Rod Dreher, writing over at The American Conservative, has been formulating what he calls “the Benedict Option” in our current cultural moment:
If an avalanche is coming, you don’t surrender to it and slide down the hill with the rocks, and you don’t get yourself killed by standing in front of it hoping that God will stop it before it hits you, or that someone will show up at the last minute to rescue you. You get out of the way, and take shelter where you can until it passes you by.
The idea is based on a brief passage in Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, in which he advocates the necessity of small communities disengaging from the dominant cultural landscape in order to preserve what is good, true, and beautiful in those self-same cultures. St Benedict, the founder of the Benedictine Order of monks, did just this in the waning days of Western Roman civilization.
One of the difficulties of this, pointed out by many reviewers and commentators, is that Benedictine monasticism requires a fairly hefty withdrawal from the world; it is generally better situated among rural areas and out of the way places. Much of the history of Western monasticism, taking its cue from St Antony of Egypt and others, can be understood as this pull away from the urban to the secluded. Dreher speaks often of how the Benedict Option does not require one to become a survivalist, but we should be open to the practicality, even wisdom, of a complete disengagement from the urban cultural and political scene. Wendell Berry comes to mind as a possible “abbot-at-large” for the Benedict Option.
I don’t want, in any way, to diminish what Dreher is trying to accomplish; on the contrary, a revival of monasticism in its cenobitic form would do this country a world of good. The constant witness against the crass and ubiquitous materialism that the cloister preaches is a dire necessity for us; the devotion to intimate care from oblation to dormition constitutes a non-verbal gadfly against our revulsion of those who are young and those who are dying. However, the Benedict Option is best suited for the “highways and the hedges” in our country. So, instead of criticizing, I want to suggest that another saint provides a more concrete model for urban cultural engagement on the level that Dreher is arguing for: St Basil of Caesarea, rightly called the Great.
Basil is credited with developing what St Gregory of Nazianzus, in his elegy for his friend, called the ‘New City’ and which we know as the ‘Basiliad’:
A noble thing is philanthropy, and the support of the poor, and the assistance of human weakness. Go forth a little way from the city, and behold the new city, the storehouse of piety, the common treasury of the wealthy, in which the superfluities of their wealth, aye, and even their necessaries, are stored, in consequence of his exhortations, freed from the power of the moth, no longer gladdening the eyes of the thief, and escaping both the emulation of envy, and the corruption of time: where disease is regarded in a religious light, and disaster is thought a blessing, and sympathy is put to the test. (Oration 43.63)
Basil had set up a community of religious dedicated to the care of the urban poor, the displaced, the leper, the sick, and the dying. All within the metropolitan limits of Caesarea. Part of what allowed this to take place was Basil’s preaching on the true use and reality of wealth (a sentiment shared by none other than St John Chrysostom): the rich are for the health of the poor, the poor are for the salvation of the rich. It was a form, if you will, of separation in the midst of the world. Bounded by the strong sense of Apostolic Tradition, of the true Faith, and then sent out as humble, consubstantial healers in the city. This, it seems to me, is what Dreher is after.
The question that arises in my mind, though, is whether or not we have a solid enough Faith here in the States to start these sorts of communities of outreach and healing. Can there be any chance of coherent community outside a unified Faith, at least on the local level? Can the Presbyterians continue to fracture and shatter into a million warring factions (see Jonathan Frame’s classic and depressing essay “Machen’s Warrior Children” for how this has worked out on a level outside of the PCUSA) and expect to be a cultural bulwark? Can the Catholics recover from the cultural damage caused by the sex scandal? Are the Orthodox a significant enough presence in our urban areas, and are they willing to give up ethnic and nationalist distinctives for the sake of the salvation of the American soul?