The Benedict of History versus The Benedict Option

by George Demacopoulos

Rod Dreher’s book The Benedict Option has much to commend it. Among other things, it aptly recognizes that the landscape of American religious practice is rapidly changing and in some depressing ways. It affirms that a faith divorced from real-life practice is useless. And it recognizes that Christians benefit when they mine their ancient traditions. Given this last point, it is particularly unfortunate that the presentation of the actual, historical St. Benedict in The Benedict Option is misleading.

The rhetorical framing of The Benedict Option is that the moral decay of the sixth-century world inhabited by St. Benedict parallels the ills of our own day. As a consequence, Mr. Dreher argues, just as St. Benedict established an oasis for Christian living amidst the ravages of political and moral chaos, so too Christians of our day might construct “intentional communities” that will preserve Christian families from the secular onslaught of the twenty-first century.

Surprisingly, Dreher says little about the historic St. Benedict. In his rendering, the saint lived when the Roman world was entering the “dark ages”—barbarian invasion spurred the decline of government institutions, which in turn led to widespread moral decay among the population. In response, St. Benedict is said to have deliberately left the Roman world behind in order to establish a new and independent community where the practice of Christian life could survive the trials to come.

To be sure, aspects of this historical narrative are correct: Germanic invasions did exacerbate political decline in the Roman West; St. Benedict did establish an influential monastic order; and it was monasteries that were the most responsible for the preservation of Christian thought and practice in the early medieval West. But the “devil” is always in the details, and there are several reasons that Mr. Dreher’s historical synopsis is problematic.

Among other things, he asserts historical causality where there is no evidence for it. For example, he implies that the moral decay of Roman civilization in St. Benedict’s lifetime was caused by the barbarian invasions. I’m not sure how we are to measure moral decay in any society, especially a pre-modern one, but I don’t know of a single Christian text from the ancient world that attributes moral decline among Christians to the presence of “barbarians” or the failure of the Roman government to respond to the barbarian challenge. To be sure, some Christians thought that the barbarians were a punishment for their sins, but that is the opposite of thinking that the barbarians caused moral decline. If anything, post-Constantinian Christians were more optimistic than previous generations that the Roman government might legislate according to the precepts of Christian teaching.

Given the book’s thesis, an even more problematic assertion of historical causality lies in Dreher’s suggestion that St. Benedict established his monastery in order to escape a world that was collapsing both politically and morally—for Dreher, the political and the moral are always intertwined.

In this regard, it is noteworthy that Mr. Dreher seems to have ignored the famous Life of St. Benedict, which was written by St. Gregory the Great, a great ascetic teacher in his own right. From a close reading of the Life of St. Benedict, one learns not only that Benedictine communities had widespread interaction with the world outside of their monasteries but that the saint himself routinely engaged with the Roman secular elite and even with barbarian warlords who had little interest in Christianity.

In fact, some of St. Benedict’s most spectacular miracles were for the benefit of Gothic warriors, even though they often devastated Christian communities and even though the miracles did not lead to their conversion.

Moreover, the Life of St. Benedict never suggests that St. Benedict or his community are spiritually endangered by its proximity to secular Roman culture. Nor does it suggest that engagement with non-Christians is a threat to their spiritual life.

Given Mr. Dreher’s analysis, it is in fact quite ironic to learn from the Life of St. Benedict that the saint’s greatest spiritual struggles came from mentoring self-righteous monks under his supervision who believed that their renunciation of the secular world was enough to save them. As I’ve argued elsewhere, St. Gregory presents St. Benedict’s sanctity primarily in terms of his ability to correct junior ascetics who affirm the Christian moral vision but who fail to see that this requires them to engage the world—to be ascetics not for themselves but to be ascetics for the benefit of others.

In this regard, it is worth noting that scholars have long since established that St. Benedict’s Rule draws from the ascetic writing of St. Basil the Great, who, together with St. Gregory the Theologian, was among the first ascetic writers to insist that monastic communities should engage the world beyond the monastery. St. Basil and St. Gregory established hospitals and hospices for the poor and sick (including a home for lepers) and staffed those facilities with monks under their direction. We do not know if St. Benedict did the same, but his Rule does make provisions for the needy beyond the monastery.

Mr. Dreher would, no doubt, celebrate those historical developments. And in several post-publication interviews he has insisted that he is not advocating for the level of sectarian withdrawal that most critics assume. But this makes his all-too-brief and historically inaccurate presentation of St. Benedict all the more curious.

In sum, the St. Benedict of history is difficult to recognize in The Benedict Option. This is unfortunate because what we can reconstruct of the life of the real St. Benedict is of great value to a world that is so divided, particularly among those Christians who do and those Christians who do not see God’s activity outside of the confines of the sacramental body.

While many might bemoan the decline of Christian influence in political culture, we need to look much more carefully into the Christian past and understand it on its own terms. Only then can we be guided by its wisdom as we discern traditional Christian life in a “post-Christian” world.

This essay was sponsored by the Orthodox Theological Society in America’s Project on Faith in Public Life.

George Demacopoulos is the Fr. John Meyendorff and Patterson Family Chair of Orthodox Christian Studies and Co-Director of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University.