“The Benedict Option” was the biggest headline in last weekend’s Wall Street Journal (February 18-19). It headed the front-page article by Ian Lovett in the paper’s Review section. The subtitle quickened curiosity among those of us charged with commenting on religion in public life: “Longing to lead more religious lives—and wary of the wider culture—a growing number of traditional Christians are creating their own small communities.” The name “Benedict” was alluring to me. Behind my right shoulder as I type is a cherished picture of namesake Bishop Martin Marty, O.S.B.—as in “Order of Saint Benedict.” Through the friendly fixing of one of his successors, he opened doors for me at the Second Vatican Council. Through the years I have published with, accepted the hospitality of, and preferred personal devotions printed under trademarks of the Benedictines and their offshoots. My spouse and I are going to sup and worship with Benedictine sisters one day this week, etc.
Note that all of those references and reminiscences are Benedictine, while the WSJ headline lacks the suffix “-ine.” A small matter, you’d think. But my Benedictine friends distance themselves from the strictly “Benedict” version, despite some corollaries, coincidences, and common sources. Typical of such distancing is “The Virtue of Staying Put,” by Gerald W. Schlabach for Commonweal (September 26, 2016). A Benedictine oblate himself, Schlabach references the decisive inventing book Crunchy Cons by Rod Dreher, of The American Conservative, 10-plus years ago. Schlabach summarizes Dreher: “…faithful Christians should turn their primary attention away from the public square… and instead focus on building local communities, sheltered from the hopelessly fallen larger culture, where Christian values and practices may survive.”
Lovett focuses on a “Benedict Optional” but not very Benedictine community in Oklahoma, consisting of settlers who turn their backs on the world, which they describe in wholly negative terms. In his nuanced (and beautifully illustrated) article he offers close-ups of world-deniers who, at this Clear Creek enclave, homeschool their children, avoid cities, don’t watch TV, and complain about how un- or anti-Christian our culture has become. Some quoted Benedict Option folk have moved on, complaining of, e.g., abusive styles of pastoral leadership and petty disputes over garb. But Schlabach finds a range of expressions, as some Option folk—be they Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Evangelical, or other—draw upon or are drawn to influences as diverse as philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre (who first invoked St. Benedict in this context), Orthodox mystics, and theological critics like Stanley Hauerwas. Many want to make very clear that “traditional” to them does not mean “conservative” in the current political context.
Those who celebrate community, communities, and tradition (as opposed to traditionalism) may hope that these Optioneers stay open to what Schlabach so accurately described as what is “most Benedictine” about what could be available to them: “stability” in changing cultures, the value of community in a world of hyper-individualism, “global communion” and “face-to-face relationships, even when those relationships are hard.” Schlabach’s advertised Benedictine ideal is not just for monks and nuns, dwellers in Clear Creek and home-schoolers, but open to the world where civil discourse needs more exemplars, mentors, and models—among them, yes, Benedictines themselves.
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