Recently, there has been a great deal of discussion on the internet about the Benedict Option. The Benedict Option is a call for Christians to retreat from society and the public square in order to rebuild it. The idea itself is based on the life of St. Benedict of Nursia and the Benedictines he founded. However, there are many aspects of this idea that have often struck me as being at odds with what I have learned about St. Benedict, the Benedictine spirit, and Christianity as a whole over the last few years.
First of all, St. Benedict did not run away from Rome in order to build monasteries. When he left, that was the furthest thing from his mind. St. Benedict fled because he wanted to save his soul. The call to monasticism is ultimately about this. It is not about fleeing the evils of the society in which we find ourselves. It is not about running away from our problems. It is about saving our souls first and foremost in silence, work, and daily prayer.
This is a point that cannot be overstated. The monastic life doesn’t exist as a place where people can run away from their problems. As the Fathers have taught, a man who comes to a monastery to flee his problems will find them magnified once he enters and they will ultimately drive him away. There is no place in a monastery for political discussions. There is no place there for the concerns of the world that surrounds us. A monastery exists so that being isolated from the world the monks can save their souls.
Another glaring problem with the Benedict Option is the idea that Christians must retreat from society so that it can be rebuilt at some point in the future. During times of tremendous persecution, Christians have never hidden their faith. They may have gone underground and worshiped in the catacombs or in secret churches or in each other’s homes, but there has always been a witness to Christianity that has been found in the public square all over the world. Thousands upon thousands of martyrs have died for their the Faith and their blood has become its seed.
Christianity would not have triumphed all over the world without the blood of all those martyrs and confessors who gave their lives for it. If it had remained a small, underground Jewish sect, it would have vanished liked the Essenes did centuries before. The witness of the martyrs is one of the most powerful in the Church and goes back to its very beginnings to the apostles themselves. All of the apostles except St. John were martyred in some way. St. Peter was crucified, St. Jude was beaten with a club, St. Bartholomew was flayed alive, and St. Simon was impaled on a spear.
Our Lord said that we are a city set on a hill and the salt of the earth. A city set on a hill is not one that can be easily hidden. It is one that is seen by everyone in the surrounding area. It is a beacon of light and hope and salvation. We cannot hide ourselves if we are in that situation to begin with. We cannot climb down from the hill and live in the valley. We must stand where we are with our feet firmly planted in the ground and we must bear witness to that which we believe and which has always been believed by millions over the last two thousand years.
It is important and necessary for us to emphasize here that St. Benedict sent his two closest disciples St. Maurus and St. Placidus to evangelize the world and to build monasteries in France and southern Italy. Benedictine monasticism spread like wildfire not just because of the Rule, but because there were many people who were attracted to that specific way of life. The monks themselves led by example and it was that example that drew so many to join them.
The Benedict Option’s appeal, it seems to me, is for people who are tired of fighting the culture wars and who see the dark clouds gathering on the horizon. However, there will always be persecution. There will always be trials. There will always be temptations. Whether we live in the world or not, we are always going to be pulled in one direction or another. We cannot hide or retreat from that. We cannot put our lamp underneath a bushel or pray that clouds hide the city that is set on a hill. It is our duty to be witnesses and martyrs to Christianity. If we do not stand up for what we believe, nobody will.