Someone thoughtfully forwarded a link to me this morning – Reading Dreher with Schmemann and MacIntyre (and thus Marx). The subject is the so-called Benedict Option expressed in writings by Rod Dreher and others, especially in America. The article is quite long and challenging, and is worth a good read.
I have mentioned before that the idea quite intrigued me, and I could see the obvious comparisons with monasteries, less enclosed religious orders, the Brüderhof, charismatic communities, various intentional communities based on ecology or other common themes. There are also the Amish communities in the USA which, perhaps, are to be “admired but not imitated”. If such a community is founded and those in it find fulfilment, I can only encourage them to continue in this vast human experiment in known history. The New World was a powerful archetype in history, but now the new world has become the old in terms of human impiety and iniquity. The first European Americans set out to found something new, not merely escape from the world that oppressed them. The Benedict Option seems to be different in that it seeks to create new micro-societies or tribes away from society. The difference seems to be subtle but real.
Several things emerge from this article. One is the analysis of the modern world. Another is how the micro-society is intended to work, not fall victim to the worst aspects of human nature. Can Christianity only subsist in a Christian society, or can it live in a neutral or hostile world like in the Roman Empire before the Peace of Constantine? We are constantly reading things on the internet, full of foreboding warnings of a collapse of civilisation or the end of the world – neither of which have occurred despite prophecies that they were imminent. Many such prophecies are tired out and old. Apocalypticism seems to be a psychological need for some people, like conspiracy theories that turn out to be fallacious.
The article discusses the theme of the guru, the leader of a totalitarian sect or cult. A monastery has its prior or abbot, and unquestioning obedience is demanded of the community’s members. Where is the dividing line between asceticism and spirituality, and depersonalisation and abuse by an amoral leader? It also happens in non-religious communities, unless, perhaps, a democratic or collegial system is put in place where the leader is bound to consult his peers. How many dictators in history asked their people to choose between “me or chaos”?
The argument is put forward that the plight of the Church and Christianity are never beyond hope, since both have been threatened in the past. The Church rebounded where it was least expected. Is Christianity finished in western mainstream society?
There is also a danger of like-minded people seeking to build a society in which thinking alike is a prerequisite. That is something that needs thinking about. I usually find that people can get very nasty the more they share an interest. I have even found this in the sailing world where there can be bad disputes about whether one may have an engine on his boat for when sailing isn’t possible or what kind of life-jacket should be worn. These are purely practical matters, and are compounded when it is a matter of ideology! This happens in various identity groups like gays and people with Aspergers. One can only take so much in the hothouse.
Is Christian living to be another “lifestyle” for those who can afford it and come from a yuppie or bourgeois-bohemian background? In the intentional community world, the choice is essentially between a guru and unpaid work – or buying-in at more than it costs to buy a house in the countryside. A solution? I don’t think there is any one solution for the future of Christianity. It depends to a great extent on where we live, in cities, suburbs or the countryside. Then, whether it is with families and children, alone, with an intense social life, involved in local community activities and politics, whatever. All communities are exposed to the risk of human nature: corruption, abuse, exclusion of “others” and everything else that has happened, causing the community to reform itself or fall apart.
It is a good thing that I have been exposed to monastic life for my six-month stint. The Abbot made it easy for me, because he knew that I did not aspire to a monastic vocation. I had interesting work to do corresponding with my knowledge and skills. I had some realistic idea of the life of the monks. It is essentially a totalitarian “Orwellian” society where each person allows his personality to be eclipsed by the collective. It is the most radical Communism that exists, the only difference being that it is voluntary – accepted by the pronouncement of the Vows. Not everyone is made for that. I am not. Monastic life is everything that is the most ordinary, commonplace, boring and earthly. The corridors smell of sweat and boot polish. It could almost be compared with the Army except for the absence of noise and weapons! The various bits of advice for a young man thinking about monastic life have a ring of realism – go and get some boring job in an office or a factory and don’t think of yourself as anyone special. The almost-nihilism of it is quite surprising! It is the exact opposite of Romanticism, in which the creative imagination is exalted, but Romantics are not always very holy people…
Fr Charles de Foucault comes back to me. He was a hermit, though he intended to found a very austere monastic community. The people around him were all Muslims. There is something to be said for “monastic” life in a city without any trappings or habit, just service to others. I have thought of leaving my present life to live alone in some remote place – but it just won’t work. It would be based on wrong, and that can’t be justified. Nor would I be justified in joining some intentional community where I would be followed by — myself.
Those are a few of my reflections on reading this article, which might be a little too hard on Dreher’s idea and desire to escape the quagmire of modern American or western life. Usually, we do God’s will by staying put, being where He put us so that we can do good in some small and insignificant way. Communities do exist and are said to do good and work out for the best. There are none anywhere near where I live, apart from a couple of Roman Catholic monasteries, so it seems to be something of a non-sequitur. That is the limit of the internet unless we have the lack of responsibilities at home, time and leisure to travel.
Thomas Merton once said succinctly, the entire wisdom of the desert fathers and mothers, thus: “Shut up, and go to your cell!”