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

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



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.

Main image: Benedictine monks work in a garden at Pluscarden Abbey (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

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 the responsibilities to family and society that accompanies it. It is seen as an opting out of a full humanity, not as a deepening of it.

Both the story of Benedict and the common experience of monastic life are very different from this peaceful and childlike vision. According to a legend-filled account of his life, Benedict founded twenty monasteries near Subiaco before moving to Cassino and survived two attempts on his life. One was by a fellow monk and the other by a local priest. Hardly a withdrawal to a carefree life.

The stories and sayings of early monastic teachers in Egypt and Syria, too, emphasise leaving the city, but they do not envisage this as a retreat from the world. They visualise it rather than as an enrolment in an inner battle, which is crucially played out in their relationships with one another. Central in their teaching was the need not to judge one another. On that mutual respect and love monastic life was founded. It was built on acceptance and compassion, not on disgust. 


'...initiatives will flourish to the extent that they are not about fleeing from the world but about engaging in it at greater depth.'


The monks, too, were committed to the disciplines of work as well as to prayer as part of their life in common. They had to support themselves. The routines of work in monasteries and the fact that they were done for the long term meant that they were efficient economic enterprises. They supported the economy of the neighbouring settlements, provided education for children and were woven into society. The movers and shakers of sixteenth century England did not want them closed because they failed to contribute richly to society, but because that contribution could profitably be directed into their own pockets.

The ideas from The Rule of Benedict have shaped the Christian imagination more than did the life of Benedict himself. It is not a rule book for leaving the world but a guide to finding a living place in a harmonious set of relationships within the world. The relationships are directed to God, and run through other monks, through prayer and reflection through work, through the environment and through the local settlements. The Rule is as concerned with the cook as with the hermit. It is a document above all of moderation. It is as concerned to meet the temptations met in solitude and disgust as those met in ambition and profit making.

Most recent initiatives among Catholics to form radical communities have also been more concerned to change and build a new world than to leave it. Disgust has not been central to them. They stood or fell by the quality of the relationships they formed with one another and the surrounding world. In Australia such communities as at Gladysdale and Maryknoll and Whitlands were formed by young people, usually encouraged by charismatic clergy. Their immediate challenges were to support themselves, and to handle the complex changing relationships with the world in which they lived. The Whitlands community, for example, was at the top of a mountain range. Heating and cooking posed difficulties. The solution sought lay in buying a second-hand steamroller in the city and using it as a generator. That the steam roller broke down before it could tackle the mountain roads demonstrated the necessity and challenge of adapting to modernity.

Benedict’s Rule anticipates and handles the weakness inherent in enthusiastic movements led by charismatic leaders to leave the world. They import into the communities the power-based relationships in the world that they left. The dynamic can be seen in such novels as Iris Murdoch’s The Bell and in the abuses of charismatic authority in many of the lay Catholic movements within the Catholic Church. In the face of those tendencies to isolation and unequal relationships, Benedict’s rule is concerned with fostering multiple interlocking relationships between people and with the surrounding world. They are about personal growth within a world seen as gift.

This reflection on the monastic tradition does not suggest that it is wrong to feel disgust at the direction taken by the groups to which we belong and to their members’ attitudes and practices. Nor that it is an improper response to form small groups in order to support a better polity and attitudes. It does suggest, however, that such initiatives will flourish to the extent that they are not about fleeing from the world but about engaging in it at greater depth.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Benedictine monks work in a garden at Pluscarden Abbey (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, St Benedict, Benedict's Rule, monks



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Existing comments

The first Christian communities parted with property and goods to share in common. This was a following of the pattern given in Scripture. My thoughts about monastic life would imagine the community to be one of discipline, obedience, sacrifice and separation from the world. This would not mean remoteness though. Rather an engagement different from a secular life which is the calling of most Christians now. Serving Christ in secular settings is not so literal a surrender as monastic communities nevertheless the love of Christ is inherent in both contexts. Sometimes there is a search to find the place we are most at home, this is a call, a choice of life.

Pam | 15 July 2021  

Andy, Your first paragraph, reprised again and again throughout this remarkable piece, has telling prescience in the times we live and which increasingly bitterly divide us. In the context of ES, which for many of us sets the pace of our daily lives and living, it is the forthcoming Synod that looms large in our discussion, prayer and decision-making. Given the snail's pace of the adagio that the Bishops are dancing in response to the entreaties of several Reform Groups, it is not unlikely that disappointment at not being heard will lead to many groups falling away and withdrawing in disgust at the tardiness of the episcopal response to a call for an expanded agenda setting. While not wishing to politicise your marvelous encomium to St Benedict, it is unlikely that he himself would have counselled such a reaction (on the basis that not all are called to the monastic life). I hope that Their Graces and Lordships are listening because whatever they decide in pressing ahead at this late hour, it should occur to at least some who have a wider vision (than holding the fort and manning the battlements) that they have a pastoral duty to all Catholics.

Michael Furtado | 15 July 2021  

Basically, the Benedictines saved Western Civilisation during the time of the Barbarian Invasions of Western Europe. Some of the monasteries they built were fortress-like - for good reason. Western Civilisation and all it includes are deeply precious. Those of us of European descent cannot remember back to when the early missionaries came. In my case, if they had not come I would be a practicing Druid, with all that entails, including human sacrifice. The monasteries created the farming culture of Medieval England. It is actually a sickness to want to wash your hands of people and society. It also doesn't work.

Edward Fido | 15 July 2021  

Certainly, people should engage and not retreat from the world. ES provides a much-needed platform for engagement. Today’s zeitgeist is a totalitarian-like “Cancel Culture” which aims to erase history and values, and to drive dissenters from the Public Square. A new book, “One Faith No Longer” by George Yancey and Ashlee Quosigk, presents research on the growing divide between progressive and conservative Christians. They find that progressives emphasize political agreement relating to social justice issues in determining who is part of their in-group, and they focus less on theological agreement than do conservatives. “Progressive Christians are more likely to reject conservative Christians than conservative Christians are to reject progressive Christians.” It seems that the promoters of diversity and inclusion may be adept at cancelling heretics. Indeed, in 2014, the politically correct Jesuit-run Marquette University suspended Professor John McAdams for criticizing a teacher who told a student that arguments against same-sex marriage were off limits in class, because “everyone agrees on” gay marriage. McAdams had to get his social justice from the secular Wisconsin Supreme Court which reinstated him. So keep on engaging. Wednesday’s anniversary of the French Revolution reminds us that The Terror eventually gave way to the Thermidorian Reaction.

Ross Howard | 15 July 2021  

Thanks Andrew - much to mull on. Remember the old 'Catholic Action' saying: 'To be in the world, but not of it'. Father John Heffey of Whitlands and Gladysdale once said to me that '(consumer) capitalism will beat the Church'. A prediction that can now be claimed to be 'spot on'. But then, neither of his communities have survived! Nowadays, there are people calling for 'withdrawal' - at least to the extent of living outside the cities, but it's impossible for too many people to live that way. Meanwhile, we see children in cities badly disoriented (to use a mild word) by their immersion in a tech and consumption soaked world. Paul Gilding's 'Great Disruption' era seems to be taking hold around the world... So some level of 'withdrawal' seems to be necessary. A lot to mull on. Thank you for raising the issue.

Len Puglisi | 16 July 2021  

Sobering words from Pam! Sure the monasteries grew rich on the strength of their own labours, but the historical evidence largely points to the fact that they didn't give it away fast enough, as Christ adjures. Therein lies the first problem with the robber barons, who started the stealing: most of them hung onto their stolen goods! And their successors are manifestly still around. Conservative Christians, stuck largely within the mire of 'other-worldy' escape, blame Marx. But wasn't it Proudhon who said: 'Property is theft'?

Michael Furtado | 16 July 2021  

Thank you Andrew for a timely piece. I share a dream - a Catholic 'shop front' in major shopping centres that constantly offered a form of the 'hours' prayer with social media presentations in between - seems a great apostolate for groups like the Benedictines.

Charles Rue | 16 July 2021  

A pity that Ross Howard chooses yet again to use his considerable polemical skills to misrepresent his case. Firstly , in citing the Thermidorian Reaction, Ross fails to mention that the Jacobins, and especially Robespierre, delighted in using authoritarian features of religiosity to reinforce their lethally conspiratorial practices. Reigns of Terror, as such, both preceded and accompanied the French Revolution and were in fact a standard practice of the French clerical classes as witnessed by the Huguenots and in the political scheming of His Eminence Gris, Cardinal Richelieu. Secondly, Ross grossly misrepresents events at Marquette University relating to the disciplining and subsequent reappointment of Associate Professor John McAdams. Politics Departments around the globe are hotbeds of ideological disagreement through which faculty members and students express their invariably unrestricted views. In my experience, since I have taught in them and been both an undergraduate and graduate member of quite a few in the UK and Australia, and whether of Jesuit provenance or not, it is not uncommon to witness abusive behaviour of both staff-members and students. Wisconsin is conservative Republican state in which the Jesuit ethos has to struggle to be heard. The story has another side, as published here: https://www.marquette.edu/mcadams-case-facts/

Michael Furtado | 23 July 2021  

Michael Furtado, you talk arrant nonsense. You say that I “misrepresent” my case because I failed “to mention that the Jacobins and especially Robespierre…” I wasn’t writing a dissertation on the French Revolution. It was a one-liner stating a simple fact that the Thermidorian Reaction followed The Terror—you know, like the sun comes out after the rain. You further say that I “grossly misrepresent events at Marquette University” and you refer to “another side”, namely the Marquette University side. You seem to forget that Marquette lost. The court rejected their specious arguments. Furthermore, the judgment effectively said that no one could reasonably find that Marquette acted properly. But even that didn’t stop Marquette self-righteously putting out a news release defending their conduct. Marquette learnt nothing, or didn’t care. George Orwell said of such arguments: that they are designed “to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

Ross Howard | 25 July 2021  

Ross Howard, no view of the hotly-contested topics on this Jesuit social justice site comes without risk of intense ideologically-based objection. Your use in your post of the term 'Cancel Culture,' which formed the basis of two articles, by both Andy Hamilton and John Warhurst, and which in my view shows your Achilles Heel, appeared to invite a clarification by me: a 'state-how-it-was-from-the-other-side' account, which, as it were, cannot excise but merely contests your unilateral view and - yes, indeed - your intentionally cherry-picked choice of words and allusion to historical precedent. While I sometimes do this myself, trawling through both your posts and mine reveals that no such availing exceptions temper the persistent rhetoric of your posts. While, in the case in point, Marquette may have had to reinstate McAdams, I revealed a context and explanation for their action that you overlooked, if not deliberately ignored. You have done this again by selectively quoting Orwell, who, as you would well know was a trenchant critic of all authoritarianism, both of the right and left. And who says, I further inquire, that those who may lose a court case are objectively and morally wrong? After all, didn't Christ lose His?

Michael Furtado | 25 July 2021  

I'm curious if the author of this piece actually read Dreher's book. Dreher explicitly says over and over that the Benedict Option is not about withdrawing from society, but creating communities. Dreher is also open about the fact that he is Orthodox Christian, not Catholic. To miss details so basic calls into question the premise of your comments.

LarryGallagher | 27 July 2021  

Interesting you mention Dreher's Orthodoxy, Larry Gallagher. My wife is of Russian origin on her mother's side (her father was French with a Ukrainian mother) and she grew up in the Russian Church Outside Russia (The Tsarist Church). Russian monks - like the Benedictines - were involved in pioneering and spreading the Church in the frozen wastes of the North, as well as Siberia and Alaska. They did much to protect the native peoples. St Herman of Alaska - still revered today - was a very gentle converter but firm protector of the Native Alaskans, whose descendants often remain fervently Orthodox. As a very sweet but chauvinistic old Russian lady said to me, Orthodoxy and Russia are one. The struggle against the Teutonic Knights led by that great warrior saint of Russia, St Alexander Nevsky, is part of Russian History and his memory was invoked during what Russians call The Great Patriotic War where they defeated Hitler's panzers and drove on to Berlin to plant the Russian flag on the Reichstag. I fear we have lost the sense of Christian patriotism in the West. It was this that drove the Ottomans back from both Malta and the gates of Vienna. We deride our own history whilst celebrating that of others. How very, very foolish! This is not what genuine multicultarilism is about.

Edward Fido | 28 July 2021  

Michael Furtado states: “I revealed a context and explanation for their action that you overlooked, if not deliberately ignored.” You falsely infer some duty on me to put opposing views in my limited 200-word statement. I put my case. There are hundreds of pages of commentary on the internet available to anyone who is interested in pursuing the issue once it was raised. Engagement—that’s the subject of this piece. Then another bogus statement: “You have done this again by selectively quoting Orwell.” Well, yes, I couldn’t fit his whole anthology into 200 words, which forces me to again quote him selectively: “There are some ideas so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them.”

Ross Howard | 28 July 2021  

So then nice to see you and I engaging, Rosco; unless your preference for that is a mutual admiration society, no ;)

Michael Furtado | 31 July 2021  

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