The Benedict Option and the Lay Vocation

“[Monasteries] kept the world’s diary, faced the plagues of all flesh, taught the first technical arts, preserved the pagan literature, and above all, by a perpetual patchwork of charity, kept the poor from the most distant sight of their modern despair.” – G.K. Chesterton

The Benedict Option is, like so many saintly practices, both a philosophical riddle and a practical riddle. The philosophical riddle is easier to see but harder to solve, while the practical riddle is almost impossible to see yet laughably simple in its solution. The philosophical riddle of the Benedict Option is given its clearest (and most compact) expression in the 263 pages of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. Prof. MacIntyre charts a history of philosophy that is as upsetting as it is interesting, arriving in our age of tremendous spiritual, moral and philosophical confusion. He concludes by telling his reader, “We are not waiting for Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.”

MacIntyre proposes a return to the sources of Western Civilization—Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas—and hopes that our civilization may rebuild itself in the framework of a forgotten tradition. This happened once before, when St. Benedict kept the splendor of Western Civilization within the walls of Monte Cassino. This new Benedictine task, insists MacIntyre must be carried out by people who do not simply ignore, or seek to escape from, the problems of modernity, but who are so intimately familiar with them that they can reveal modern philosophy’s most damning failures to modern philosophy’s most enthusiastic evangelists. Anyone who has debated a professional philosopher on any common sense topic will appreciate the difficultly of this task.

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The difficulty besetting the practical riddle of the Benedict Option is confusion as to what it actually is. There are those who practice it, unaware that they are doing so. There are others who claim to be practicing it, but remain distant from its true meaning. In this second respect, the Benedict Option suffers from the same plague as Catholicism.

An example of this confusion is found in an article by Mr. Rod Dreher, published in the December issue of The American Conservative, highlighting small lay communities of traditional Catholics who have attempted to repeat the feat of St. Benedict by retreating to live near monasteries or cathedrals in the American Heartland. From the content of the article, it is unclear if Mr. Dreher knows what the Benedict Option is. It is certain, however, that his journalistic subjects haven’t a clue.

Saint Benedict writes in his famous Rule: “ ‘Narrow is the way that leads to life’ (Matt. 7:14), so that, not living according to their own choice nor obeying their own desires and pleasures but walking by another’s judgment and command, they dwell in monasteries and desire to have an Abbot over them,” Mr. Dreher, at the end of his exposition, concludes: “Benedict Option settlements have to be both relatively open to the world and vigilant about respecting personal liberty.”

This outright contradiction follows inevitably from the split purposes and vocational confusion found at Clear Creek and Eagle River, the two lay settlements profiled. On the one hand, “There’s a whole culture war going on and a series of disappointments with the Catholic Church in America,” says Abbott Phil Anderson, explaining the appeal of Clear Creek. The families who live there want to preserve something of a traditional morality. While, the families of Eagle River have “a desire to hold on to the normal, human community that existed everywhere until the modern era.”

On the other hand, the total seclusion of monasticism can be taxing. “If you isolate yourself,” said Father Marc Dunaway, the spiritual leader of Eagle River, “you will become weird.” Mr. Dreher mentions that the “monks of (Benedict’s) order took a vow of ‘stability,’ meaning they were sworn to stay in that place until they died, (therefore) Benedictine monasteries emerged as islands of sanity and serenity.” But the lay communities he profiles are surrounded with the most permeable of membranes. While their homes are typically set out from the nearest town, Clear Creek’s members are free to work in the city or go to social engagements. At Eagle River, members are as likely to see each other at church as they are at the supermarket. There is at once, both a desire for the peace of the monastic life and a hesitancy to embrace the constraints that ensure that peace.

Let us back up. Clear Creek Abbey is home to “more than 40 white-robed monks.” The Clear Creek Community, which occupies the surrounding countryside, is home to “about 100” people. Eagle River, considerably farther north in Alaska, is an Orthodox Christian community of “about 70 families” all living “within a mile of St. John’s (Cathedral).” Both communities are seen by insiders and outsiders alike as being set apart for religious purposes. But despite this acknowledged purpose, both communities are flexible on what responsibilities the members are actually subject to.

“If you love the monks and want to go to mass everyday, you can, but if not, nobody’s critical,” said Clear Creek member Andrew Pudewa. “There’s very much a live and let live attitude around here.” This flexibility (or rather flimsiness) is also found at Eagle River, where they “don’t live in a community with a formal structure.” Rather, its “members mostly work around the Anchorage area and see each other at worship, at the parish school, or at social events.”

So, if they lack the usual trappings of monasticism, such as the vow of stability and obligatory prayer, what exactly prompted these lay people to form the communities of Clear Creek and Eagle River? Recall that Abbot Phil Anderson alluded to the “culture wars” of contemporary America. Mr. Dreher, for his part, sees these communities as undertaking a “communal withdrawal from the mainstream, for the sake of sheltering one’s faith and family from corrosive modernity and cultivating a more traditional way of life.”

The question is: Is this the Benedict Option? The answer is: no. First and foremost there is the obvious point. The members of Clear Creek and Eagle River are not monks. Their lack of organized prayer life betrays this fact. While the laity of the Church may be confused as to the nature of vocation, they ought to know that a married man, such as Mr. Andrew Pudewa, is not called to live out a monastic life. Simply storming the altar and reciting the Eucharistic prayer does no more to turn a man into a priest than does moving next to an abbey turn a man into a monk, much less a Benedictine. To paraphrase a great man, standing in a garage doesn’t turn you into a car. If taking the Benedict Option means a strict imitation of Benedict’s move to the wilderness, then it is an option to be taken only by monks.

The reason for this limitation is that lay people, at least the subjects of Mr. Dreher’s journalism, don’t understand the nature of a move into the monastery. Mr. Dreher speaks of the Benedict Option as a strategic retreat, akin to taking a break during a taxing argument with a secular sibling. However, the Benedict Option, as lived by Benedict himself was not a movement of weak nerves, but rather the movement of a strong heart.

In his classic work The Fathers of the Church, Mike Aquilina writes: “Amid the societal disorder following the empire’s dissolution, the contemplative life appeared oddly attractive to more men and women…. For a growing number, this “flight” was merely an escape from responsibilities and hardship…. But that was certainly not the case with Benedict.”

Rather than retreat, the father of monasticism ran, and ran forward, with all due haste to his, and our, Father. This act has been repeated innumerable times when a man walks off an airplane after an extended absence only to find his welcoming young son clinging tightly to his knees. It is plain that the child ran towards his father, not away from his mother. Just so did Benedict run to God, rather than away from the world. It is the difference between saying “yes” with one’s whole being and saying “no.” It is only in running to his father that the boy shows his love for both parents. It was only in running to God that Benedict could show his love for God’s creation.

The reason Benedict’s monasteries were the source from which Western culture erupted is that they held within their walls this childlike glee. The “Benedict Option then is not a retreat into a cave, but an advance down the barrel of a shotgun. At the choke of the gun, all the heated energy of the blast, all the particles of ammunition, all the forward momentum are temporarily squeezed together. It is a place of compactness and concentration, not unlike the four walls of Monte Cassino. But from this incredibly small space bursts forth a powerful spray, affecting everything in its widening path. The monks, like the shot, are potent because they have been pushed by fire and because they are at their best when they are salt.

The practical riddle of the Benedict Option finds its solution in one-mindedness. Benedict, in sharp contrast to the subjects of Mr. Dreher’s essay, had no concern for how the strictness of his rule was accepted. Twice did he flee after surviving an attempted assassination at the hands of his monks. What is more, he only went to the monasteries because he was begged to lead them. Once there, he only cared for the formation of monks in the practice of obedience to God. In other words, he didn’t worry if he was seen as “weird,” nor did he see himself as preserving the Western world. He didn’t see himself as carrying out a “Benedict Option.”

Cultural Retreat Is Not a Lay Option
Now, I get the allure of cultural retreat. In the Twin Cities, where I live, in the summer of 2013, Minnesota Public Radio devoted significant financial resources and airtime to cover a “sex-abuse scandal” in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Soon other media outlets followed suit and one couldn’t turn on the television or open a newspaper without encountering new allegations, another leaked document or some alleged victim crying in front of a camera. Following this came legal action, carried out by local attorney Jeff Anderson, a man who made his fortune from damages “recovered” from the pocket-books of priests.

Of course the question came: “Should we fight this or just go underground?” To my own mind, the case for going underground was more tactically clever. Like Karol Wojtyla in Krakow, Twin Cities Catholics could hide from the public eye for a few years and then reemerge into the public square with tremendous strength and vitality. The only problem was; questions of tactics are not questions of truth. Fr. Bob Schreiner, Chancellor and Director of the Office of the New Evangelization for the Diocese of Crookston, set me straight. “It is the nature of the Gospel to be proclaimed,” he told me. The corollary is that a cultural retreat, taken simply as a retreat, is not an act of proclamation.

Like Christ the Church, after the dark times, will rise up again. But like Christ, the Church will suffer. The movement of monks to the monastery and the movement of the laity into the public square are both crosses to be borne. The Benedict Option is not a vocational escape pod. Vocation will always bring the question of Christ: “Father, let this cup pass … but thy will be done.”

To find out what God wants, and to truly imitate St. Benedict, we must go to the substance and not the accidents of his life. The true Benedict Option is not a flight but a fight. It is a fight to be waged in the heart of every Catholic. It is a fight to undertake two strenuous tasks with humility and love: Ora et labora. Pray and work.

Editor’s note: The image above is a fresco in the Great Cloister at Monte Oliveto Maggiore (Tuscany) entitled “Benedictine Monks from the Life of St. Benedict” painted by L. Signorelli (1441-1523) and G. Sodoma (1477-1549).


  • John T. Goerke

    John T. Goerke is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in the field of Catholic Studies at the University of Saint Thomas in St. Paul, MN. He blogs at Juicy for the Institute on Religion and Democracy.

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