his 1981 book After Virtue, he compared our age with the last day of the Western Roman Empire when old pagan values were being abandoned. He wrote that “A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead – often not recognizing fully what they were doing — was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness.” 

Based on MacIntyre’s observation, a number of authors have called for Christians of all traditions to adopt what they call the “Benedict Option.” Who is this Benedict and what is his option?

St Benedict of Norcia

The Benedict in question is the father of Western monasticism, St. Benedict of Norcia in southern Italy, whom our Church commemorates on March 14. Born in c. 480 to a noble family he was educated in Rome when its culture was in decline. Over a century before, that city had been replaced as capital of the empire by Constantinople, the Christian “New Rome” built by St Constantine the Great. Old Rome remained a pagan city and its citizens led increasingly empty and dissolute lives. As Pope St Gregory I described it, Benedict “was in the world and was free to enjoy the advantages which the world offers, but drew back his foot which he had, as it were, already set forth in the world… giving over his books, and forsaking his father’s house and wealth, with a mind only to serve God, he sought for some place where he might attain to the desire of his holy purpose; and in this sort he departed [from Rome], instructed with learned ignorance and furnished with unlearned wisdom” (Dialogues, II).

Benedict, along with “a company of virtuous men,” settled in a small town in the mountains above Rome to live in simplicity. He was tonsured as a monk by a monk from a nearby monastery and lived for three years as a hermit in a mountain cave. When the abbot of that monastery died, the community asked Benedict to succeed him.

Benedict established twelve monasteries in the area, but ultimately left to avoid controversy with a neighboring priest. He built a new monastery on the site of a ruined pagan temple at Monte Cassino, which still stands.

Benedict spent the rest of his life forging a monastic rule, based on principles which St John Cassian had absorbed in Palestine and Egypt. Benedict envisioned monasticism essentially as living in community, working and praying together. Monasteries were to develop their own resources so as to be able to help those in need. Monks were to work for the support of the monasteries in any way which did not keep them from the daily services or distract them from their personal life of prayer.

The “Benedict Option”

As the Western empire further disintegrated with the incursions of barbarians, monasteries following St. Benedict’s rule would become increasingly important as anchors of civilization and service to God in a world without them. As Cardinal Newman described that age, “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 had 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, an abbey, a village, a seminary, a school of learning and a city.”

Proponents of the Benedict Option hold that our age needs such anchors: monasteries or churches around which might gather fellowships of believers committed to forming their lives and work on the Gospel, making every other goal in life secondary to serving God. The Benedict Option calls Christians to live in communities centered on the prayer, worship, fellowship and service which characterize a fuller Christian life than is generally available in our world.

Many Christians, especially in the middle class, will find it extremely difficult to live a fuller life of faith. We live in a culture that expects family men and women to work so hard and so long that they have no time, or insufficient time, for religious life. Proponents of the Benedict Option are convinced that such a culture, devoted to materialism and the “better life” will only exterminate faith within its participants and their children.

Eastern Christian Churches are perhaps better equipped than their Western counterparts to become Benedict Option communities, provided that we use the resources already available to us. Parishes need to become the best expression of authentic Eastern Christianity they can be. Our churches need to nurture those disposed to a fuller Christian life through weekday services (vespers, compline, paraclisis, etc.) joined to simple fellowship meals and opportunities for learning and service. Periodic visits to monasteries or shrines support such a commitment. Partnering with other churches to celebrate the Great Feasts or major saints’ days will enrich our own faith life and may draw others to share it. Sharing fellowship and prayer with other congregations, Eastern or Western, may help witness that a fuller Christian life is both possible and rewarding for those who choose to live it.