The only thing worse than watching Tommy Wiseau’s heartbreaking work of staggering genius The Room, my husband says, is watching The Room while extremely hungover, which he did one miserable afternoon after a party in college. But there is something worse than watching The Room while hungover, and it’s reading Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option stone cold sober. It’s a truly baffling work, one part extended blog post, one part tone-deaf culture war manifesto, and all parts an embarrassing display of a writer high as a kite on his own supply. But these critiques of The Benedict Option have long-since been insightfully (and much more charitably) explored by the likes of Sam Rocha at Patheos and Emma Green in The Atlantic.
As strange a document as The Benedict Option seems to people of different faiths or none at all who have read it, it gets even weirder when read by an Orthodox Christian with the knowledge that the writer, too, is Orthodox. It’s a book written by a Christian to Christians seemingly untouched by the author’s denomination’s theology—I was on the point of saying “the author’s own theology,” but there’s plenty of that in there. That’s the problem. It’s 90% Rod Dreher’s vision of Benedictine LARP, 10% Latin rad trad/alt right obsession with the state of “Western civilization” and 0% authentic Orthodox theology. Maybe one of the most unintentionally revealing and even slightly heartbreaking moments of the book is when Dreher mentions the Jesus Prayer, which his priest assigned him as a prayer rule. The reason? To, Dreher says, “get [me] out of [my] own head.”
It doesn’t seem to have worked.
The very idea of running for the hills, fleeing from postmodernism and The Gay Agenda™, is antithetical to the Orthodox ethos. Dreher is undeniably enamored with the eremitical life, which the Orthodox Church has always regarded with deep reverence and respect. That fatal attraction to all things eremitic is the driving force behind Dreher’s whole manifesto; he devotes nearly a whole chapter to gushing over his visit to the Monastery of St. Benedict in Norcia and the life-changing impact it had on him. He speculates glowingly about what drove St. Benedict to become a hermit, and speaks enviously of the saint’s great escape from the crumbling Western arm of the Roman Empire. But there’s the catch: in all this glowy romance with an idealized past, Dreher misunderstands (or just plain ignores) the whole point of eremitic life. Escape is not and never was the raison d’être for St. Benedict or St. Anthony or the Desert Fathers. Perhaps it’s part of what led them into the desert, but it’s not why they stayed, and it’s not the Orthodox understanding of monasticism. The Orthodox monastic does not run and hide from the world in disgust. She gives up her life and retires in solitude to pray for the entire world out of love.
The hardest thing in this world is to live in it. Existing alongside people who live differently than you is hard. Imagining such people complexly and loving them is even harder. The Orthodox tradition calls us not to take the easy out and flee from them, but to be brave, to stay right where we are and affirm that they are indisputably our brothers and sisters. We are not called to love “the West” or even the Church as we know it. We are commanded to love living and breathing human beings, every single one, without exception, wherever we are, right now.
Escape and retreat are not options.
Kassia is a freelance writer who lives in Florida with her husband, Chris. She enjoys Eastern patristics, Stoic philosophy, and cheap white zin by the jug.
(Image via Pixabay.)