Alasdair MacIntyre has pointed out that the barbarians are no longer vying for the seat of power, they “have already been governing us for quite some time.” With this historical fact taken for granted, it will be profitable to elaborate on the meaning of what Rod Dreher (in the spirit of MacIntyre) has coined the “Benedict Option,” correct a few misconceptions surrounding this option, and then end with a defense for its necessity.
The purpose of the Benedict Option is twofold and can be summed up by the words of St. Paul to the Thessalonians when he exhorts them to strive for holiness: "For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like heathen who do not know God; …For God has not called us for uncleanness, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you…But we exhort you brethren…to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we charged you; so that you may command the respect of outsiders, and be dependent on nobody" (1 Thess 4:3-12)
While this succinctly describes the purpose of the Benedict Option—to put God first without “disregard” and to obtain holiness—it does not make clear how one ought to proceed from here; although it does leave hints, one of which is found in the last part of the verse. When St. Paul tells us to “work quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands” he is giving us an idea as to how we ought to go about accomplishing the previous exhortation to “abstain from immorality” and to control our “own body in holiness and honor.” If working quietly and with our hands is the way to do this, then we can conclude at least one thing about the Benedict Option: there will have to be some distance between us and the noise of the world. Without this distance, the quiet that we ought to seek cannot be had.
This necessary distance has both a literal and metaphorical sense: First, distance must include a literal geographical distance (one cannot escape the smoke of a burning house unless one physically leaves the premises). Second, the distance we seek will have to be one that allows us to be independent of the modern ethos (i.e., “be dependent on nobody”). The former can be obtained by our own hands. The latter will demand a reorientation of the whole person, which can only be attained by right worship. And this of course is the ultimate end of the Benedict Option—to first glorify God in worship, and secondly, to obtain holiness in so doing.
While this option is a movement away from the ethos of modern culture and toward a deeper worship of God, it does not mean that we must all drop completely out of society, move to the desert, and let our political structures remain in the hands of the Church’s enemies without a fight. The Benedict Option is not the logical conclusion to the religion of Timothy Leary; it is not a “dropping out;” it is a means to spiritual integrity and the worship of God.
While the option is not a total seclusion, it does however hold that in a society so corrupt and ungrounded in any kind of transcendent moral system (apart from unbridled individualism), one must place oneself at a distance. In an atmosphere where the icons are half naked Disney princesses, the “leaders” are all but professed enemies of the traditional teachings of Christ and His Church (a profession would make things a lot easier), and Catholic education has fallen into the tyranny of entertainment, there must be some kind of separation.
A common objection at this point is that the world will not listen to us if we look weird and are not acclimated to the culture. There are at least two responses to this objection: First, “what culture?” There is no culture, which means there is no possibility of acclimating. Apart from one-on-one conversations (the kind where the interlocutors can actually see the facial expressions of each other), there is no convincing those in the world of our understanding of the Trinitarian God and His universe. Secondly, even if there were a culture, it is in contradiction to Christ and therefore must be contradicted by our very lives. We must accept that we are going to have to be a sign of contradiction to the world; we are going to look weird, and we are going to anger a lot of people. We can be certain of this, since it already happened to the Master, and we are only servants.
The Benedict Option allows one to cast off the old man more easily and put on the new by removing not only the temptations of our cultureless society, but the contagions as well. What is meant by contagion is that, given the current climate, one cannot help but have one’s soul tainted by the surroundings in which we are placed. Man learns through images and experience; when he is constantly bombarded with the godless worldview of modernity, like a room on fire filled with smoke, he (especially children) cannot help but be affected by what he sees, whether he gives into the temptation or not. When we are constantly immersed in this mentality of modernity and her icons, we cannot help but find that our approach to the Almighty is weakened and, at times, spineless. And herein lies at least one reason for the necessity of the Benedict Option: whether we can withstand the temptations or not, we cannot thwart the effect it has on us in spite of our noble efforts to abstain from the filth and mediocrity of our era, so we respectfully return the ticket to our modern prophets and turn to the desert. Only once we have removed ourselves from the burning building can we then help put out the fire.
Again, this does not mean that we must be totally “off the grid” or cut off from society. If each community were to heed the words of St. Benedict of Nursia, people would see that this way of life is one that is open and desires the salvation of all men; it is not a concealed society seeking to close out the world entirely:
“All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me…All humility should be shown in addressing a guest on arrival or departure. By a bow of the head or by a complete prostration of the body, Christ is to be adored because he is indeed welcomed in them. After the guest have been received, they should be invited to pray”
This option has always remained open to the needs of those who are not in full communion with the Catholic Church, both for the body, as well as the soul (c.f., the corporal and spiritual works of mercy). What it does not allow is an intrusion of the world (including those Protestant ideas that would dilute the Catholic Faith) into the Church’s worship and adoration of God; in these matters, we must be stubborn and unyielding. Those who think we ought to choose the option of conforming to the culture so as not to sound irrelevant fall into the heinous mistake of placing the spread of the Gospel over and above right worship and union with God. They allow Catholic worship to fall into a kind of watered-down, amorphous gathering. They put second things first, and in so doing destroy both aspects of the life of the Church (i.e., first, to know God and secondly, to make Him known). Lewis, with his characteristic clarity, has laid to rest the idea that we can approach God by putting second things first when he stated:
“Of course this law has been discovered before, but it will stand re-discovery. It may be stated as follows: every preference of a small good to a great, or partial good to a total good, involves the loss of the small or partial good for which the sacrifice is made. . . You can’t get second things by putting them first. You get second things only by putting first things first.”
And if this bit of flawless logic is not enough, we have Christ Himself implicitly raising the principle to the level of divine infallibility when asked “Master, which is the greatest commandment in the law,” He did not immediately respond with “love thy neighbor”; He responded “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind. This is the greatest and first commandment.” It is only after the Master has made clear that our first duty is to God—not to His creatures—that He feels free to point out our duty to one another: “And the second is like to this: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thy self” (Mt 22:36-40)
The Benedict Option is nothing more than a means by which we put first things first; it guards us with the tools we need to be in the world but not of it; by placing distance between us and the world, we do not remove ourselves from it; we merely make certain that the contagion of this world does not dilute our love of God.
Dialogue is no longer possible
Earlier I mentioned that contagion is one of the reasons why this option is not merely an option, but a necessity. The following reason is even more convincing: dialogue is no longer possible. At least, it is not possible on any real social level. We cannot discuss the faith with the modern world as if modernity were merely an adversary seeking battle. The modern mindset does not seek battle; it seeks what Bishop Rudlof Graber calls a kind of "synocracy" where the goal is assimilation and not conversion. In other words, there is no battlefield on which to fight for the good, because the common ground has been taken from us. The adversaries do not wish to convert; they merely wish to listen and to lull. Language and definitions have broken down to such a degree that the modern mind no longer even rises to the level of error; it merely desires to assimilate through a false dialogue rather than battle for the truth. An example of this can be found in Josef Pieper’s book, The Christian Idea of Man, in which he quotes the philosopher Peter Valéry explaining how we are no longer capable of talking about the word virtue, since it has lost its meaning:
“Virtue, gentlemen, the word virtue is dead or is at least dying out….For the contemporary mind it no longer serves as a direct expression of what we see as present day reality….I must myself confess that I have never heard it, or rather—what is far more significant—I have always heard it mentioned only as a rarity and in an ironic sense when used in conversation in a normal social context...if I did not add that I do not remember encountering it in books which are currently the most read and the most highly prized…So it has come to the point that the words ‘virtue’ and ‘virtuous’ can now only be found in the catechism, in jokes, in the Academy, and in comic opera.”
The images that are conjured up in the modern mind when the word virtue is spoken are no longer those of a perfected man or a fierce saint but of the moping moralist. The common ground necessary for conversation can no longer be assumed. So let us found our communities, submit them to Christ the King, and give our whole being to God in just worship. Only after we have put this first thing first, will we be able to go out and convert the hearts of men.
Both the Old and the New Testament point to the Benedict Option as a necessity. We see Moses leading his people into the desert to worship God in the barren lands surrounding Egypt and her fleshpots; we see Elijah fleeing society to live near the Brook of Cherith and then later spending forty days in the desert, which allows God to feed him with the bread of Angels and meet him in the “still small voice.” We see Our Lady living in almost complete historical obscurity “pondering these things in her heart,” and finally, we see Christ, just after His baptism spending the next forty days being tempted by Satan in the desert. And what does Christ gain from this, the ability to enter back into society—not to be “acclimated” by his political peers or to fight a “culture war”—but to be crucified. You see, the end of the Benedict Option is not winning back the culture; the end is offering a just sacrifice to the Father out of love for Him. Fixing the culture is secondary, like fixing the moral errors in my own children is secondary to my love for them. Love is the end; social healing is a consequence. If this is ever inverted, then we will fall into the same trap that we have been warned against countless times in Sacred Scripture; we will fall into a kind of mere liberation theology and into the idea that the Tower of Babel is the way to obtain God. In other words, we will believe the lie that our technology and political structures are the way to bring heaven on earth--that we can, of our own accord, be like God knowing good and evil. And in the end, we will find a way to turn stones into bread, but we will not be able to turn bread into flesh; only after we have submitted ourselves to God in love and right worship will that be possible—it cannot be secondary.
 "The Instruments of Good Works [are] In the first place to love the Lord God with the whole heart, the whole soul, the whole strength...Then, one's neighbor as one's self. Then…to hold one's self aloof from worldly ways [and] to prefer nothing to the love of Christ" (Rule of St. Benedict, IV)
 “Do not be mismated with unbelievers. For what partnership have righteousness and iniquity? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What agreement has the temple of God with idols….Therefore come out from them, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch nothing unclean. Then I will come and be a Father to you. And you shall be my sons and daughters says the Lord Almighty” (II Corinthians 6:14-18); “Therefore do not associate with them, for once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord…take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness” (Ephesians 5:7-11)
 Here is a link to one of the proponents of such educational models: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EjrEMfOSqQ4
 “And Simeon blessed them, and said to Mary his mother: Behold this child is set for the fall, and for the resurrection of many in Israel, and for a sign which shall be contradicted. And thy own soul a sword shall pierce, that, out of many hearts, thoughts may be revealed” (Luke 2:34-35).
 “If the world hates you, know ye, that it hath hated me before you. If you had been of the world, the world would love its own: but because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you. Remember my word that I said to you: The servant is not greater than his master. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15: 18-20).
 "But you have not so learned Christ; if so be that you have heard him, and have been taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus: To put off, according to former conversation, the old man, who is corrupted according to the desire of error. And be renewed in the spirit of your mind: And put on the new man, who according to God, is created in justice and holiness of truth” (Ephesians 4:20-25).
 The Rule of St. Benedict, 53.1-6
 Michael Davies explains the difference well: “The line of demarcation between Catholic and Protestant worship was laid down clearly at the Reformation. The most striking differences were as follows: The Catholic Mass was celebrated in Latin; the Protestant Lord’s Supper in English…The Mass was celebrated on a sacrificial altar facing the East; the Lord’s Supper was celebrated on a table facing the people. In the Mass, Holy Communion was placed on the tongue of the communicant by the anointed hand of a priest; in the Lord’s Supper it was placed in the hand of the communicant….This clear distinction between Catholic and Protestant worship remained unchanged for four centuries…making it clear, as John Henry Cardinal Newman expressed it, that Catholicism and Protestantism are two different religions, and not two ways of expressing the same faith” (The Catholic Sanctuary, 15-16)
The authors of this blog are the tutors of Saint John of the Cross Academy: