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What Is the Benedict Option, and Why Might It Be Coming to Your Neighborhood?

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John Burger - published on 05/11/16

Not an escape, Rod Dreher says, but a chance for Christians to regroup

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For the most part, Christians have had a happy — some would even say “privileged” — time of it in America, where Christianity and Christian churches were essentially left alone as they freely exercised their religion within society both privately and, up until recently, in partnership with the government.

Well, that was then, and this is now. The very effective cooperative partnership that existed between the U. S. government and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops to serve victims of human trafficking was ended due to the Obama administration’s insistence that contraception and abortion be included in any assistance provided to victims. Some cities have seen Catholic adoption services come to an end because they cannot conform to anti-discrimination laws that, in legal suit after suit, are adjudicated against religious freedom.

In general, Christians are firmly being told that if they wish to remain in the public square and involved in social services, parades, or business enterprises of any kind, they will have to sacrifice their values and teachings to the shifting morals of the times and resultant regulations, or be ready to give up their business and abandon their missions.

The time of “privilege” appears to be over. Christians face challenges unimaginable even a decade ago, and must discern new ways of being in a nation that has become hostile to expressions of faith lived outside the sanctuaries and beyond the pews.

One possible response is the so-called Benedict Option, seen as a way to preserve Christian culture in the midst of a world grown increasingly threatening.

Author and columnist Rod Dreher, the leading proponent of the Benedict Option, or BenOp for short, has explained on his blog at The American Conservative website that the idea is based on the final paragraph of philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s 1981 book After Virtue. Describing parallels between modern Western societies and the declining years of the Roman Empire, MacIntyre said that the West needs new, local forms of community “within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages.” The model here is the sixth-century St. Benedict, whose monasteries were just such places.

Dreher has identified a number of communities and initiatives around the country that he sees as good examples of the BenOp being implemented. One of them is the community growing up around the Benedictine monastery of Clear Creek, Oklahoma. One of the residents there, Andrew Pudewa, is hosting a conference about the Benedict Option this month, and Dreher will be speaking. Promotional material for the conference, The Idea of a Village: Seeking the Restoration of Christian Culture, is instructive:

In the time of the collapse of the Roman Empire, Christians gathered around the communities of religious in monasteries of the Benedictine tradition for spiritual succor and stability. Likewise, many of today’s Christians, discouraged by the corruption of our own declining empire, desire a similar spiritual support. Some of these families have informally settled around Clear Creek Abbey, a thriving monastery of Benedictine monks, and are, in the words of Abbot Philip Anderson, O.S.B., seeking “to recommence the business of building a just and healthy form of social life, from the ground up.” While some have heard of this idea as “the Benedict Option,” it might more simply be thought of as the pursuit of sanity in a world gone crazy.

“Formally speaking, there are no ‘primary organizers’ of the community that is forming, little by little, around our abbey,” Father Anderson said in an interview. “From the beginning, we monks wanted to avoid planning a lay community, allowing, rather, that to happen naturally, organically, if it would.”

Father Anderson said that there are 37 households living near the abbey now. Pudewa and his wife and family have been there since 2009. They always sought out places that fostered a sense of community and had lived in several places around the country and abroad, including some experimental communities.

“When we came to visit it looked like this could meet all of our requisites—a Christian community, rural, a relatively safer part of the country, conservative, and a place where it’s easy to grow a business and thrive,” he said. “What I would kind of see as our village idea, in a way, isn’t to just escape the ugliness of worldliness—because you can’t really ever escape that, no matter how far out you go—but it is to cultivate a life of peace and faith and community that can nurture people who may then go out into the world and do things.”

What brings everyone together? For Pudewa, it’s the abbey, which is clearly the focal point and source of spiritual strength.

“Without the monastery, there would be no reason to be here because this is the land of ticks and chiggers and cottonmouths and copperheads and brutally hot summers and storms and tornadoes,” he said. “One thing every family seems to go through is trials and tribulations. You move out here and you will be tested.”

Pudewa, founder and director of the Institute for Excellence in Writing, said that a lot of prospective residents are drawn by the abbey’s orthodoxy and rigorous adherence to liturgical norms. “There’s never going to be anything goofy at the monastery,” he said. “The abbot, the hierarchy, the total dedication of the monks to the monastic life and holiness and the Benedictine rule and work and prayer—that’s the example that in a lay person’s way we wish we could emulate.”

For Pudewa’s neighbor, Michael Lawless, an engineering consultant for medical device companies, the prospect of recovering an agrarian way of life was a major attraction.

“If you go off to work, your family never sees you in that work environment,” Lawless said. “The family life and professional life are fully separated by a commute.”

So the Lawless family, which bought 220 acres in the area  and is raising cattle, hopes that what is now a “homesteading project” will eventually grow into an income-generating farm.

Lawless also sees the abbey as vital to the community.

“Many people have attempted to create Christian communities, Catholic communities,” he said. “And most have failed. By having an unorganized community around a monastery, the monastery creates stability.”

A community of a different sort, which Dreher also upholds as a kind of Benedictine Option model, is the Anselm Society, a project of Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Collaborating with other churches in the area, Anselm sponsors public education and supports artists, all in hopes of engendering a “renaissance of the Christian imagination.”

“Over and over, we see that the biggest problem in even the healthiest churches here, where kids are being raised well in the faith, is that the rhythms of kids’ lives are not being shaped by anything related to Church,” said executive director Brian Brown. “They’re being shaped by the rat race, by the constant pressure to get the kid into college, whatever it may be. We have ‘liturgies’ that are formed by checking our smartphone for Facebook every hour, that are far more formative than the liturgy of our religion that’s supposed to be the center of our lives.”

One way the Anselm Society hopes to help change that is by “creating the next generation of Christian art and literature, the notion of having shared stories or art or music that’s a product of your tradition and your community that says something about who you are and teaches the next generation of who you are,” Brown said.

On a much smaller scale—and less of an “organization”—is a personal approach to the BenOp being undertaken by a Catholic lay woman. Leah Libresco, a convert from atheism and a writer, explained in a recent talk that after graduating from college she was looking for a way to deepen her faith and form better community relationships. Then talk of the BenOp came onto her radar screen, and she was intrigued. But she noticed that lots of people discussing the Benedict Option were talking in terms of grand projects that would take years to implement.

“I wanted to try to think of ways we could build Christian community in small ways and in the near future,” she said. She tried thinking of “interesting and useful things I could do in this spirit of building up community, of finding places to live Christian life together that strengthen us as Christians and that let us strengthen each other.”

She began by inviting friends over to her DC apartment for dinners once a month. The evenings included time for prayer and discussion. The group, which has grown to about 50 people, also gets together for book discussions, debates, play readings and other activities. Not everyone comes at the same time.

As the community was coming together, they tried to determine who has resources to help build up the group: some had large living rooms, others liked to cook, others had cars. One man piped up that he is clinically depressed, and that that might be a resource if someone wanted to talk about it. “Then others offered things that were difficult for them, such as eating disorders or alcoholism,” Libresco said. “Seeing people offer their cross as a gift is everything you could ever ask for.”

Libresco’s “little way” of a Benedict Option provides a good model for people to follow, if they don’t have the resources to start or move to a community such as Clear Creek.

And while Alasdair MacIntyre has become a sort of patron saint of the Benedict Option, the Anselm Society’s Brian Brown identified someone from an earlier age who predicted such a movement might take place: the English poet T. S. Eliot. In his 1937 work The Idea of a Christian Society, Eliot looked at the choice between pretending that nothing has changed since the Middle Ages and completely conforming to the world around you. “He said the way forward it neither of these,” Brown said. “The way forward has to be finding a third option that recognizes the realities around it but still manages to hold fast to what matters most to its traditions.

“That’s kind of the line we’re trying to walk, challenging people to organize their lives around things that really matter,” Brown said. “I think Anselm’s most significant contribution so far is shaping the imagination, so that if a person has changed imagination he has changed values, which in turn is going to have influence on the next generation of priests. Someone who’s a 10-year-old now is going to be raised in a different church environment than his parents were, valuing different things, understanding his tradition better, and having a better ability to be a better steward of the institutional legacy.”

[Editor’s Note: Take the Poll – The Benedict Option]

John Burgeris Aleteia’s news editor.

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