The time may be near when we can greet a new Anthony as a deliverer–an ascetic whose conspicuous self-denial holds a mirror up to us and makes us loathe ourselves.
That’s an odd thing for a Presbyterian to say. We’re known for warning people about the dangers of asceticism. Just yesterday I read a jeremiad on the subject. But it felt a little like a warning to moles on the dangers of hang-gliding. I confess, I wouldn’t mind seeing some excessive self-denial every now and then.
Are We Ready for the Benedict Option?
Rod Dreher has coined the term, The Benedict Option. It’s a call for a parallel Christian culture embodied in semi-independent, smallish communities that can serve as arks for the best things in western culture as we prepare for the deluge.
He’s taken some heat for it; some have called him a defeatist. But I wonder about our ability to even pull it off. We lack the needed virility. It would require too much: too much sacrifice, too much suffering, too much shame.
It occurs to me we need an Anthony first–just like Benedict did.
Anthony preceded Benedict by two hundred years or so. And Anthony was an inspiration for Augustine too. When comes to saving things, you have to lose something first. Augustine plundered the Egyptians and Benedict built the fortress to hide the treasure, but Anthony came long before. He renounced the Egyptians with his very life. He actually was a wealthy Egyptian, but he turned away from all that and hardened himself to it.
Such a renunciation must be made with a life. Words are not enough. You need a Baptist in a hair shirt, whose conspicuous hardness makes you feel slug-like and contemptible. You need an athlete of God, an exemplar. This isn’t the sort of thing that you can mass produce. It’s irreducibly elitist.
It must be real, no book tours or Youtube videos. No playing to the crowd. He’ll need an Athanasius for a publicist, because self-promotion is a betrayal.
What got me thinking along this line is a class on fasting I’m preparing to teach. I’m reading up on it. Most of it justifies the practice as a way to strengthen prayer, or stir up a longing for God, or even to help with self-discipline.
Those are all right and good, and Anthony would nod his approval, I’m sure. But I think there’s more to it. Fasting has something defiant about it. It is a renunciation of the world, a liberation.
Christianity cannot be reduced to love. “Do not love the world…” John says. Because, “…the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life is not from the Father but from the world.” Fasting, that school of self-denial, spits on all of that.
Until we can do that, don’t talk about a Benedict Option, or even a Augustine Option. We don’t have the right. We don’t have what it takes.