The Benedict Option Reframed

Some evangelical bloggers are discussing something they call The Benedict Option, and it leaves an Anglican like me puzzled.

The Benedict Option is based on the notion that society is degenerating into moral chaos and it’s time for real Christians to save themselves from utter corruption by withdrawing into their own communities.  They liken it to St. Benedict fleeing corrupt Roman society and establishing his monastery on Mount Subiaco, creating a fortress of the faithful remnant – “The Benedict Option”.

This puzzles me.  The Anglican wing of Christianity, of which my church is a member, has been infused with Benedictine spirituality for centuries, and this is not our understanding of Benedict or his spirit.  Benedict was hardly an escapist, or an isolationist.

Benedict’s spirit was very much involved in the workings of everyday life.  It is about the fusion of a life of prayer and a life of work (ora et labora); it is about communal stability; it is about obedience to God; personal transformation; humility and hospitality; care for the poor, sick, and lonely; a life of love for God and others, centered on Jesus Christ.  It is hardly about ghetto-izing yourself.

No doubt, Benedict started his vocation by going down into to the caves, but he did not stay there.  Eventually, he came out and started his little community.  And, as time went on, he and his monks learned more about what did and did not work while trying to live out the Way of Jesus in community. They evolved; sometimes the hard way.

One thing they learned is a truth best articulated by the great American philosopher, Yogi Berra, who said, “No matter where you go, there you are.”  Human nature is one of the Christian disciple’s biggest enemies, and even when we shut off ourselves from the world in our own little ghetto, we simply bring human nature with us.  The Benedictines, and much of Christianity, learned that the hard way, unfortunately – started as fortresses of the faithful remnant, their monasteries became bloated fiefdoms of wealth and corruption.  Other mediaeval saints such as Francis and Dominic rose to prominence by critiquing the mistake of what evangelical bloggers today call “The Benedict Option” – isolation and insularity from the very world Jesus wants us to evangelize.  The great monastic communities of Europe disappeared, collapsing under their own weight.  They had to repent and change to survive.

The Benedict spirit very much lives on in the Anglican world.  We maintain our neighborhood parishes and refuse to abandon the abandoned corners of empire, where we continue the work of prayer, personal transformation, and hospitality.  We do not escape to gated communities; we help save and stabilize the ones we live in.  That is our “Benedict Option”.  We live in the world to be salt and light to the world – it is the Way of Jesus, and Benedict would approve.  It would be a mistake to repeat the same errors of Benedict, and pass up all his wisdom.


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