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detail from the front cover of Building the Benedict Option by Leah Libresco

Getting Practical with the Benedict Option

A review of Building the Benedict Option: A Guide to Gathering Two or Three Together in His Name, by Leah Libresco

Mark Gordon

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In The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, the former Protestant, then Catholic, now Orthodox layman Rod Dreher makes the case that the culture wars of the past fifty years have concluded and that the good guys – by which he means Christian conservatives – have suffered a decisive loss. In response, Dreher calls for a “strategic withdrawal” from modern Western culture in imitation of Saint Benedict of Nursia, the sixth-century monk who, disgusted by the corruption he witnessed in imperial Rome, withdrew to the mountains outside the city, and established the monastic community we still call the Benedictine Order. When Rome collapsed, it was the Benedictines and other communities inspired by Benedict’s Rule who preserved an authentic Christian culture through what have been called “the Dark Ages.”

Dreher believes that the modern West is now in the throes of a similar moral collapse, and he invites Christians to exercise the “Benedict Option” – BenOp for short – by exploring ways of deepening the bonds of community and isolating their children from a culture that he views as fundamentally at odds with Christian belief and practice. Despite its subtitle, The Benedict Option is short on specific strategies. Dreher has repeatedly rebutted criticisms that he is recommending wholesale withdrawal, both culturally and politically, and anyone who has read the book would have to agree that it is not a “head for the hills” manifesto. Still, the practical contours of the BenOp, what it actually is as opposed to what it isn’t, are less clear.

Which brings us to Leah Libresco, author of the new book Building the Benedict Option: A Guide to Gathering Two or Three Together in His Name. Libresco is a freelance writer, blogger, Yale University graduate, and former atheist who converted to Catholicism in 2012. Her conversion was partly inspired by the example of the Scottish Marxist philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who became a Catholic in the early 1980s. Not at all coincidentally, it was the concluding paragraph of MacIntyre’s most famous work, After Virtue, which set Rod Dreher on the road to The Benedict Option:

It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman empire declined into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless certain parallels there are. ... This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes pan of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another – doubtless very different – St. Benedict.

Building the Benedict Option is Libresco’s attempt to put some practical meat on the theoretical bones of Dreher’s (and MacIntyre’s) work. She’s written a breezy, enjoyable, at times moving book addressed to Christians who find that their local churches are not satisfying their need for a deeper engagement with the gospel through community, much less providing an effective defense against the encroachments of secular culture. Libresco is a young, urban intellectual, and much of Building the Benedict Option seems geared to people like her: the book largely recounts her experiences in creating small communities in Washington, DC, Berkeley, California, and now New York City.

In Building the Benedict Option, Libresco describes her practice of inviting her friends to deepen their social media, professional, and academic friendships by gathering for prayer, discussion, cultural enrichment, and food. Her model, as least initially, was the benguinage, a late Medieval form of community in which lay women “came together … committed to shared prayer and communal life, without making a permanent plan or vow.” Though living together wasn’t practical for Libresco and her friends, the idea of a benuinage provided a “flexible model of shared worship and support, with people cycling in and out, as their lives permitted.” By her own admission, the small communities she helped build fell short of this ideal. Nonetheless, Libresco forged ahead, convinced that “love is most fully expressed not through a single grand gesture but through a series of small intimacies.”

Like me, many readers will find themselves wishing they had a friend as creative, joyful, prayerful, and (frankly) relentless as Libresco.

It is here that the book turns to the practical challenges and delights of organizing prayer meetings, dinner parties, and other events that create space for Christian people to be Christian with other Christians. The book overflows with advice on feeding groups (hint: no pizza but plenty of chocolate chunk cookies), scheduling events, and crafting interesting themes for meet-ups: prayer and discussion meetings, poetry readings, Shakespeare film marathons, hymn sings, Christmas carol expeditions, and even a session where everyone worked together on job applications. Like me, many readers will find themselves wishing they had a friend as creative, joyful, prayerful, and (frankly) relentless as Libresco.

Ultimately, though, I found Building the Benedict Option to be a disappointment, not so much for what’s in it as for what isn’t. Libresco only lightly acknowledges that many alternative forms of deep Christian community already exist for non-monastics: lay movements like Focolare and the Catholic Worker; Evangelical parachurch ministries; traditional Anabaptist and peace churches like the Mennonites and the Bruderhof; ecumenical intentional communities like Taizé, L’Arche, and the Alleluia Community. It seems strange to ignore the great body of spiritual and practical wisdom that has been the fruit of these efforts, many of which were developed and continue to thrive, unlike Beguinages, in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Building the Benedict Option also includes very little on the corporal works of mercy, which I found jarring given that the author is Catholic and that the works of mercy are embedded in the Rule of St. Benedict. The poor, the sick, the aged, the persecuted, the stranger, and the imprisoned are all missing from this book. Also missing is any notion of manual labor as a source of deep spirituality. From its founding, the motto of the Benedictine Order has been ora et labora, prayer and work. Every Western monastic tradition includes manual labor as a pillar of communal life. There is plenty of prayer in Building the Benedict Option, but no reflection on work, and none of the events recounted by Libresco include manual labor on behalf of the poor and the community at large.

Flannery O’Connor once famously said that if the Eucharist is only a symbol, “to hell with it.” In a similar vein, if the BenOp is reducible to prayer meetings and themed dinner parties, why bother? In The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher insists that the new dark ages are upon us, encroaching on the Christian community from every side. If true, then the Christian response must be far more radical than what one finds in Building the Benedict Option. It must be a solution that would be immediately recognizable to the Christians in the Book of Acts and to St. Benedict himself. It must be one that, to quote Peter Maurin (who founded the Catholic Worker together with Dorothy Day), “believes in creating a new society within the shell of the old, with the philosophy of the new, which is not a new philosophy but a very old philosophy, a philosophy so old that it looks like new.”

front cover of Building the Benedict Option by Leah Libresco Building the Benedict Option: A Guide to Gathering Two or Three in His Name
Contributed By Mark Gordon

Mark Gordon is a member of the Solidarity Hall board of directors. He is a business owner, writer, and president of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul for the Diocese of Providence. Mark has written for Aleteia, National Catholic Register, Mars Hill Journal, and other publications, and is the author of Forty Days, Forty Graces: Essays by a Grateful Pilgrim.

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