David Russell Mosley
25 April 2017
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire
Please accept my sincerest apologies for not having written again on this subject sooner. Too many new responsibilities with my new job, plus all the old responsibilities for my other two jobs, pushed blogging and then Dreher’s Benedict Option out of my mind. Now, what with all the fervor quieted down, I thought it might be good to return to it.
I left off comparing Dreher’s Benedict Option to Michael Martin’s Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything (also known as the Sophia Option). In that review I suggested, following––to an extent––Martin, that Dreher’s approach is based in fear. This has been challenged by other critics of Dreher suggesting that the Dreher isn’t motivated by fear but by alarm. That is, Dreher is calling us to be alarmed at where culture and society are headed and to prepare to weather the storm. This is not, necessarily, fear. I do think fear still plays a role, but I am willing to accept the critique that, at least within the book, Dreher’s motivation is more alarm (in the sense of sounding an alarm because of what is happening) than fear of what may. I still think Dreher reactionary, but we’ll leave that for now.
Today, I want to talk about Dreher in relationship to two other “options”. The first is the “Patrick Option” has suggested by Jonathan Ryan at Sick Pilgrim, and the other is the Dominic Option put forward several years ago by Chad Pecknold (which I once critiqued here).
In a St. Patrick’s Day post, Ryan coined (I believe) the phrase the Patrick Option. Ryan wrote:
Everyone is talking about the Benedict Option, but I think the Patrick Option is way better. The Irish monks went out as a community, built communities and then invited the pagan communities to come and see.
Rather than withdrawing from society, Ryan sees the “Celtic” (a rather ambiguous term, though one I still like) monastic pattern, especially as practised in Ireland with Patrick and in Scotland and Europe with Irish monks, of going to new places, creating communities (creating cultures effectively) and inviting outsiders to join them as the better answer for our own age. Of course there’s more than a little Celtic romanticism built up in this, but I don’t think that detracts from the overall idea. Rather than withdraw we should seek to create culture. Rather than react, we should seek to act and invite others to join us. Christians should not be the Johnny-come-latelys whether we’re talking about music, poetry, art, social justice, ecological justice, science, etc. And what’s more, our efforts should serve the end of bringing the Light of Christ to the world.
Rather similar to this is Pecknold’s now three year old, Dominic Option. In the article where Pecknold describes this option, he writes of the Benedict Option:
What is to be done about this discord? I have always been drawn to Alasdair MacIntyre’s prediction that we need “a new, doubtless very different Saint Benedict” that enables the great Christian tradition to be passed on, preserving the seeds for a new civilization to emerge after the moral poverty of today’s liberalism leads us into dark, chaotic valleys. Rod Dreher has popularized MacIntyre by formulating this hope as the Benedict Option. It refers to our need for small communities of virtue, a new localist movement, and a return to the land or the place of one’s birth. The Benedict Option means cultivating a new counterculture that can resist the barbarian onslaught.
Oh how I wish this is what Dreher meant. Sadly his book shows otherwise.
Pecknold’s chief complaint is that while MacIntyre (and at the time he believed Dreher as well) was not advocating for withdrawal, this is the common image held about Benedictines. So, when you tell people that Christian society ought to live like Benedict, this conjures up the image of withdrawal, even though that is not wholly appropriate to the Benedictine charism. Therefore, Pecknold suggests a different monastic model:
Better, therefore, to speak of the Dominican Option. When I see them in the white habits at prayer, or giving lectures, or playing guitars and banjos on the subway, I have a plausible image of a “contrast society” that is very much engaged with the world—an evangelistic witness which is joyful, intellectually serious, expansive, and charitable.
Rather than withdrawal, Pecknold would see us engage culture and thereby show our stark contrast.
Both the Patrick and Dominic options would see us engaging with the culture around us. What I love about both of these is the way I think liturgy can play such a strong role in unveiling the Church to society at large. Consider what it would look like if Catholics everywhere turned up at work on Ash Wednesday with an ashen cross on their foreheads. Consider what it would say to the world if churches every reengaged with older liturgical practices and feasts such as Plough Sunday (the blessing of the plow), Lamas (the blessing of the first loaf of bread), blessing beer, and all with all the bells and whistles we can muster. Consider what it could look like if we actually attempted to live our faith intentionally, communally, locally. And what’s more there’s room for Benedict here too. Consider if we did establish communal centers which were unapologetically Catholic and yet educated anyone who came to them, were open to the poor and weary, the traveler, the homeless regardless of religious affiliation.
In a way, perhaps this is the key problem with all of these options, especially the ones named after monastics. After all, different monastic groups have different purposes. St. Benedict may have (largely unintentionally) created a movement that helped save key works of Western Civilization, but not everyone in the Middle Ages was a Benedictine, nor was that a bad thing. Still, in this question of how we live in light of the world around us, I’d certainly prefer an “option” a movement that seeks to engage rather than withdraw; that seeks evangelism as well as preservation; that seeks the ennoblement of the common as common. Which is why in my next letter, I want to critique Dreher’s Benedict Option by way of Distributism.
Until then I remain,
P.S. Here’s an example of the kind of thing Pecknold loves seeing Dominicans doing (and I do too):