The Eucharist Option: A Response to Problems with the Benedict Option for Living in Modernity

David Russell Mosley

Ordinary Time
10 October 2014
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family

Recently, there has been an influx of work concerning a way of living in Modernity called The Benedict Option. This notion derives from Alistair MacIntyre’s seminal work After Virtue. The idea is rather simple, in the fall of Rome and Western Civilisation as it was then known, the Benedictines served as pockets of resistance. These communities who had withdrawn from society held on to what was best from civilisation. It is because of the Benedictines, and other monastic communities, that we still have many of great works of classical literature as well as the great works of ancient Christianity. So, following MacIntyre’s work, we now have the Benedict Option, a call for a withdrawal from this new, and rather slow, fall of the new Rome, in order to safeguard our faith and the great things of the past. The question then becomes, is this withdrawal the right response.

Over at Mere Fidelity, a primarily reformed theology podcast associated with the website Mere Orthodoxy, the gentlemen discuss the pros and cons of such an approach. There is first the concern about Modernity. Is it the same as the barbarism that invaded Rome? Is it a unique situation in which the Church has found itself? There are certainly similarities, and like all new times that face the Church, it is, in its own way unique, but does this mean that withdrawal, that the Benedict Option, is the appropriate response? The gentlemen at Mere Fidelity are uncertain. Withdrawal seems somewhat anti-Gospel, or at least anti-Evangelical (in the sense of spreading the Gospel). Yet a kind of withdrawal is necessary, we cannot simply mirror the culture in which we live. So the Benedict Option seems a poor or at least incomplete vision of how we ought to live, but what then is the appropriate response?

Chad Pecknold, associate professor of systematic theology at the Catholic University of America, has suggested an alternate approach, not the Benedict Option, but the Dominican Option. The Benedictines were monks who formed communities and sequestered themselves off from the rest of society, in order to serve that society; the Dominicans, on the other hand, sequester themselves as a community (in the way the live, dress, etc.) that exists within society, not outside it or on its outskirts. They are mendicants and itinerants. That is, they go in amongst society, begging and preaching. They wear their habits, standing out like sore thumbs (if you’ll excuse the cliché), and serve, as Pecknold terms it, as ‘a “contrast society” that is very much engaged with the world—an evangelistic witness which is joyful, intellectually serious, expansive, and charitable.’ If Benedictines serve as a physical, moral, and spiritual withdrawal, Dominicans serve as a moral and spiritual withdrawal, but a physical presence (which includes its own kind of withdrawal). Pecknold sees this as the better option because it involves both separation and engagement, it draws out the truth of the Benedictine but draws out more clearly for us of the non-optional evangelistic witness. We stand apart, but as a presence in the world.

I think, however, what both the gentlemen at Mere Fidelity and Dr Pecknold, leave out, (Pecknold because of the misconceptions of what the Benedictines actually do) to a certain extent, is the need for various forms of being in, but not of the world. The Dominicans did not replace the Benedictines, they simply had a different mission. Pecknold acknowledges that not all Christians should be Dominicans, but doesn’t acknowledge (though I’m sure he would agree with me) that some who ought not to be Dominicans ought to be Benedictines. That is, all Christians are called to different ways of relating to the societies and cultures around us. Some ought to be Benedictines, fully withdrawing in order to guard and protect the faith, to be outposts of Christianity fully separate, but still not disengaged, with the society around them. Some ought to be Dominicans, different in the physical presence within society, but engaging with it directly as a subversive, contrasting society within society. Still others might be called to a Franciscan Option of full poverty, or an Anchorite Option of total, individual withdrawal. And other options which I cannot give a name to. What ought to tie all of this together, what joins the various ways of living in the midst of Modernity and its ills (and goods), is the Liturgy, whose heart is the Eucharist itself. This is what I would call Christians to: a dedication to the Eucharist, which will lead to a dedication to the Liturgy (in its main and varied expressions), which will lead to various ways of dealing with Modern society. The Body and Blood of Christ is the font from which all ways of living the Christian life flow. This is how we first live both differently and within the society around us, by a transformative and participatory meal in which the Divine and the Human meet, in which Time and Eternity are intermingled. Begin here, and many ways of living will follow.

Sincerely yours,

6 comments on “The Eucharist Option: A Response to Problems with the Benedict Option for Living in Modernity

  1. Beth Keehner says:

    This is beautiful, David. I was so pleased to read it. I try to keep in my mind at mass when the consecration takes place that I am witnessing what you so marvelously worded, “the Divine and the Human meet, in which Time and Eternity are intermingled”.
    Also, I believe there is a place for all who are called by God to the religious life. I’ve heard so many personal stories of those called. God lets them know which religious order to join. One who is so foreign to me are those called to be cloistered. I can’t imagine living that way but God has called them to do so. They have a purpose and they are happy to live in the way He has called them. I love the idea that they are praying throughout the day for the world. I can’t bear to think of how the world would be if they were NOT praying for us.

    • Beth,

      I completely agree! We need spaces for those set apart (whether sexually, economically, and/or geographically), whether it is to pray, as the monks and nuns do, to preach and administer the sacraments as priests/ministers do, or to research and teach as scholars do.

  2. Chris says:

    I’d go with the Trappist. Beer and silence. And the occasional bit of bacon.

  3. Even in times where we are not facing a sort of collapse of the current dominating Empire of which we are a part, should we likewise be exercising these various models of relation? It seems to me that these are, at base, important ways that Christians should always be attempting to live within/beside/withdrawn from society at large.

    Do you think this holds true even when one leaves the West and enters into different political/social/cultural arrangements (my limited knowledge regarding Eastern Christianity causes me to think so)?

    Great article, by the way.

    • Taylor,

      Absolutely. I think the question is often more of to what do we return when there is a collapse or need for reform? MacIntyre and through him others have offered up the Benedictines as a model. Yet the Benedictines serve as a model not only because they lived in that way during times of upheaval, but because they continued to live that during times of peace and prosperity as well.

      I do think this remains true. While the monastic models may differ, it is important to remember that Benedict himself was influenced by John Cassian who structured his own monastic communities on a desert Egyptian model. How precisely this plays out in their own societies I cannot say, but its roots are the same as those of Western monasticism.

      And thanks.

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