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Benedict of Nursia: Intentional Christian Community

By Joshua Herring

I dislike reactionary politics. The idea of withdrawal or throwing in the towel in a long conflict just does not sit well with me. So over the past three months, as I continued to run into references to Rob Dreher’s “Benedict Option,” I mistakenly thought Dreher was advocating intellectual, cultural, and moral retreat from an increasingly post-Christian world. When I read his argument more closely, however, I realized that my mental picture of his construct (Christians huddling in a commune somewhere in Idaho) was wrong.

Far from urging Christians to cease engaging the world, Dreher contends that the Christian life was always meant to be lived communally, a model of community hampered by the current cultural moment. Rather than give up cultural engagement, Dreher argues this conflict should force Christians to be more intentional about living near each other and seeking intellectual, spiritual, emotional Christian fellowship, thus bearing out the “one another” commands of Christian love sprinkled liberally throughout the New Testament.

The Benedictine Rule established the way of life for the monks. It demanded three vows: poverty, chastity, and obedience. It called for a life mixing work with prayer, and oriented the brethren towards gospel service.
Dreher’s inspiration is Benedict of Nursia, with the “Benedict Option” label evoking visions of the fifth-century father of Western monasticism. Born in the later days of the fifth century anno Domini, Benedict grew to maturity in a chaotic world. The Pax Romana had collapsed, replaced by shifting geographies, marauding barbarians, and unstable economies. Augustine had already written The City of God in response to the barbarians’ attack on Rome, wrestling with the question of Christian identity in a world where the Eternal City proved temporary. Benedict, facing the decadence of Rome, retreated to the hills.

He was not unique in that response; the third century witnessed a movement of monastic retreat in the deserts of Egypt. Called anchorites, the Desert Fathers were notable for their solitary lifestyle. Depending on which sources one reads, these first hermits performed mighty miracles, wrestled with demons, and eventually discovered that they needed other Christian brethren with whom to live the Christian life. Pachomius is often credited as the earliest of cenobitic monks, those who sought to work out their faith in community.

Benedict himself did not remain alone long. In his cave just north of Rome, disciples found him and requested that he teach them the way of holy living. Legend says that Benedict first established a strict rule, so rigorous that his first disciples tried to poison him. When Benedict miraculously escaped death by poison, his disciples repented, and Benedict reworked the community’s rulebook, known today as The Rule of St. Benedict. The historical narrative picks up with Benedict’s founding of the monastery at Monte Cassino in 529 AD and instituting the first edition of his Rule.

The Benedictine Rule established the way of life for the monks. It demanded three vows: poverty, chastity, and obedience. It called for a life mixing work with prayer, and oriented the brethren towards gospel service.  The Rule describes the monastery as a “school of the Lord’s service.” These places were originally intended as locations of intense discipleship, with the Rule defining the process by which a brother might grow to spiritual maturity.

The three vows bound all brothers together in their common pursuit. Poverty insured that they would not be distracted by worldly wealth, but would instead pursue a treasure “where moth and rust do not destroy.” The vow of obedience taught the monks first to submit in humility to a superior, recognizing the truth of Romans 13 that all authority is from God. As the brothers obeyed, they learned to submit to the divine will. The vow of chastity kept all brothers oriented towards an eternal community. Rather than the concerns of wife and child, the monastic brother found his hope in the heavenly Jerusalem and communion of the saints ruled over by King Jesus.

Benedict concludes his Rule explaining that he intended these steps to be only a foundation leading to maturity, much like Paul’s exasperating voice reminding the Corinthians that he should be able to give them meat, but they can only drink milk! The Benedictine Rule is a carefully planned route to practical discipleship lived together in community.

In that sense, Dreher’s “Benedict Option” is unoriginal. He joins a host of recent authors who see American Christianity as anemic and in need of discipleship. David Platt argues that Evangelical Christianity is distracted by wealth, and his book Radical describes a group of church members in Birmingham, Alabama, who sold their homes to move into the inner city and bring the gospel to the poorest inhabitants. Jamie Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom concludes with an examination of the oddly unchristian notion of college students separated from Christian community, and he proposes instead a Christian understanding of college where students and professors live in the town, seeking to live the gospel together in the midst of a watching secular community. Willow Creek Community Church sparked a small group movement across Evangelical churches with their phrase “Doing Life Together.”

Dreher himself proposes an ancient model of discipleship writ large across American Christianity in which Christians live near each other and provide solidarity as biblical convictions become less and less popular. These communities would not be monastic houses, severed from wife and child, but neighborhoods where church members live near the church. Oddly enough, this solution would also address many of the criticisms of disconnected modernity (Wendell Berry, Neil Postman, et al). It does not, as I once thought, call for Christians to ignore culture or try to escape from it. Instead, both Benedict and Dreher recognize that Christianity cannot be lived alone, and they call Christians to value the kingdom of Christ in exile (the church) more than material success.

What might this look like in practice? I think it could be very simple. Perhaps instead of taking a new job far away, one family determines to remain in a town and faithfully worship at their church. As financial opportunity permits, church members seek to live closer together. Geographic proximity to church community becomes a primary factor rather than house value, school location, commute time, and other practical concerns.

St. Benedict worked out a discipleship model which changed the course of western civilization. By calling men to live out their faith corporately inside a structured framework, education, literacy, and the Christian tradition survived the collapse of Rome and growth of European nations. As American culture becomes increasingly hostile to Christian values, Benedict provides a model for considering the essentials of our faith and the importance of living it out together.

Image: Saint Benedict, fresco by Fra Angelico, retrieved from Wikipedia.org

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