Spe Salvi 15: The Real Benedict Option

Regular readers here know of my skepticism for Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option. I think his political blinders help him totally misread the monastic impulse in Christianity. Read a bit of the namesake pope and tell me what you think as we finish up the question, Is Christian hope individualistic?

I think the effort to spread a virtuous Christianity–how I would see Mr Dreher’s effort–is admirable. But it’s caught up in a certain individuality that seems to be at odds with the original. And how I read the text here:

15. While this community-oriented vision of the “blessed life” is certainly directed beyond the present world, as such it also has to do with the building up of this world—in very different ways, according to the historical context and the possibilities offered or excluded thereby. At the time of Augustine, the incursions of new peoples were threatening the cohesion of the world, where hitherto there had been a certain guarantee of law and of living in a juridically ordered society; at that time, then, it was a matter of strengthening the basic foundations of this peaceful societal existence, in order to survive in a changed world.

I’d like to hear from a Roman historian on this. It strikes me that Rome and its apparent ability to unify a part of the world was based more on a military bullying an enslaved populace. Emperors came and went, and except for Trajan and Constantine, who remembers any of them after Nero? Would a Christian consider imperial Rome as a good thing, really?

Let us now consider a more or less randomly chosen episode from the Middle Ages, that serves in many respects to illustrate what we have been saying. It was commonly thought that monasteries were places of flight from the world (contemptus mundi) and of withdrawal from responsibility for the world, in search of private salvation.

Monasticism is so much more than what it appears to be, that retreat from a sinful world.

Bernard of Clairvaux, who inspired a multitude of young people to enter the monasteries of his reformed Order, had quite a different perspective on this. In his view, monks perform a task for the whole Church and hence also for the world. He uses many images to illustrate the responsibility that monks have towards the entire body of the Church, and indeed towards humanity; he applies to them the words of pseudo-Rufinus: “The human race lives thanks to a few; were it not for them, the world would perish …” [SententiaeIII, 118: CCL 6/2, 215]. Contemplatives—contemplantes—must become agricultural laborers—laborantes—he says. The nobility of work, which Christianity inherited from Judaism, had already been expressed in the monastic rules of Augustine and Benedict. Bernard takes up this idea again. The young noblemen who flocked to his monasteries had to engage in manual labor. In fact Bernard explicitly states that not even the monastery can restore Paradise, but he maintains that, as a place of practical and spiritual “tilling the soil”, it must prepare the new Paradise. A wild plot of forest land is rendered fertile—and in the process, the trees of pride are felled, whatever weeds may be growing inside souls are pulled up, and the ground is thereby prepared so that bread for body and soul can flourish [Cf.ibid. III, 71: CCL 6/2, 107-108]. Are we not perhaps seeing once again, in the light of current history, that no positive world order can prosper where souls are overgrown?

Well, it’s a big and wide world. Some souls struggle and God’s grace gives some light from long labors. Even outside Christianity, we can find places where those who sow and till are part of a clearing of brush and thorns. `1

This document is Copyright © 2007 – Libreria Editrice Vaticana. You can find the full document online here.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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5 Responses to Spe Salvi 15: The Real Benedict Option

  1. Liam says:


    1. Remember that the Roman empire *shared* a socio-economic-political culture of enslavement with virtually all of its non-Roman neighbors. That was not a distinguishing feature of the Roman empire. Enslavement was a reality of any group of peoples on the move, who would raid and enslave (or kill); but enslavement in this period was not the chattel slavery of the Modern era of history, but broader and more fluid. About the only pause in enslavement (and later, enserfment) was in areas in the early medieval period that did not experience the migration of peoples and where centralized government had collapsed, and that didn’t last very long. All of the Germanic and Asiatic peoples practiced enslavement on a wide scale (tempered by how they could be put to use: people on the move couldn’t impound people, but they could force enslaved men to be war fodder and women and children to be many other unpleasant things), as did the Vikings and Muslims et cet. So Roman bullying was merely one among all others, nothing unique for Christians to focus their objections upon (Christians in the Persian empire had a *much* harder time, for example, enduring spasms of violent state-sponsored persecutions). The control of the Mediterranean sea and adjacent marine waters by forces of the Roman state had one *enormous* practical advantage for all of the peoples on or near that sea: it provided a relatively safe and cheap (by ancient standards) venue of year-round communication and commerce (not only of the economic kind, but also the religious and cultural kind) across a vast expanse, whose only rival was the Indian Ocean – which was not controlled by any single state and therefore much less safe.

    2. In Late Antiquity, Christianity was not limited to the Roman empire. It extended to African and Asiatic kingdoms and even an empire (Parthian/Persian) outside the reach of Rome (including what is now Ireland and Scotland, as well as the Indian subcontinent and, by the early medieval era by our reckoning, it would reach the Chinese empire). But all of the Asiatic kingdoms/empires were affected by the movement of peoples across the great Eurasian steppes and plains into the more urbanized parts of Eurasia. These peoples were not ethnic nations in the 19th century historians’ sense, but fast-evolving groups comprised of many different “peoples” (including many who were enslaved in the process) who were drawn by economic and climate factors to the urbanized areas. (A good introduction: Empires and Barbarians, by Peter Heather, who has authored a number of fine books offering the non-professional read with an excellent overview and synthesis of learning on the First Millennium in this regard.) Different non-Roman people adopted different flavors of Christianity: the Goths and Vandals were Arian (the Franks’ adoption of Catholicism was a key factor in their rise to supremacy among non-Roman European successor kingdoms), Persians were Miaphysite, et cet.

    3. A lot of people are aware of emperors such as Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius, Commodus – of the previous being characters featured in a lot of popular entertainments of the last century – Diocletian, Justinian, et cet.

    4. St Benedict’s monasticism owed a lot to the tradition of cenobitic monasticism of St Cassian, but Cassian’s was not the original impulse – the original impulse was eremetic monasticism in Egypt and the Near East, which was a *frustrated* attempt to retreat from a sinful world (the hermits soon enough discovered the sinful world was *within* and came with them) – but Christianity subsequently has had waves of both impulses down to our very day.

  2. On enslavement, sure. But I would remain in parted company from any scholar who promoted an unreformed Roman Society as a virtuous example to uphold or consider. A republic with slaves is certainly not praiseworthy. A post-Caesar dictatorship? Forget it. The roads and maybe the well-tuned society for the 1% is a very limited virtue.

    • Liam says:

      But I don’t think that issue is in play in Spe Salvi. I was trying to provide context for Augustine’s referenced vision: the role the Roman state played in the unique civic-cultural space that was the Mediterranean-based order. And Augustine is relevant on that score because, once the Vandals took over North Africa (and then Sardinia, Corsica and the Balearic Islands), they also disrupted Roman control over the Western Mediterranean and a profound sense of disorder ensued that was never fully overcome (arguably even to this very day; heck, we’re still living through consequences of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in our own time!). The western part of the church had a different approach to relations with states than the middle part (what we’d call Eastern, but better thought of as Hellenistic-rooted) and also than the truly eastern part that few remember that was outside the Roman-dominated world; the western and truly eastern parts retaining different oppositional stances towards states, the middle part seeing a “symphonic” partnership as ideal.

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