Refuting Rod Dreher, author Patrick Henry offers “Benedictine options”, plural
Someone Had to: Disproving the Underlying Premise of Rod Dreher’s 2017 The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. The one who took up this challenge is Patrick Henryformer Professor of Religion at Swarthmore College, former Executive Director of Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Researchand author of nine books.
Dreher says there is only one option for Christians and that is to escape a secular world that has become “cold, dead and dark”. Loving finite things more than God produces a messy world. The option he offers is to escape to the rarefied surroundings of a Benedictine monastery, as did the 16 men who live in Norcia, Italy, where the world before the Second Vatican Council is fully exposed. They offer the singular option of escaping the dark ages that could last for centuries.
In Henry’s book, Benedictine options, not only does he challenge Dreher’s conclusion, but he explores the many Benedictine options; the “s” indicates the differences between these two volumes.
Dreher is convinced of the need for a “restoration” of the Christian West, while Henri argues that the Benedictines are constantly “rebuilding” and changing. Quoting St. John Henry Newman – “to live is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often” – Henry offers as evidence the Benedictine rebuilding movements throughout history, such as the Cluniacs, Cistercians and Trappists.
The subtitle of Henry’s book – “Learning to Live from the Sons and Daughters of Saints Benedict and Scholastica” – says a lot about how he proceeds. Her book is not just a refutation of Dreher’s anthropology and history, but an exploration of Benedictine communities of ordinary people living extraordinary lives of prayer and community in service to the world.
The book seeks to answer the question of how these ordinary lay people become who they are and what can we learn from them.
Henry suggests that Benedictine life is experiential, rhythmic, communal, and ecumenical, all woven together through storytelling, through history. Benedictine discipline is the anchor of their spontaneity; their daily rhythm is natural — there is work, sleep, study and psalms. The abbot or prioress is the leader, but the leadership listens to the insightful community offering a third way through the perils of hierarchy and democracy.
The Benedictines are ecumenical. Their lives are shaped by the psalms in all their great variety and these “erode the boundaries of ecclesiastical exclusivity.” This allows these men and women to open up and learn not only from other Christian denominations, but also from other non-Christian traditions.
Henry suggests that the question of an evil world has been dealt with in various ways, but monasticism offers a single answer. The Gnostics cynically believed that only a few were saved, the Pelagianists affirmed with optimism and romanticism that redemption is in our power, and the Donatists suggested that the church is a fortress against injustice and evil. History offers proof that none of these views are successful.
Monasticism offers an alternative. It is a family and a school of service. Benedictines live to serve the world through the work of justice, hospitality and advocacy.
For Dreher, there is no middle ground. To love God, one must withdraw into a closed fortress with the drawbridge drawn. His Benedictine option is to form the “Marines of Religious Life”, who are ready for spiritual warfare.
Henry sees a different Benedictine world with many options. These provide answers on how to live as a Christian in the world. They offer a new understanding of how to join the local and the global, and how to open up to the world and break down the distinction between the sacred and the profane through hospitality.
For Henry, these Benedictine options stem from the love, gratitude, and humility that shape the lives of ordinary men and women as open, curious, and innovative servers of the world. Benedictine options is Henry’s grateful and vigorous defense of the many Benedictines he knew. It is from the observation of their life that one obtains a glimpse of the spiritual life which is not taught but captured. We catch it by contagion.