Rod Dreher, author of The Benedict Option, recently addressed a meeting in Dublin co-hosted by The Iona Institute and the Notre Dame Centre for Faith and Reason. He discussed what Christians in Ireland and other countries need to do to live their faith and pass it when they are in a minority situation in their country, and in an increasingly indifferent and often hostile climate. The following is an abridged version of his talk, with the text courtesy of the Iona Institute. The full text can be found at a link on this page of the Iona website.
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Thank you for this warm welcome. This is my first time in Ireland. I would like to say that you’ve all made me feel right at home, but that seems to be a strange sentiment given what believing Christians are living through in this country. I’ve been in Dublin only a couple of days, and I have heard several times some version of this sentiment: “Ireland doesn’t feel like home anymore.”
Certainly it’s not the Ireland that I, as a sympathetic American observer, long thought it was. I have watched over the past decade or so as the sex abuse scandals poleaxed Irish Catholicism. Despite these events, I had a hope that “Fortress Ireland” would be able to come through with its faith largely intact. For so long, theologically orthodox American Catholics – many with Irish roots – looked to Ireland as an impregnable stronghold of faith.
But the abortion vote confirmed my worst fears. And, since arriving here, Catholics have told me story after story about the feebleness of the faith and demoralization of the faithful.
One well-placed priest said to me, “The whole thing is going to collapse. Maybe out of the ruins, we can build something that lives. But I don’t know if we can.”
Well, I’m here to tell you tonight that yes, the whole thing probably will collapse, because it’s collapsing all over the West. And I’m here to tell you, as a fellow Christian, that you – that we – can and must build something that lives. I KNOW THAT WE CAN. It has happened before. There is no reason to be optimistic about the short term, but for the Christian, hope is not the same thing as optimism. I’m going to explain to you why there is reason for hope.
The Benedict Option strikes a chord in Europe
Let me be clear about one thing: I wrote “The Benedict Option” as an American Christian, for American Christians, struggling in American circumstances. I have been startled but deeply gratified to have discovered audiences throughout Europe. The book is now in nine languages. Though some of “The Benedict Option” will make particular sense only to an American audience, by far the greater part resonates deeply with the experience of believers living in European countries.
In my travels, meeting and talking with Catholics on the continent, I’ve observed that it’s easier for many of them to read the signs of the times, because they have lived through anticlericalism and de-Christianization for generations now. The awareness is much more recent and painful for Christians of Ireland. You woke up one day to discover that your country was well and truly post-Christian.
There is a blessing in this. It is better to deal with the world as it is, than to stagger on in a narcotic fog of cultural Christianity. It is better to deal with the world as it truly is, rather than live by comforting lies. Now, we believers have the opportunity for deeper conversion. For those with eyes to see, the battle lines are much clearer now, and the insufficiency of half-measures impossible to deny.
In Ireland, the abuse scandals have badly damaged, perhaps even destroyed, the moral authority of the Church. But even if you had not had these scandals, you would still have been in grave crisis. As in the US, the scandals have only revealed how weak the faith had become behind the façade of cultural Christianity.
To prepare for what is to come, faithful Christians must fundamentally and radically change the way we live. The old, conformist approach to the faith is worthless now. If you are not actively and intentionally Christian, in every aspect of your life, and in a disciplined way, your faith is going to die. Simple as that. There is no alternative.
I believe that Benedictine monasticism offers practical help for us Christians living in the world. I call the choice facing all Christians today “the Benedict Option.”
St Benedict, Benedictine monasticism, and civilizational collapse
The “Benedict” of the option is St. Benedict of Nursia, an Italian monk regarded by the Church as the founder of Western monasticism (a claim that the Celts will wish to dispute, but we will gingerly pass that by tonight).
Benedict of Nursia was a Christian Roman born four years after the final Roman emperor in the West had abdicated. Around the year 500, his parents sent him down from the mountains to the city of Rome to finish his studies. Benedict was so shocked by the chaos and decadence of the city that he retreated to a cave in the countryside. There he lived, prayed, and fasted, seeking the will of God.
When he emerged, Benedict became an abbot. In time, he wrote what we now call the Rule of St. Benedict: a guide for living in the monastery. When he died, in the year 547, the saint left behind a few monasteries.
But over the next few centuries, the Benedictine monastic movement grew enormously. Benedictine monks played a central role in preserving faith and knowledge within their monasteries, and passing it on to the people in the areas they settled. Over the next few centuries, they would be key architects in laying the foundation for the rebuilding of civilization in the West.
Now, St. Benedict did not set out to save his civilization, or to “Make Rome Great Again.” He only wanted to search for God, and to establish the conditions under which monks and nuns could carry out this search in their own lives. The rebirth of civilization in the West was an effect of that search. In the same way, if our civilization is to recover, it will be because we Christians who keep the faith put the search for God above all other goals.
The concept of civilizational collapse is hard for most of us to conceive, especially living amid the relative peace and prosperity of contemporary Europe and North America.
But that is what is happening. We can point to a number of factors, including steep population decline, the migration crisis in Europe, gender ideology, and other manifestations of what St. John Paul II condemned as a “culture of death.” These add up to a widespread loss of meaning, purpose, and cohesion.
Note well that the steep decline of religious belief in Western society is not an isolated phenomenon. It is connected to a general disintegration of institutions and traditions within our societies.
You could say, “How is this worse than what the West faced in the 20th century? We always adapt somehow, don’t we?”
You would be correct – to a point. However bad the past was, the West still had a common spiritual and moral basis to return to. We could judge ourselves by how far we had fallen from the Christian ideal. Now, we no longer have that ideal. The post-Christian West moves closer to the abyss without having any means to measure its descent towards disaster.
Drowning in ‘liquid modernity’
The Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman had a great phrase to describe the condition of being alive today: “liquid modernity.” In solid modernity – that is to say, from around the time of the Reformation until the Industrial Revolution – people knew that things were changing, and that the old truths did not hold as they once had done. But they were still present in the imaginations of Western people, and the rate of change was slow enough for people to adjust.
At some point in the 19th century, the rate of change became so fast that, as Marx put it, “everything that is solid melts into air.” Thanks to technology and globalism, this process has only gotten more intense. Everything around us is in flux. There is no solid ground, no anchors, and no reliable map to help us navigate – or so we think. Liquid modernity is, of course, closely related to relativism.
Without roots to anchor it firmly in solid ground, a tree will be carried away by the raging waters of liquid modernity. In my book The Benedict Option, I liken liquid modernity to the Great Flood of the Bible. And I say that the Church ought to be an ark, not only for Christians, but for all those lost in the flood, and drowning.
The problem is that the Church itself is drowning in these same floodwaters. By “the Church,” I don’t mean only the institutional Roman Catholic Church. I’m talking about all Christians in Western world, and our institutions.
‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’ vs traditional Christianity
Christian Smith, an American sociologist of religion, finds in his research that the true faith of Americans is what he calls “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” – a pseudo-religion that is a shallow, self-help philosophy masquerading as Christianity.
MTD basically teaches that the point of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself, and to be nice to others. This vague spirituality is the ideal religion for liquid modernity. It amounts to worship of the self.
MTD Christianity is soft; it cannot withstand liquid modernity. It will sink beneath the waves. It is happening now. We cannot recover the meaning we want and need without a return to authentic Christianity. And the Christianity we are offered in most places today is too weak and compromised by spiritual mediocrity to make a difference.
It is vitally important to learn and to live according to traditional Christianity – not just as a set of doctrines, but PRIMARILY as a total way of life. There is no alternative.
By “traditional Christianity,” I am speaking broadly of pre-modern Christianity. Though there are meaningful differences among Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians, today the most important division is not between the churches, but within them.
The basic difference is this: traditionalists (or, as I call them, “small-o orthodox”) believe in the authority of Scripture and, except for Protestants, Sacred Tradition. Modernists believe that authority rests primarily with the individual. This is why in the US, you will find traditional Catholics, traditional Protestants, and traditional Eastern Orthodox on the same side of issues like gay marriage and abortion – and modernists together on the opposite side.
Need for order and structure
The life of a Benedictine monk is one of order and structure. In his famous Rule, St. Benedict called the monastery a “school for the service of the Lord.” The purpose of the monk’s life is to restore the brokenness in himself and in the world by growing in unity with Christ, and with his brothers. In the same way, our lives must also be constant spiritual training.
Pre-modern Christianity teaches that all reality is ordered and given meaning by Jesus Christ. We must order our own lives to that reality, as revealed to us in Scripture and most of all in the life of Jesus Christ. Christ entered human life in order to regenerate it, to bring it back into harmony with sacred order.
In writing this book, I spent a week at the Benedictine monastery in Norcia, the birthplace of St. Benedict. Father Basil, a monk living there, told me that, “A monk enters the monastery knowing that finding order doesn’t come easily. You have to fight for it, to work for it, and you have to be patient to achieve it. But it’s worth it, because that order gives us peace.”
The monks discover that order through regular prayer, worship, fasting, and reading Scripture. They consecrate their daily work to Christ, and live in true devotion to their brothers in the community.
Need for close-knit communities
We Christians who live in the world cannot live in a monastery, but we need to be closer to each other, geographically and otherwise. It is in human nature; we are made for God and for each other. No “social network” can substitute for the face, the voice, and the touch of other people.
We also need close-knit communities in which to raise our children. Social science teaches that no matter what a child’s home culture is like, as children grow older, they are far more likely to adopt the culture of their peer group.
Socialization to religious norms as a child plays a key role in determining whether or not people retain the faith in adulthood. If we fail to live the faith out in a faithful community, we will likely condemn our children, and future generations, to the de facto atheism of the dominant culture.
Basic cultural Christianity is necessary, therefore, but not sufficient. The Cambridge University social anthropologist Paul Connerton has found that communities most successful at preserving their faith and traditions in modernity make their sacred story a matter of “habit-memory.” To speak plainly, this means that Christians must make our faith not simply a set of disembodied ideas, or something we do on Sunday and holy days, but an entire lifestyle. All the traditional practices of Christian prayer, worship, and life serve the deep purpose of making our faith incarnate. We must recover them if we are to survive as a Christian people.
These traditional practices constitute a kind of liturgy of everyday life. The liturgy is not only what we attend on Sunday in church. Broadly speaking, a liturgy is a set of practices that train us to desire the good. In this sense, Benedictine monks make their entire lives explicitly liturgical. The monks never lost the connection between the body and the spirit.
Showing the world a better way to live
In my book, I talk about how the Benedict Option idea applies to various areas of life, including politics, education, work, and family life. How would you change your life if you believed that the pursuit of holiness without compromise was the most important thing? That’s what the Benedict Option asks us to think about, and to act on.
Again, we Christians who live in the world are not monks. But we are going to have to live more spiritually disciplined, monastic lives if we want to live, and want our children to live. We cannot create heaven on earth, or recreate the Garden of Eden. But we are going to have to live lives that are in some real sense separate from the mainstream, and ordered by a different vision: a vision that nurtures a culture of life, not death.
We can best serve the world in the current crisis by showing it a better way to live. Pope Francis says that Christians have to go into the world to serve it. He’s right about that. But we cannot offer the world what we do not have. Before we can go into the world effectively, we Christians must go much deeper into the mystery and truth of our faith, to recover our roots, and to practice everyday discipleship.
I am discovering that young Christians are not willing to surrender to the dead culture of materialism and selfishness around us, but want to find a way to go against the mainstream of liquid modernity. I am finding too that they are sick and tired of spiritual mediocrity. Pope Benedict XVI, the second Benedict of the Benedict Option, has warned that the Church in the West will suffer greatly, and shrink to a small number of truly convinced believers – a “creative minority” that has to figure out how to keep the light of Christ shining in the darkness.
An Italian example: ‘the usual suspects’
We have to fundamentally, and creatively, reconceive our roles as Christians within society – and that includes rethinking our ways of making the faith resilient in our own lives. Father Cassian Folsom, the former prior of the Benedictine monastery in Norcia, told me that any Christian family that wants to make it through what’s coming with their faith intact must take some form of the Benedict Option. He told me to go over the mountains from the monastery and visit a group of Catholic families living on the Adriatic. He told me they are living out these ideas in an extraordinary way.
The monk was right. I found there a group of about 20 Catholic families who are thriving as joy-filled believers. They call themselves the “Tipi Loschi” – Italian for “the usual suspects,” which gives you an idea of their sense of humor. They were founded in the 1990s by a group of young Catholic men who wanted something more out of the Christian life than the bland, conformist Catholicism of their parish.
Eventually they married their girlfriends, and put together a fellowship. They started a school, the Scuola G.K. Chesterton. They have a clubhouse that they use as a meeting place for Bible study, for catechesis, for festivals, for gardening, for feasts, and all kinds of activities that build up the community. They also serve people outside the community in acts of charity. They all live in normal apartments around the city, and go to their parishes for Sunday mass. But the Tipi Loschi and their families all know that they need each other.
They are quite orthodox in their Catholicism, and they are completely undeceived about the crisis in the Church and in the world. But they are not angry about it! They are the happiest Christians I know. Marco Sermarini, one of the founders, told me that they discovered nothing new. They only re-discovered traditions within the Church that had hidden away, and forgotten.
I was interviewed once on French Catholic TV. The presented asked me who my hero is. I started to say Benedict XVI, but I gave a more truthful answer: Marco Sermarini. Why Marco? Because this ordinary middle-aged man living in a small city far off the beaten track shows what any one of us could accomplish with faith and love applied creatively to our own circumstances. I think of him as a kind of St. Benedict of our own time.
(In the full text there follow several paragraphs on the Irish and American contexts.)
Conversation with a French atheist about hope
I’ll close tonight with a story. A year and a half ago, I was in France for the publication of the Benedict Option there, and had the chance to have coffee with a very famous atheist philosopher. We started off by talking about how France was in steep decline, and how this decline was also manifesting in other countries. After a bit of this, I asked him, “Where is your hope?”
He said gently: “I have no hope.”
I told him, “I do have hope. My hope is in Jesus Christ – but please don’t think I’m telling you that as a sentimental American TV evangelist type. I am not optimistic, but I am hopeful.”
I explained to him that for Christians, hope is the assurance that God is with us always, and that our suffering has meaning. If we unite our sufferings to Christ’s, our suffering will be redemptive. Our heroes include martyrs who paid the ultimate price for their faith. I went on to tell him that my own conversion to Christianity began when I was a teenager, and, while on vacation, stumbled into the great medieval cathedral at Chartres, near Paris.
I thought I knew everything back then, including that Christianity was dull and had no answers for anybody’s problems. And then, there I was, standing in the middle of this cathedral, struck hard with awe. Nothing in my life as a kid growing up in late 20th century America prepared me for the grandeur of God made manifest in the beauty of that temple. From that moment on, I knew in my heart that God existed, and that he wanted me for himself. I wanted to know the God that inspired men to build something so beautiful to His glory.
I did not walk out of that church a Christian, but I did leave there on a quest for God. It was a quest that brought me to full conversion a few years later. It started with the shocking manifestation of God at a French cathedral. God is all around us, if only we train our eyes to see, I told the philosopher.
He looked at me thoughtfully, and then said: “That’s good for you Americans, but here in France, we believe that this world is all there is. When you die, you die.”
That man has one of the most intelligent and sophisticated minds in all of Western civilization – but he has no hope. I do have hope, and so do you, because of Jesus Christ. There is nothing the world offers that can compare. Let’s build on that shared hope. A man can live through almost anything if he has a reason to live.
I bring up the story about Chartres because of this. Yesterday, I went to the library to see the Book of Kells. Standing there before that incomparable manuscript under the display case, I had the same feeling that I did in Chartres: a sense of being overwhelmed by wonder, and a desire to know the God that inspired men in the distant past to create something so beautiful to His glory.
That happened right here in Dublin yesterday, through this great gift passed down to you by your own monks. Open your eyes and hearts to this treasure that has been hiding in plain sight. It points the way to God. It points the way to the future.
Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative and the author also of Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Little Way of Ruthie Leming. The full text of his talk in Dublin can be found at The Iona Institute.