The so-called “Benedict Option” has become a term of fascination among Christians in recent years. St. Benedict’s way of spiritually separating oneself from worldly concerns and investing in a community of like-minded others who are committed to living the gospel in a deliberate fashion is still, after 1,500 years, an inspiring aim for many Christians, even those who are not monks and nuns. If understood properly, this attitude can serve to provide 21stcentury American Christians with a way of relating to society with eyes fully opened, discerning the demands of charity and finding the support necessary to respond to what justice demands of us.
Rod Dreher’s bestselling book of that title was well received when it was first published in 2017; since then there has been some interesting criticism. Some readers have interpreted Dreher to suggest that Christians are meant to reject the world, to renounce society as being beyond repair, and, in a sense, beyond redemption. Dreher has insisted he never meant to imply that was the case, but nonetheless, many have promoted this attitude as a Christian way of relating to a society rife with immorality and divisive politics.
Contemporary Benedictines who have joined the debate take a more balanced view of the matter (as might be expected). For these monks and nuns, Benedict does not reject the world but seeks to stand firmly within society, to express through lives rooted in community the value of commitment and service, worship and hospitality, and the principles of the gospel as a stable foundation for a new way of being human – a new society that Jesus simply called the Kingdom of God.
The above quotation from the prologue of the Holy Rule reminds us of some of those basic principles and what it means, in practical terms, to act in ways that are “different from the world’s ways” (RB 4:20). In my view, this is the core of what fuga mundi (Latin: “flight from the world”) really means, as well as the expression coined by Thomas á Kempis in his spiritual classic, “The Imitation of Christ”: contemptus mundi (Latin: “contempt for the world”).
St. Benedict uses neither of these terms, though he does establish the principle as an appropriate attitude for the monk/nun to cultivate with respect to the “world,” or society more generally. In setting up his “school of the Lord’s service,” Benedict seeks to transform society by love, hospitality, and common enterprises of service (e.g., education, retreats, spiritual direction, and pastoral ministries of all sorts), as well as a commitment to caring for our common home as responsible stewards of the land and environment.
St. Benedict, despite living in a society rife with political and social turmoil in the early 6th century, stood in the breach to proclaim a hopeful message of love and compassion. For Benedict’s monks and nuns, security is found in God alone. The 20th century Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote that to “stand in the breach” today will demand a major attitude adjustment – a withdrawal from illusion, and worldly anxieties and desires that confuse and inhibit our freedom to love, to choose mercy, compassion, and patience (New Seeds of Contemplation 45). Worldly people will always try to use you, observes Merton, “to help them create the particular illusions by which they live.” He warns that this is especially true of collective illusions (ideologies): “You must renounce and sacrifice the approval that is only a bribe enlisting your support of a collective illusion” (Conjectures of Guilty Bystander 83). If we can distance ourselves from worldly patterns of desire with their “ingroup/out-group” competition and rivalry, we can better ensure our freedom to act responsibly and with justice. This is what God requires of us: to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8, NRSV).