A professor of mine at Notre Dame was wont to preface some of his most barbed questions, usually to visiting philosophers and theologians when he thought they had flown a little too high off the ground, with: “Well, I am just a humble historian, but ….” It was a modesty topos worthy of a medieval monastic. You can imagine the smothered snorts from his graduate students in the back row.
Well, I am just a humble historian, and in my case the humility topos is quite, quite genuine. But I have a special interest in early medieval monasticism — the heyday of Benedictine monasticism, historically speaking — and I have been following with interest the debate surrounding Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option. Aside from my academic interests, I teach at a residential seminary: models of Christian community separate, to some extent, from and in tension with their wider parent culture are of interest to me.
As the Benedict Option has gathered momentum across denominational lines, resistance to the idea (like resistance to the value of residential seminary education, in fact) has tended to coalesce around the “separateness” seemingly inherent in the model. There are those, of course, who would welcome the relief of simply ceasing to engage with society, to sign out once and for all in political and social despair. In this mode, it can be far too easy to project onto the Benedict Option a rose-colored nostalgia for a simpler, pre-industrial medieval past: a cozy escape into the world of craft beer and Brother Cadfael.
By and large, however, objections to the Benedict Option have come from a position of conscientious engagement and involvement with society, out of a concern that separation or withdrawal would imperil the mission of the church in the world. Alternatives proposed include the Jeremiah Option and the Daniel Option, both of which aim to propose a deeper level of engagement with their surrounding culture, particularly with regard to political power. Both, interestingly, are biblical rather than historical alternatives. And both are responding on some level to the same preconceptions about Benedict and Benedictine monasticism as the first group: that monasticism constitutes isolation and separation from society, full stop.
In the long history of the effort to live according to the Rule of St. Benedict, signing out of society is not a noticeably prominent theme. Rather, the reverse is true: monastic foundations required patronage, either by royalty or the aristocracy, and rendered goods, services, and, in some cases, soldiers and arms, back to the king and to his aristocracy, praying for the well-being of the realm and for their patrons in life and death. Monasteries made excellent prisons, when required. Until the twelfth century, the elite of Benedictine monasteries were child oblates rather than adult converts, placed by their parent and socialized in that community from a very young age; the Venerable Bede, for example, entered Wearmouth-Jarrow at the age of eight or nine. Foundations for women, on the other hand, frequently acted like Catholic convent schools in the nineteenth century, taking in and educating aristocratic girls who could be withdrawn from the community suddenly if a good marriage alliance presented itself. In fact, so deeply did Benedictine monasteries become enmeshed in their local communities that they were not really an “order,” strictly speaking. Instead, each house developed within its own regional context and, to some extent, became a locus of memory and community identity. Monks and monasteries were, as they still are in many parts of the world, inescapably political. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne may have been a monk-bishop who withdrew to a hermit’s life of seclusion on Farne Island, but that island was within spitting distance of Bamburgh, the headquarters of the king of Northumbria: the king could not have looked out to sea without being reminded of Cuthbert’s existence. Class divisions and aristocratic luxuries often survived into the monastic life, as did political feuds, factions, and antipathies. If tales be true, Benedict’s own monks tried to poison him.
Benedict’s Rule, astonishing document though it is, was only one of a number of monastic experiments ongoing in Italy in the sixth century, and it might well have disappeared forever into the dustbin of history were it not for the intervention of Pope Gregory the Great. Perhaps the greatest of the popes, Gregory was both the chief popularizer of the Benedictine Rule and the author himself of The Pastoral Rule. Gregory recognized the very real potential for active witness in people of committed discipline, and he famously argued not so much for a separation of the active and contemplative lives, but a balance of the two in which the energy derived from contemplation was directed outward and downward into pastoral care. In the era of Benedictine monasticism, before established diocesan or parish boundaries existed in many places, monasteries shouldered a great deal of the burden of evangelization. Gregory famously sent monks as missionaries to Britain. Missionary initiatives on the continent were spearheaded by an Anglo-Saxon monk, Boniface, who owed a special allegiance to Rome, not qua Rome necessarily but out of his loyalty to the legacy and the mission of Gregory. The Christianization of Europe, imperfect and centuries-long though the process was, is ultimately a Benedictine and a Gregorian achievement.
Perhaps the oldest running paradox within monasticism, from Antony to Thomas Merton, is that when you’ve done it right, so to speak, you leave society only to have it come running out to meet you in your supposed isolation. Monasticism is a counterculture, and the proper function of a counterculture, like a political third party, is sometimes not so much its own long-term survival but the re-direction of a larger unit. Historically, the movements that thrived didn’t so much break the tie between a monastic community and its broader culture as let that tie stretch and, like a lever, exert the greatest possible torque at the greatest possible distance. The key lies in the precise amount of distance: if the connection was lost altogether, the community nearly always failed for lack of members; too close, however, and the community merged into society at large.
The relationship between monastic communities and their parent society, therefore, has never been truly fixed or static but is always reinventing itself: in Europe the Benedictines would be succeeded by the Cistercians in the twelfth century, the true pioneers of the medieval world, who, by taming uncultivated land and experimenting with livestock breeding, became, very shortly, filthy rich, losing their reputation as reformers in the process. The urban environment of the late Middle Ages inspired an entire series of experiments in how to live religiously in the midst of a rapidly changing world: the friars, the beguines, the devotio moderna. Like the Cistercians, the Franciscans struggled to reconcile Lady Poverty with being an institution, splintering their order in the process. Francis never wanted his order to build buildings at all; Italian towns are dotted with Franciscan churches. Arguably, no one to this day really knows how to define the beguines: communities of women in the Low Countries and in Germany, some of them containing thousands of members, who were nevertheless not nuns and who were living within an urban context engaged in charitable ministry. Likewise, the devotio moderna — emphasis on the “modern” — deliberately subverted expectations of what a traditional order was supposed to look like and blurred boundaries between monastic, clerical, and lay identities. My own personal conviction is that the devotio moderna, also known as the Sisters and Brothers of the Common Life, have as much to offer us today as the Rule of St. Benedict as models for intentional Christian community.
If the history of monasticism has anything to teach those tossing around the idea of a Benedict Option — or, for that matter, the idea of residential seminary education — it is that we should be wary of defining separation and being “connected” to our broader culture as, in and of themselves, good or bad states of being. If any withdrawal or separation from our broader culture is labeled as a refusal to be salt and light in the world, we lose our ability to change the rules by which that game is played, to challenge in any deep or meaningful way the formation of our children, or our seminarians, according to that broader culture. On the other hand, without a strong ideal of mission as the ultimate purpose of that separation and formation, the Benedict Option will become merely an expression of nostalgia for the past and frustration about the present: in short, mutatis mutandis, another “Celtic Christianity.” What matters is a clear vision of what the separation is ultimately supposed to accomplish; the separation is only the tool, not the end in and of itself.
For those who worry that withdrawal of any kind from the broader culture will mean the loss of the younger generation, remember St. Antony. If we are clear what we are for, whatever that may be and in whatever range of permutations possible, that is a far better tool for evangelization than being pulled in twelve directions at once. I am just barely millennial myself, according to some calculations, and one of the main differences between the older generation and younger millennials in the church is the desperate longing on the part of millennials, in an overwhelming and despairing wider world, to be part of some sort of smaller, functioning community. We need refuges, for which TV shows with ensemble casts are ultimately poor surrogates. In the words of Fleet Foxes’ “Helplessness Blues,” a song that’s become something of a cri de coeur for this generation:
I was raised up believing I was somehow unique
a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see.
But now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be
a functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me.
Within the Anglican Communion, the number of applications to enter the Community of St. Anselm at Lambeth demonstrates just how potent that longing is among this generation, and that it’s a longing not so much for self-expression — we have apps for that — as for structured belonging. What we need are sanctuaries, both as temporary refuges and as holy places, and I find it hard to believe that a Christian community that earnestly sets out to provide this will have nothing to offer the wider world.
Hannah Matis Perett’s other posts may be found here. The images were supplied by the author. The first is an image of Bamburgh from Lindisfarne; the second is the door knocker at Durham Cathedral.