When asked by a lady where he got the ideas for the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson is said to have replied: “They were in the air.”
Lately in the air among some Catholics is what’s being called the Benedict Option. That notion had its beginnings in the end of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, which famously argued that we are awaiting another, and no doubt quite different, St. Benedict. It was later popularized by Rod Dreher as that point in time at which “conditions of moral breakdown and atomization” having become severe, people seeking a moral life in true community decide that “they have to secede from mainstream culture in a serious way.”
Mr. Dreher mentioned the idea in his 2006 book Crunchy Cons (all about, as the subtitle delineates, “Birkenstocked Burkeans, gun-loving organic gardeners, evangelical free-range farmers, hip homeschooling mamas, right-wing nature lovers”).
The “Benedict” here evoked is, of course, the 6th-century pioneer of Western monasticism, Benedict of Nursia, a most honored saint. Canonized by Honorius III in 1220, Benedict was named patron protector of Europe by Blessed Pope Paul VI (1964), and elevated to co-patron (with Cyril and Methodius) by Pope St. John Paul II (1980). With his monks at Subiaco, Italy, Benedict is often credited with saving Western civilization during the so-called Dark Ages.
That ridiculous term “Dark Ages” originally referred to the better part of a millennium, from the 5th century all the way through until the beginning of the 15th: from the end of Roman “light” to the start of the Renaissance, the rebirth.
A full, faithful rendering of history will surely note the monks’ contribution, but the “saved the West” claim is triumphalism in the extreme. Anyway, everybody is convinced we don’t want to enter into a New Dark Ages, because, as Hollywood has shown us, that would be apocalyptic, if not actually the Apocalypse.
Mr. Dreher recently had a conversation with the American abbot of a Benedictine house in Subiaco:
I said that I’m not talking about everybody running for the hills and living in an armed compound. . . .The idea, I told him, is to be able to hold on to our knowledge and tradition in a dark time.
The abbot responded that it made sense to him, emphasizing that we’re not living in “normal times.” The abbot elaborates: “If they want their descendants to be around for the rebuilding, families can’t live as if these were normal times.”
That’s an evocative phrase, and deserves the title case: The Rebuilding.
So far, the Benedict Option has not, except in a very few cases, led to domestic clusters of the sort that emerged in America in the 19th century: Utopian communities such as New Harmony, Brook Farm, Hopedale, and Oneida. Few lasted more than a decade.
But this new concept of a more cloistered life isn’t really conceptualized as involving some airy theory (theosophy, Transcendentalism, spiritualism, Socialism). It’s Christian, pure and simple, but not Jansenist, although it’s way too early (with too few examples) to make any clear judgment about that.
No doubt that our civilization is currently in decline, but I defy anybody to name another civilization at any other time that wasn’t decried by its contemporaries as hopeless.
To me this is simply another example of “the world is too much with us,” although I’m no fan of Wordsworth (the coiner of the phrase, from his poem of the same name), who strikes me as the sort of fellow for whom a rural community of true believers would appeal – as long as he could run it, which he might have been able to do, until he became bored. I’m bored with the Benedict Option already.
Civility, civilization, civic, civil – each word has its root in the Latin civis, citizen. The grandest of these, civilization, stands for the collective refinements of a society, and means in essence “life in the city,” the civitas. The assumption is that, from ancient times on, it was in the city that one found the best and most refined ideas, institutions, and individuals. And, although there were exceptions, this is why Catholic churches were mostly built in population centers. Among those exceptions were the churches and chapels built to accompany monasteries and convents.
I would love to live in a city near which there is a monastery and to which I might make retreats and attend Mass, especially if the monks make good beer, although for that I might have to move to Belgium.
When I was in the book-publishing business, I was asked to take to dinner one of the company’s successful authors, C. K. Ramaswamy Gounder. He was best known as Swami Satchidananda. Nice guy. He was one of the really popular gurus of the Sixties and Seventies. Joining us at Manhattan’s best Indian restaurant were the artist Peter Max, the musician Alice Coltrane (second wife of the great Trane himself), and several young people who were followers of the guru. To say that I was odd man out is an understatement. But at one point somebody asked Alice if it was hard to do yoga in the city. “Yes!” she said. But the swami was having none of that.
“There is no better place for yoga than here,” he said. “Here where finding a still spot within is so important; here where love is so necessary.”
Then he looked at me, the guy in the suit and tie, and smiled. A quite agreeable smile, I must say. I smiled back and said:
“It’s also the perfect place to be a Roman Catholic.”
Satchidnanda did a spit-take with his chai and laughed heartily.