The Best and the Worst of the Benedict Option: Reflections from Clear Creek
It’s hard to oppose the Benedict Option at a folk dance.
Listening to a live band, watching contra and square dancing in the Oklahoma springtime, it’s easy to believe that the Benedict Option — at least a form of it — is both achievable and desirable. Teenagers played football or Frisbee as luminaries like Rod Dreher and Ralph C. Wood discussed what an orthodox Christian “strategic retreat” from the world might look like. As they spoke, I sometimes felt I was seeing it in action around me.
The Idea of a Village Conference (the so-called Benedict Option Conference) was held May 21 near Clear Creek Abbey in Cherokee Country, Oklahoma. It showed what community life could be at its best.
Let me give an example. There is a small graveyard on the grounds where the conference was held, gated with what looked like a Byzantine iconostasis without the icons.
I commented how lovely it is to an old friend, herself a villager in the small Catholic community that has sprung up around the abbey. She proceeded to tell me how the graveyard came about.
One of the villagers had acquired an iconostasis in California, brought it to Oklahoma and stored it in his garage (as one does). Sometime later, another villager felled an oak tree, sat down in a chair to rest — and died.
The men of the village hewed that same oak tree into a coffin while the boys dug a grave themselves. The people put a fence around the area and gated it with the iconostasis.
My friend said that in her eighty-plus years, it was her “first real funeral.”
The speakers at the Idea of a Village Conference spoke eloquently of personal sacrifice and reliance on one’s immediate neighbors. But nothing was as moving as hearing the story of that graveyard.
If the Benedict Option—or any strategic retreat—is to have any meaning, it’s seen in this graveyard. The Clear Creek villagers saw no need to professionalize the burial of the dead, or indeed any work of mercy. Their obligation as Christians was to perform this work of mercy, so they did.
But there’s a problem. Retreat can lead to isolation, and I saw that on display as well. Nearly everyone in attendance at the conference was white and middle to upper-middle class (a fact highlighted in an audience question). As much as Benedict Optioners want to avoid forming bourgeois enclaves, it’s easy to see them forming by default.
More damningly, it appeared that the Clear Creek villagers have limited interaction with non-Catholic locals.
The morning after the conference, I stopped at the Clear Creek Trading Post, a wonderful gas station / grocery store / diner where the coffee is still 25 cents. Just put a quarter in the cup and help yourself.
I asked the clerk what she knew about the monastery. She knew that out-of-towners often stopped to ask for directions, but she had no idea that Catholics had moved to rural Oklahoma to live near it.
This surprised me because the Clear Creek village has become world famous. Six years ago I went to a party at a farm near the monastery. It was attended by the husband of an Australian state legislator, a Tea Party candidate for Congress, and the son of Saddam Hussein’s head gardener. (It was the most fun I’d had in years before or since.)
But the local grocery store clerk doesn’t know the village exists.
This tension between community and isolation permeated the Idea of a Village Conference.
First: A Definition
Dreher has been accused — often unfairly — of failing to provide a succinct definition of what the Benedict Option involves. At the conference, he put that accusation to rest. He described the Benedict Option as communities within the Church (Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant) who make use of these eight points drawn from the Rule of St. Benedict:
Dreher spoke movingly about each of these points. If a recording of his talk is made available, I commend at least that portion to the reader. As he talked, I repeatedly found myself thinking: Yes. This is what I want for myself, my family, my parish, and my whole community.
At the same time, these principles raise a question: How are they different from just being a good Christian, building strong communities where God has placed us?
Put differently, is there anything about these principles that Dorothy Day wasn’t doing in the 1930s? If not, is there something more to the Benedict Option?
What appears to set the Benedict Option apart from, say, the Catholic Worker movement or just building strong parishes is the emphasis on withdrawal. If that’s the case, withdrawal may be the seed that ultimately destroys the Benedict Option.
Acknowledging the Problem
One comforting aspect of the conference was that neither speakers nor attendees wanted to go this direction. Speakers were repeatedly questioned on how to avoid — in the words of one audience questioner — becoming a cult.
The term “cult” was not picked lightly. Some Protestants in attendance were themselves survivors of abusive, fundamentalist churches who — like proponents of the Benedict Option — wanted to retreat from a hostile culture.
Additionally, Dreher noted a potential racial issue. He mentioned that African American Christians have responded poorly to the Benedict Option because it seems like a redux of white flight.
In other words, Dreher recognizes the fraught nature of their “strategic retreat.”
But he clings to the concept. It’s not clear why.
Often Dreher and others cite the hostile environment orthodox Christians face. We cannot speak publicly in favor of Christian marriage or against a Gnostic gender theory without being accused of bigotry. We cannot criticize greed or militarism without having our patriotism questioned.
It is difficult to raise our children to listen to the liturgy of the Church instead of the liturgy of the world (Dreher’s term).
These are facts, and I would be mad to question them.
But given these facts, the single worst thing we can do is withdraw to protect ourselves or our children from this culture.
Why We Shouldn’t Withdraw
If our culture has declared us enemies, we have an obligation to love those enemies and to teach our children to do the same.
We will not do that if we withdraw or retreat so that our enemies are “away over there.” We can pity or condescend to those who are far away. But we can only love who are near.
When we isolate ourselves and our children from our cultural enemies, they turn into boogeymen.
How often we see this in secular circles! We have all seen secular liberal folks blithely assume the Westboro Baptist Church is representative of orthodox Christians. That’s likely because these acquaintances spend little or no time engaging with orthodox Christians.
We are no different. Straw manning is not a secular or liberal problem. It’s a human problem.
If we withdraw, we are poorly positioned examine our own consciences. Many of the problems and indeed insanities of our post-Christian age originate in abuses and sins committed by orthodox Christians.
If I withdraw from my cultural enemy, how can I know the ways they have felt — legitimately or not — harmed by the Church? If I am not around people ideologically or religiously different from me, how can I beg forgiveness for my sins against them?
If all Dreher means by the Benedict Option is to encourage Christian communities to pray better, to fast more, to build better parishes, then I’m all for it. I certainly was moved seeing it in action at Clear Creek. I want to take personal responsibility for the works of mercy like burying the dead. I want my children to see these works in action.
But it’s impossible to do that and withdraw from the broader society. Otherwise we will raise a generation of outwardly Christian kids who don’t know (or are afraid of) the grocer.
It’s possible that I have misunderstood Dreher. He has been burned by the Right but is more afraid of the Left. I have been burned by the Left but am more afraid of the Right. Maybe he means something altogether different by withdrawal or retreat and I can’t see what because of our different backgrounds.
But the tenor of the questions at the Idea of a Village Conference makes me think it’s not simply a matter of misunderstanding.
The Benedict Option has a beautiful vision for Christians to live their faith joyfully in a world that will likely continue to mistrust us. But if it is to have any future, it must abandon the language of withdrawal.
Chesterton said the Gospel commands us to love our neighbors and our enemies because they are generally the same people. We therefore shouldn’t handpick our neighbors — and many don’t have that luxury.
One way of living the Gospel in a post-Christian age will include applying Dreher’s eight principles where we are now: in our lousy neighborhoods, our lukewarm parishes, our antagonistic family members, or whatever we’re dealing with. The love of Christ urges us to engage — not retreat from — those who would see us as enemies.
—Charles D. Beard
Charles D. Beard is a Catholic Worker and deacon candidate in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. He lives about an hour from Clear Creek Abbey and loves going there. He talks a good game about loving his neighbors but can’t remember half their names.