April 2, 2016

My Understanding of the Benedict Option

It can never be too strongly emphasized that the crisis which Western man is undergoing today is a metaphysical one; there is probably no more dangerous illusion that that of imagining that some readjustment of social or institutional conditions could suffice of itself to appease a contemporary sense of disquiet which rises, in fact, from the very depths of man’s being. - Gabriel Marcel
What follows is a ramble. It may make more or less sense to the reader, but it is more intended as a spillover for my own thoughts.

While I am not sure of the progenitor of the idea, Rod Dreher, writer for The American Conservative (among other outlets) and author of several books (such as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life) is surely the greatest cheerleader for what has become known as "The Benedict Option." The precise contours of the Benedict Option are a subject of ongoing discussion and clarification, but it takes its cue from Alasdair MacIntyre's critiques in After Virtue. In Dreher's words:
The “Benedict Option” refers to Christians in the contemporary West who cease to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of American empire, and who therefore are keen to construct local forms of community as loci of Christian resistance against what the empire represents. Put less grandly, the Benedict Option — or “Ben Op” — is an umbrella term for Christians who accept MacIntyre’s critique of modernity, and who also recognize that forming Christians who live out Christianity according to Great Tradition requires embedding within communities and institutions dedicated to that formation.
The Benedict Option has spawned a range of discussion and criticism - from those who argue that the withdrawal from the world associated with St. Benedict of Nursia (which action Dreher vigorously disputes) is the incorrect stance for Christians in modern times, to those who accuse the project of being ill-defined, to those who argue that St. Benedict is not the saint whom we should emulate.

I have read a great deal of Dreher's (and other's) comments on the Benedict Option. Apparently, Dreher is working on a book which will explain it in greater detail. However, I think I can analogize it to the journey of the Nine Walkers, particularly Sam and Frodo, but involving the others at times as well. With the awareness that Tolkien detested allegory, I believe the Lord of the Rings can illustrate how the Benedict Option might work in ideal, if not in practice.

For those familiar with the Lord of the Rings (if you aren't...you should be - and stop reading now...spoiler alert), Frodo and Sam, due to Frodo's possession of the One Ring (received from Bilbo) leave Hobbiton and go on a journey, eventually carrying the One Ring to be destroyed in Orodruin. Along the journey, naturally, they meet both enemies and friends.

In fact, at one point, early in the journey while still in the Shire, the four Hobbits (Frodo, Sam, Merry, & Pippen) are rescued (so to speak) from a Nazgul by the appearance of journeying elves. Soon after, at supper, one elf (Gildor Inglorion) says to Frodo: "The Wandering Companies shall know of your journey, and those that have power for good shall be on the watch." Similarly, Elrond says, when they begin the "official" journey to Mount Doom: "You will meet many foes, some open, and some disguised; and you may find friends upon your way when you least look for it."

As they journey, the various characters that make up the adventure end up at different "stops" along the way. Each stop is an island in a gathering storm - Gandalf notes that, if the One Ring stays at rest in Rivendell, "sooner or later Rivendell will be besieged, and after a brief and bitter time it will be destroyed."

These islands are not all alike - some are locations simply of men - others more mystical. I include in this (for lack of an "official" list): the early elf meeting above Woodhall, Farmer Maggot's home, Tom Bombadil's home, The Prancing Pony / Bree, Rivendell, Lorien, Osgiliath, Rohan, Fangorn, and Minas Tirith. There may be others which I have missed, but this is at least a nearly-complete list. Each place is different - even the realms of the elves - Rivendell and Lorien, different greatly from one another - both in type and in grandeur. What is notable, seemingly partaking of a sort of "hero's journey," is that, at each island, the journeymen may: be given advice and counsel and hope and warning, be tested, learn wisdom, receive traveling companions, receive armor and weaponry. This is in addition to any mentors the journeymen may encounter at these islands, or receive as companions from the islands.

What else is remarkable about these islands is that they are dedicated to preservation / conservation of traditional ways of life, and dedicated to an idea of the True Good, each in their own way. As Aragorn converses with Barliman Butterbur, the innkeeper of the Prancing Pony in Bree, they reveal this orientation:
'They come from Mordor,' said Strider in a low voice.... 
'Save us!' cried Mr. Butterbur turning pale.... 'That is the worst news that has come to Bree in my time.' 
'It is,' said Frodo. 'Are you still willing to help me?'
'I am,' said Mr. Butterbur. 'More than ever. Though I don't know what the likes of me can do against, against —' he faltered.
'Against the Shadow in the East,' said Strider quietly. 'Not much, Barliman, but every little helps. 
The majority of the islands mentioned, even Osgiliath, which harbors Faramir's band, are places of long-standing cultural importance, and occasionally, places of deep learning and wisdom, apart from any who may reside there. The reasons they are able to provide the travelers with strength, wisdom, and hope is precisely because of their deep-rooted traditions and because of their dedication to preserving them. Without such islands, there could be no help for the hero - no wisdom, advice, mentorship, etc.

This is how I conceive of communities following a Benedict Option idea. They must become islands in a storm for those weary of the world. Yet, their purpose is not to provide a permanent retreat from the world, but a place for those living out Christ's Great Commandment to rest, to take counsel and to give it, to discuss around fires and in the light how best to renew the world. Then travelers must depart, knowing they leave a place of safety and belief, but also knowing such places await behind and in front. As Gandalf notes when he returns from the dead and is taken to Lorien:
Thus it was that I came to Caras Galadhon and found you but lately gone. I tarried there in the ageless time of that land where days bring healing not decay. Healing I found, and I was clothed in white. Counsel I gave and counsel took.
And so, these communities are dedicated to making Christians of people - Christians with knowledge, wisdom, Faith, courage, and preparedness. Christ was the original progenitor of the Benedict Option, when:
These twelve Jesus sent out, charging them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And preach as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without pay, give without pay. Take no gold, nor silver, nor copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor a staff; for the laborer deserves his food. And whatever town or village you enter, find out who is worthy in it, and stay with him until you depart.  As you enter the house, salute it. And if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. And if any one will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly, I say to you, it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomor′rah than for that town.
“Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men; for they will deliver you up to councils, and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear testimony before them and the Gentiles. When they deliver you up, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will deliver up brother to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved. When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel, before the Son of man comes. Matthew 10 5-23.
And so the purpose of forming communities is to become both beacons and oases, calls to the weary and the wayfarer. Places that will be worthy houses of peace amidst the storm, of which one surely gathers even now.

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