BENEDICT’S OPTION by Giacomo Sanfilippo

benedictThis response to Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option was written in May prior to the conception of Orthodoxy in Dialogue.

Our primary source for the life of St. Benedict of Nursia (480-547) comes from Pope St. Gregory the Great (540-604), known in the Orthodox Church as “the Dialogist” for the lives of saints that he composed in the form of dialogues between himself and his deacon. Traditionally we associate St. Gregory with the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, in which he is invoked in the final blessing instead of St. John Chrysostom or St. Basil the Great.

Dialogue Two covers Benedict’s life. Gregory begins with the young Benedict fleeing the sinful distractions of Rome to become a hermit. How young, Gregory does not say. On his way to his eventual destination of Subiaco he performed the miraculous repair of a broken tray, and so found it no less necessary to escape the praise of the pious than the pleasures of the worldly. From a monastery near Subiaco—for there were monasteries all over the Italian peninsula by this time—a monk named Romanus came to clothe Benedict in the monastic habit, and promised to bring provisions to the cave that served as his secret hermitage. Whenever Romanus could sneak away undetected by his abbot he tied some bread and a bell to the end of a rope and lowered it over the edge of the cliff to his young friend.

This, then, represents Benedict’s option: to live as a hermit in repentance, prayer, and fasting. Anyone who wishes to embrace his option should live in solitude dependent on God for his sustenance, or at the very least, join a traditional monastery known for the ascetical austerity of its life.

After three years, the Lord revealed Benedict’s hideaway first to a local priest who brought him a meal on Pascha, then to some shepherds who initially mistook him for a wild animal, and through their word of mouth to the whole locality who gave him food in return for spiritual nourishment. Once during this period Benedict was so overcome with carnal temptation that he flung himself naked into a patch of briers and rolled around until his wounded flesh triumphed once for all over the passion of lust. Only then did the Lord see fit to draw men to form a circle of semi-anchorites around him. In his humility Benedict never set out to establish a community, much less to serve as its abbot, but accepted the will of God that he should now share with others the gifts of divine grace bestowed on him in secret. In this we see nothing new: Benedict’s life followed a pattern well known to the Church since St. Anthony the Great some two centuries before, of which the prototype was the Forerunner’s and Christ’s own period of preparation in the desert. Eventually Benedict organized a coenobitic monastery according to the Egyptian model of St. Pachomius on the summit of Monte Cassino. Here, towards the end of his life, he wrote his Rule based on the earlier monastic rules of St. Basil, the Blessed Augustine, and St. John Cassian. One line near the end of the Rule sums up the spirit of the whole: “The goodness of obedience is to be shown by all, not just to the abbot, but the brothers should similarly obey each other, knowing that they will approach God by this path of obedience.”

Benedict was forty-nine years old when he arrived on Monte Cassino, and went on to live but another eighteen years. On at least one occasion he was vouchsafed what, in our Orthodox way of speaking, seems to have been a vision of uncreated light. Like St. Seraphim of Sarov some 1300 years later, Benedict allowed a worthy companion to share in the experience.

Since long before 2017, modern Orthodox lay theologians have plumbed the depths of monastic spirituality for their vision of transfigured life in the world. Pavel Florensky, prior to his ordination, writes that the exclusive friendship of two men, “like Christian life in general, is in this sense monasticism. Each of the friends uncomplainingly humbles himself before his life-companion, in the same manner as a servant before his master.” Paul Evdokimov articulates an ideal of “the interiorized monasticism of every believer.” Olivier Clément, counterintuitively for a discourse on marriage, calls monasticism “the fulfilment of eros.” Tito Colliander makes “the way of the ascetics” accessible to ordinary Christians, a path explained by Christos Yannaras as “our dynamic and practical refusal to be subjected to the necessity and urge of self-preservation of the individual or to subject the world to the individual’s will and desire.” Daniel Opperwall shares the “monastic wisdom for a life in the world” that he finds in John Cassian.

Yet if we think of asceticism as the separation of the righteous from the unrighteous according to a pharasaical rubric of moral elitism—and subliminally thank God that we are not like other men—the newly glorified monastic saint of our times, Justin Popovič, sets us straight: he counts among the chief “ascetic virtues” the “love which knows no bounds, which does not question who is worthy and who is not, but loves them all; loving friends and enemies, loving sinners and evildoers.” St. Maria of Paris transformed the whole city into her monastery.

An adaptation of St. Benedict’s Rule for contemporary life in the world would make a priceless spiritual treasure and gift from God. Its content must address the particular challenges of postmodern life while its ethos and mode of expression remain grounded in Holy Tradition.

Rod Dreher’s fear-mongering religio-political project with its catchy name fails conspicuously to do this. He roots his manifesto precisely in “who is worthy and who is not.” His supra-ecclesiology of “conservative values” pits the “orthodox Orthodox” against the merely Orthodox as he joins forces with Catholics and Protestants who share his litmus test for “orthodoxy:” revulsion at the sight of the wrong kinds of people on the streets of America. He has turned himself and his ideas into something of a consumer brand trademarked as Ben Op Christians, welcoming all doctrinal and ecclesial permutations—provided that they agree on what kinds of fellow human persons signal the final collapse of Western civilization, and what kinds represent its last best hope.

Meanwhile, if Christ were to come back for a look at how things are going in this world that His Father loved so much, I imagine that we would find Him sitting cross-legged in some park or on some downtown sidewalk, surrounded by Toby Manning’s “street drag queens, skinny East Village punk boys, anarchists, prostitutes, bearded ladies, hippy radical faeries, transsexuals, people with disabilities…all those who don’t fit in.” 

Giacomo Sanfilippo is a doctoral student in the Faculty of Divinity, Trinity College, University of Toronto, and an editor at Orthodoxy in Dialogue.