Benedict Option Advice for Evangelicals (And for Everyone)

I’ve been mulling over the Benedict Option and Evangelicals ever since video of Rod Dreher’s talk at UVA’s Center for Christian Study posted a couple of weeks ago.  As a Catholic, I find Evangelical interest in the Benedict Option fascinating.  My own Benedict Option journey has involved nearly 20 years of Catholic churches, countless trips to monasteries in the U.S. and abroad, an MA in Theology, and studying Alasdair MacIntyre.  At any rate, enough about me.

Yesterday, Rod posted a letter from an Evangelical reader , Matt, who is interested in the Benedict Option.  Matt, however, expressed something much deeper than that:

I was asking myself questions like: at bottom, what does my faith stand on? Why do I believe what I believe? If my final authority lies in the sacred writings, how do I defend that belief? Is it circular? Isn’t everyone’s ultimate standard of truth defended in a circular way? If so, what tips the scales to the Bible? Is this way of thinking even the right way? The best way? I was asking questions about epistemology, but also another kind of question: What does the Christian life look like?

Those are some probing questions.  As a convert to the Catholic Church from nothing in college, I can empathize with these kinds of deep epistemological questions.  I did first become a Christian more or less Evangelical-style, though I had a deep inclination toward many things Catholic.  Rod’s reader expresses some more traditional and liturgical leanings in some recent changes he’s adopted toward his “Benedict Option Baby Steps:”

So, I am now attempting to do what Jake Meador brought up in his blog post [CS-link added]: small steps for a busy family with a 3-year-old toward something like the Benedict Option for us. That means a focus on the liturgical calendar (actually celebrating Reformation Sunday with my family crafting our very own Luther’s Rose while eating gingerbread cookies and listening to “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”). Also, structuring my day around prayer (morning, noon, and evening) by praying through the Divine Hours (http://annarborvineyard.org/tdh/tdh.cfm). I’ve added a time of simple family worship at the end of our day at home (read a text of Scripture, recite the Apostle’s Creed, pray). I’ve taken up praying the Jesus Prayer, which I heard about from you. This was especially new to me. Praying through pre-written prayers is one thing, but the Jesus Prayer especially goes beyond the traditions of my background. But once I tried it, I knew that there was something to it. The way it centered my mind on Christ was unlike any other spiritual practice. I recently purchased a prayer rope as well.

His whole letter is worth reading.  Rod then asks his readers what we would say to Matt.  The following are the five things I’d advise to broaden and deepen his Benedict Option experience.

  1. Find a Benedictine or Trappist monastery and attend prayer with the monks.  I’ve had the great privilege of spending a total of three years studying at Benedictine monasteries and praying regularly with the monks.  Participating in the living monastic tradition–particularly the daily hours of prayer has provided an invaluable perspective on how to incorporate monastic practices into my own non-cloistered life.  The reader mentions Louisville, KY.  It’s not clear whether he’s from there or currently lives there, but if he’s living in Louisville, then visit the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani about an hour south of Louisville.  Thomas Merton is buried there.  I firmly believe that one needs to get the look, smell, and feel of the lived monastic tradition as a necessary part of living out the Benedict Option, especially at first.  The slow, deliberate, contemplative pace of monastic prayer and life is the number one thing I strive to incorporate into my own hectic existence as a married father of two boys.
  2. Pray the Liturgy of the Hours.  It sounds like Matt is already starting to do something like this.  Online resources like divineoffice.org and  universalis.org are great places to start.  I use Benedictine Daily Prayer: A Short Breviary.  It is the only Benedictine-focused Breviary I am aware of.
  3. Read monastic sources.  Read the Life of Benedict by St. Gregory the Great and the Rule.  Get to know St. Benedict, but don’t stop there.  Go back to the beginning with St. Athanasius’ biography of St. Anthony of the Dessert, read the sayings of Desert Fathers, the Conferences and Institutes of John Cassian.  A Benedict Option without St. Benedict and the monastic tradition is a “less than” option.
  4. Solve the problem of the Reformation.  My own experience with this happened very soon after I accepted Christ, which happened outside of a church setting in a small Evangelical campus men’s group.  I had been taught by my Evangelical friends that attending church was important, so that meant I had to decide what church I was going to commit to.  I saw my options as Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox.  The Orthodox Church seemed foreign and remote, so that left Protestant or Catholic (I have since developed a great love of Eastern Christianity!).  It was May 1996 that I accepted Christ and I spent the summer reading Luther, Calvin, and other theologies and histories of the Reformation.  As I mentioned above, I had already developed a Catholic bias.  The works of Russell Kirk, G.K. Chesterton, and Thomas Merton were all absolutely key for me.  The burden of my reading that summer was to give the Reformation a chance to explain itself.  I came to the conclusion that I could not stand in the tradition of Sola Scriptura.  Luther’s formulations of Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, as well as the profoundly negative anthropolgies of Luther (snow-covered dung heap) and Calvin (total depravity) provided an unstable foundation upon which to base a church and a totally out of balance vision of the human person that did not align with the God of Genesis that created human beings as “good.”  The more recent work of Notre Dame historian Brad S. Gregory reveals how the Reformation begat the secularism of the 18th and 19th century in The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society–and how we are laboring today with the cultural chaos initiated by the Reformation.
  5. Just jump in and do it!  It certainly sounds like Matt is already doing so, but looking at Benedict and monasticism from the outside can be a bit daunting.  The moto here at Another Benedict, borrowed from G.K Chesterton’s book What’s Wrong with the World, is “If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.”  The early monastic tradition was all about experimentation and practicality in attempting to live the Gospel to the full.  The Benedict Option needs to embrace that same spirit!

If Matt or anyone else has questions about diving deeper into the Benedict Option please reach out and let me know!  I’m always happy to help!  anotherbenedict at gmail dot com.

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