March 9, 2017 (LifeSiteNews) – Columnist Rod Dreher has stirred controversy and discussion with his forthright assertion in a new book that Christians have lost the Culture Wars and also with his explanation of how they should respond.
The Benedict Option borrows heavily from the example of St. Benedict of Nursia, the founder of medieval monasticism. Dreher, a senior editor at The American Conservative, calls not for a retreat from the world but a “thickening” of family, parish, and community life so that Christians can be strong enough to suffer the kind of persecution Christians endure elsewhere and shine the light of Christ in the darkness.
On March 16 at 6 p.m. EST, Dreher will participate in a panel discussion on the Benedict Option in New York City sponsored by the American Conservative, First Things, and Plough periodicals. To sign up for live streaming, go here.
LifeSiteNews: An important part of your book is about your stay at the Monastery of St. Benedict in Norcia. But the Benedict Option is not a call for a return to monasticism, is it?
Rod Dreher: For those of us who are called to live in a monastery or a convent, I hope they will accept that call. But for most of us, that is not our call. We are called to live in the world. But there are lessons about how Benedictine monks and nuns live that we can draw on as lay Christians on how to live faithfully in a post-Christian world.
LifeSiteNews: What are those lessons?
Rod Dreher: There are a number … but the first one is, I think, that we have to impose a certain order on our lives if we are to keep our eyes focused firmly on Christ. Father Cassion Folsom — who, for the time I was there, was the prior — told me that in the modern world our attention is so dissipated and fragmented by a thousand different things that our spiritual powers are also depleted.
What the monks do is that they live this highly regimented life according to the rule of St. Benedict, not for its own sake but for sake of deepening their conversion. So they pray when the rule tells them to pray, they celebrate Mass when the rule tells them to celebrate Mass, they study Scripture when the rule tells them to study Scripture.
Out in the world we aren’t going to live according to such a strict rule, but we do have to have order in our lives. To say on the straight path, so to speak, a path, a pilgrimage towards conversion. They also have to things like practice stability. That is one of the most counter-cultural things the Benedictines can teach us.
LifeSiteNews: You wrote of how, when you and others who were like-minded started an Eastern Orthodox community in Louisiana, you were told you had to spend Saturday night at an evening prayer service if you were to receive Communion on Sunday.
Rod Dreher: That’s right. According to the Russian tradition, you have to go to Vespers to be spiritually prepared to receive Communion the next morning. It wasn’t the Orthodoxy that we were raised in, but the Russians were the ones who sent us a priest and the priest said, “I’m not going to compromise on this.” I was very frustrated by this. We love our [Saturday night] crawfish boils, we love our fish fries. [Yet] over time I came to see that as a tremendous blessing. What that simple practice did, standing there, that 45 minutes pause for evening prayer, it trained my heart to realize that God has to come first in all things in my life. After a few months, I wouldn’t have missed Vespers for anything.
Whether Catholic or Orthodox or Protestant, we have to start doing everyday things around Christ and the worship of Christ.
LifeSiteNews: You put a lot of importance on Benedictine hospitality. Why is that?
Rod Dreher: A lot of people think the Benedict Option is all about retreat from the world. It’s a misconception and I think the Benedictine practice of hospitality goes a long way to dispelling that. The saint tells his monks that they are to receive all visitors as if they were Christ himself. And they do that. It is amazing the welcome they give you. [However,] the monks make it clear the only way they can greet us is that they spend most of their time behind monastery walls in prayer, in contemplation, in Scripture-study and so forth because only in that way can their hearts and their minds be formed in such away so that they can present the face of Christ to the pilgrims.
LifeSiteNews: How do you translate that to life outside?
Rod Dreher: We aren’t going to live cloistered behind monastery walls. But we do have to keep a separation between ourselves and the world so that when we do interact with the world we are presenting the face of Christ to believers and non-believers. The monks told me that if they kept their doors wide open in the monastery and people came all the time there would be too much confusion for the monks to actually be formed.
It is a similar thing in the lives of the laity. If, for example, we have television in our house turned on all the time as so many Christian parents do, or if we give our kids smart phones and internet connections on which they can watch anything they want, including pornography, that is a radical way of opening to the world that completely destroys Christian formation.
LifeSiteNews: A key premise of your book is that the Benedict Option is the alternative to continuing to fight the cultural wars, which you argue we have lost. Do you think Christians should give up fighting the LGBT agenda or seeking more protection for the unborn?
Rod Dreher: I believe we cannot as Christians back away from fighting for the rights of the unborn, for traditional marriage and above all for religious liberty, because right now, in the United States at least, if we don’t have religious liberty, then Catholic hospitals and other hospitals will be forced to perform abortions. We know in Canada too there is great fear that Catholic and Christian nursing homes may be compelled to allow euthanasia. The fight for life and the fight for traditional marriage are inextricable from the fight for religious liberty. Christians have to stay in the public square fighting.
But we are being pushed farther and farther out of the public square. Partly because the political and cultural elites are post-Christian and increasingly anti-Christian. [But also] we can’t hold political and cultural power … with so many people leaving the faith. We have a history in the past 40 or 50 years as conservative Christians of thinking if we only got the right people elected — Republican politicians almost always — if we only got the right judges in place, everything would be OK. Well, we succeeded in getting Republicans in office and still the culture has declined precipitously. I think that staying involved in politics is necessary but very far from sufficient.
LifeSiteNews: How does the Benedict Option propose Christians respond?
Rod Dreher: What I’ve proposed is as we are pushed farther and farther out of the public square and I’m talking the long term, when I talk with Catholic doctors and law professors who can see that this is coming, when they look at the millennial generation and see how many of them are fallen away from the faith, that as we experience this loss of power, we have to redouble our efforts within our individual parishes and families. [We must] hold on even more strongly to the truths of the faith because there will be even more pressure in the public square to conform to this post-Christian orthodoxy, to abandon our faith, to apostatize.
Think about Jeremiah 29, when God … told the Israelites who were captives in Babylon that he had brought them there for sound reason and he would deliver them, but in the meantime they are to pray for the peace of the city and to establish themselves there but not bow down to the idols of the Babylonians.
So we see in Daniel, the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. How did those faithful Israelites who went to the fiery furnace instead of apostatize, we have to ask ourselves today, how did those men living among the Babylonians find the strength to go to their own deaths rather than deny God? How is it in the history of the church, the martyrs throughout the history of the church, how did they find the strength to do that? We, please God, are not going to face martyrdom or the fiery furnace in our lifetimes or the lifetimes of our children. But the temptations to bow down before strange gods are omnipresent and they are going to get stronger. If we’re going to keep our eyes on the truth, be faithful even if it costs us something, then we are going to have to use the time we have now and strengthen ourselves and prepare ourselves through fasting, through prayer, through worship and through study.
LifeSiteNews: However, if we just do those things it, doesn’t it look like we are turning our back on the world?
Rod Dreher: In the book, I talk about some really good examples. Look at what the dissidents in Czechoslovakia did. They had no political power. Most of them were secular. But one Christian who was part of Vaclav Havel’s circle was a man named Vaclav Benda. They believed they had to create what Benda called a “parallel polis.”
What that meant was, if you could not in good conscience participate in the public square as defined by the Communists, or they wouldn’t let you — for example, if you were a professor who’d been kicked out of the university because you would not teach Marxist dogma — that only meant you should start your own underground classes or your own seminaries. There were all kind of ways you could create these parallel structures. … Benda himself was very critical of the Catholic bishops who had … reached a kind of agreement with the Communists whereby the Communists left them alone as long as they kept in their homes and out of the public square.
Benda as a faithful Catholic believed in witness, it had to be communal. But he had to be smart about it. There was no point in sacrificing yourself foolishly. You had to be willing to get out there and show the faith in public. So he thought any time when people got together to be social and to remind themselves that we are a community that this is what we are about, that this was inevitably a political act. Any time we stand up as Christians and come together for something as simple as a communal meal or doing a project together, that is a political act.
LifeSiteNews: The way the culture has turned against Christianity that you describe in the first part of your book with American examples, do you see it worldwide?
Rod Dreher: It is a phenomenon that is general throughout the West. It was thought, and not without reason, that the United States was going to be a counter-example to what was happening. But that is no longer credible. The U.S. has taken a dramatic leap down the same slide pioneered for us by the Canadians, the Brits and the Europeans.
LifeSiteNews: You are saying we have to be prepared to be denied jobs, not just florists who won’t service same-sex weddings, but doctors and nurses?
Rod Dreher: I think we are going to have to be prepared at least to avoid going into the professions, into law, into medicine, into media, I’m saying this as a professional journalist. If we are required to deny Christ in a substantial way, we have to prepare to be poor. That is something that is incredibly difficult for Americans to face because we have never had to live it in a substantial and material way.
Right now, right around the world, in China, in Egypt, in Muslim-dominated countries, there are Christians who are suffering in ways that we North Americans can hardly begin to comprehend and yet they are doing it for the glory of God. They are doing it for the love of Christ and their neighbor. Let us take hope and take courage.
LifeSiteNews: Do you see a resurgence, or is it too soon?
Rod Dreher: We have already started to see pockets of resistance. For example, there is a magnificent group of Italian Catholics, lay Catholics, who live in a seaside city called San Benedetto del Tronto on the Adriatic. They attend their normal parishes, live in apartments and houses in the city. But they come together for Mass, for Scripture study and for school. They started their own classical Christian school. They have formed a community of conscious, counter-cultural resistance. And they’re joyful. France bears a rising generation of young Catholic millennials who are not caught up in the old fight with traditionalists. They know they are a minority and they are afraid of nothing. I find this sort of thing incredibly encouraging.
This is what I consider the Benedict Option. It will take different forms in different countries, but it has to form. I know some of what has been going on in Canada is incredibly sobering. But the answer is not to give up. You can’t give up. But the people of Canada and Europe and the United States have to prepare for the long duration. We have got to put our roots down more deeply in the faith so we can be more of a support for each other.