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St Benedict and communities: not to retreat from the world, but to engage deeply in it

  • 15 July 2021
  A common and painful response to changes of which we strongly disapprove is disgust. This is a mixture of disapproval at the change and resentment that it disturbs our allegiances. It is particularly acute when the change occurs in groups to which we belong: in schools, football clubs, businesses, churches and national societies. Disgust often leads to crisis — to a decision about whether we should separate ourselves from such groups.

In the case of society as a whole, separation is difficult. In Australia, for example, there are some who have been appalled by what they see as disrespect for life and for religious freedom in legislation. Short of emigrating, which currently presents its own difficulties, they will have difficulty in finding viable ways of dissociating themselves from a society they believe to have lost its way.

A few years ago in the United States, marked by greater polarisation and consequently sharper judgment of particular social trends, such disgust led media commentator Rod Dreher to propose the Benedict option. At that time a recent convert to Catholicism, he was appalled by the collapse of support for traditional marriage, the tolerance of abortion and the pressure for gay marriage. Untypically, he associated these trends with the excesses of economic liberalism, militarism and corporate greed. The Benedict option, named after the fifth century Catholic saint who founded monasteries and whose Rule has been adapted by monastic movements throughout Western Europe, invited Catholics in particular to withdraw as far as possible from society. They were to form intentional communities held together by such practices as common prayer and home education for children.

Dreher’s proposal won widespread publicity but little support. The option of withdrawing from society, however, remains attractive to many people after they have experienced the isolation imposed by COVID-19 and have been led to revaluate such practices as leaving home to work, suburban living and the balance between work and family. Revaluation can arise from or lead to disgust. In response to Dreher’s suggestion it is worth pondering on withdrawal from society and on what the early monks may have learned about it.

Withdrawal from society can seem attractive if it is imagined as bringing freedom from conflict and from complexities of life and of human relationships. It seems to offer a peaceful and unencumbered life. Indeed, in religious polemic, monasticism has often been attacked as an escape from real life with