Another Benedictine Option

Daniella Zsupan-Jerome

Assistant Professor of Liturgy, Catechesis and Evangelization, Loyola Institute for Ministry, Loyola University New Orleans
Oblate of St. Joseph Abbey, Covington, Louisiana

Fra Angelio, St. Benedict (1442)


Have you heard of the Benedict Option? I admit using this as a conversation starter at many recent gatherings where the Church thinks. More often, the answer is no, whereupon I take the pleasure of providing a quick summary and then launching into an animated exposition of my thoughts on the matter. Sometimes, the answer is yes, especially among those who keep an eye on the conversation on First Things, The American Conservative, or Crisis Magazine. In either case, I delight in a chance for a conversation, and God bless those who have been my gracious captive audience.

Benedictine spirituality is close to my heart. I learned my love for the liturgy from the monks at Saint John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, and came away with an M.A. and a deep impression that I continue to unpack a decade later. I am now an oblate of St. Joseph’s Abbey in Covington, Louisiana, a place that has become a spiritual home since I moved to this part of the country. I read Michael Casey, Esther De Waal, Kathleen Norris. I reflect on the Rule, and let my imagination fly with the Dialogues of St. Gregory the Great. In this tradition I have found treasure—deep wisdom for a simple, ordinary way of life that is focused on Christ and is intentional about community. Because of all this, when I became aware of the Benedict Option, I experienced a complex reaction of intrigue, delight, some suspicion, and an urge to be protective of anything that bears the name of Benedict to be authentically Benedictine. My exuberance about the topic at conferences is a sign that I continue to process this reaction with whomever will listen to me (thank you, dear reader).

The Benedict Option is a term coined by Rod Dreher, who, reflecting on the great and worthy question of the relationship between faith and culture, turned to Alasdair MacIntyre’s famous call for another St. Benedict in the conclusion of his classic After Virtue (1981).   In Dreher’s original take on the Benedict Option, he envisions a “communal withdrawal from the mainstream, for the sake of sheltering one’s faith and family from corrosive modernity and cultivating a more traditional way of life.” His two examples to illustrate what this can look like are the lay communities gathering and growing around Clear Creek Abbey in Oklahoma and the Eagle River Orthodox community near Anchorage. Insisting that they are not separatists and that they are lacking formal structure, Dreher asserts that these families simply live drawn to community inspired by the old monastic way of life.

Since late 2013 when Dreher published his vision, the Benedict Option (BenOp) has generated much discussion, debate and elaboration. Dreher is working on a book, and there is a conference on the topic scheduled for the fall of 2015 at Georgetown University. Inspired by the BenOp, creative thinkers have pointed to the Jeremiah Option, the Escriva Option, the Elder Zosima Option, and the Francis Option, just to name a few. To withdraw or not to withdraw from culture can be the appropriate subtitle to a large part of the debate and discussion (maybe even to Dreher’s forthcoming book?), and this too is certainly a worthwhile question. But I wonder if so much focus on this aspect of Benedict’s narrative conceals some of the other, profound and life-giving wisdom we can gather from this spiritual tradition for living in the world today.   Withdrawal from the world does not make the BenOp Benedictine. It simply makes it a form of homage to the fourth century stirrings of Christian monasticism in the Egyptian desert, and to abbas and ammas who withdrew to the wilderness to live their faith. When it comes to the question of faith and culture, far more salient for me is exploring the dynamics of the alternative community, the coenobium, created by Benedict and numerous others before him (here we have room for the Pachomian Option, the Basilian Option, the Augustinian Option, and the Option of the Master for anyone interested in developing these!). By looking to why and how monastic communities manage to live together as an evangelical witness bears wisdom far beyond the walls of the monastery. At the most elementary level, in their witness we encounter a group of people who have committed to being a Christ centered community, come what may. In our age we experience divisions like gashes on the flesh of society, whether about race, sexual orientation, immigration, religious freedom, or a variety of political allegiances. Discussion around these cut and slice the other, whoever that is. It seems that in this cultural context, commitment to community is something we ought to listen to, especially when thinking about the question of faith and culture.

In his response to Dreher’s initial presentation of the BenOp, John Goerke rightly pointed to the difference between the lay and monastic vocations, and warned against confusing the two at the expense of the lay person’s authentic call to be active in the world. As a Benedictine oblate, clarity around this distinction is especially important. The role of the oblate, elaborated here, is “to live in the world, to become holy in the world, to do what they can to bring the world to God by being witnesses of Christ by word and example to those around them.” The oblate is one who takes the joy and inspiration found in Benedictine spirituality and shares it in and through the myriad of ways lay people are active in the world. When it comes to finding the line between lay and monastic, the experience of the oblate can be a helpful practical example. In the experience of the oblate finding the balance is not only possible but also intended.

Il Sodoma, The Life of St Benedict Scene 12: Benedict Receives Pladicus and Maurus, detail (1505)

Oblation simply means offering. In the Benedictine tradition, oblates originated from families offering their children to the monastery for their education; the oblate was the child offered by the parents to the community for this purpose. In more recent history, adult oblates interpret offering in terms of self-gift. These are the words recited as part of the oblation ritual at St. Joseph Abbey:

I offer myself to Almighty God, I commit myself to Stability of Heart, Fidelity to the Spirit of the Monastic Life and Obedience to the Will of God according to the Rule of Our Holy Father Benedict.

To become an oblate is an act of self-gift: it is a fundamentally outward movement of oneself and a relational act that makes room (offers hospitality, if you will) to the will of God. In this outward movement the oblate practices stability of heart, fidelity to the spirit of the monastic life, and obedience as ongoing spiritual dispositions to maintain this hospitality. Specific disciplines to achieve these dispositions include regular prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours, lectio divina, going on retreat, and remaining otherwise connected with one’s monastic community, and throughout it all being intimately familiar with the Rule. The oblate life is lived in the world and with order and structure built around these disciplines.

In looking at the dynamics of the Benedictine community as a source of wisdom for our time, I bring the perspective of the oblate, which is lay spirituality speaking specifically to the question at the heart of the BenOp’s puzzle: monastic tradition experienced in the midst of culture. I am not sure if any of my family or friends has considered my oblation a withdrawal from culture or shying away from my vocation as a lay married person; more so they see and celebrate it as a way I have come to deepen my spirituality. As part of this deepening there are definite, countercultural elements: avoiding self-indulgence and an excess of anything, embracing humility and obedience instead of self-promotion and pride, and practicing stability of heart expressed as perseverance and commitment in a culture where it is so much easier to walk away from or vilify those who are other. Just signs of being a Christian, really, whether in our time or 1500 years ago, and whether one is living at the heart of the secular empire or in the vicinity of a monastery.

I am grateful to the BenOp for all the conversation it has generated around what it means to live faithfully and virtuously in our world today. I recognize that as an oblate, my approach to the theme is coming from lay spirituality as opposed to socio-political or moral-philosophical critique. To add my own “option” to the BenOp conversation, I first propose calling it the Benedictine Option, an approach based more broadly on the wealth of the whole spiritual tradition instead of the decisive move of the young Benedict away from Rome to Affile and then to Subiaco (and let us also allow him the room to later arrive at Monte Cassino, become abbot, and to finish composing his Rule!) The broader spiritual tradition brings with it not only decisive moments but wisdom literature, liturgical practices, a commitment to service, and a radical, prophetic, and utterly realistic communal way of life. When looking at any aspect of the Benedictine tradition as a response to culture today, let’s not miss this, because if we do, we miss the point.

Much more can be said here about what are the non-negotiables for an authentically Benedictine option. For example, liturgy and the regular, prayerful observance of time has much to offer any conversation around faith and culture and is worth exploring further. In fact, any proposal that bears Benedict’s name that is not rooted in the regular and communal experience of liturgical prayer is concerning to me. In addition to this, the practice of hospitality can and should balance the overall conversation’s heavy focus on withdrawal. Authority and obedience in the Benedictine context is also an evocative topic in a culture that shrinks away from these concepts in general. There is a lot more to say, and as the BenOp buzz continues, perhaps more will be said.

Fifteen hundred years ago a young boy became disillusioned with his life at school, walked away from it and into a cave to sort it all out. When he emerged he found himself in the role of a holy man, a miracle maker, a teacher and leader of a mountain top community. He was pricked by thorns, was twice the intended victim of attempted poisoning, and was schooled by his sister about the meaning of real love. Still, he became the father of a movement that continues today to guide men and women to Christ through its little Rule for beginners. So much to learn here, but not without the wealth of the tradition we call Benedictine, which is rooted in prayer, and expressed in communal living, in humility, service, and mutual obedience.

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