By the end of the fifth century, the Roman Empire was in ruins. Weakened from within through corruption, wealth, luxury and self-indulgence, Rome had, for the better part of the century, been invaded by aggressive foreigners.
The empire was bankrupt, both morally and fiscally, and around the year 500, Benedict — a young nobleman from Norcia — decided the best thing he could do was head for the hills and become a hermit. First, he went to Subiaco and lived in a cave, where he was mentored by an older monk. Finally, he moved south to Monte Cassino, where he established small communities where men and women could follow a simple, dignified life of work, study and prayer.
G.K. Chesterton said every age is saved by a saint that is most unlike it. So St. Benedict’s monastic simplicity was the answer to the luxurious corruption of fifth-century Rome.
He answered lechery with purity. He answered luxury with simplicity. He answered ignorance with love of learning. He answered decadence with industry and cynicism with faith. His simple hillside communities became beacons in a dark age and a refuge in the storms that were to come.
Benedict’s example is worth remembering today, as many sense the same tempests rampaging through what feels like the decline of the American empire. When we consider the end of Rome, the parallels are soberingly similar.
We, too, as a culture are weakened from within by incredible wealth, luxury and self-indulgence. Like the ancient Romans, we as a society kill our unborn children at an alarming rate, and we spend huge amounts on our military machine to dominate the world. Our wealthy patricians rule from their temples of power with little concern for the people, while the ordinary plebeians rumble with increasingly angry discontent. We feel threatened by unspeakable barbarians from abroad and worry about defending ourselves from the hordes sweeping across our borders.
Why did Benedict choose to simply walk away? I believe it was because he realized that the Roman civilization was not redeemable. It had reached the end of its lifespan. The first chapter of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans explains how God gives people over to their sinful desires so their minds become darkened. They become addicted and blinded by sin and can’t think straight. Benedict headed for the hills because he realized the Romans could not be reasoned with. There was no argument because their hearts and minds were darkened. They had lost the capacity to reason and the ability to hear and love the truth.
This is increasingly the situation in the United States today. For more than 50 years, we as a country have turned our backs on the truth, beauty and goodness of the Christian faith. We have indulged ourselves in great luxury, given ourselves to great sins of lust, cruelty and murder.
As a society, we have broken marriage, abused children, murdered one another, waged war and robbed the poor. Our hearts and minds are now darkened. Riddled with the intellectual cancer of relativism, we cannot hear reason or make arguments. We are, therefore, left with the maelstrom of emotions — tempest tossed by anger, irrational rage and demonic frustration.
What can be done? Increasingly, we will find that Catholics will take the “Benedict Option.” Columnist Rod Dreher thinks we will hunker down like the Amish in our own enclaves, like survivalists after a nuclear holocaust. I am not so pessimistic.
I think the “Benedict Option” can simply be a realization that we need to return to the essentials of our faith and to live out those essentials in our already-existing parish communities. Our parishes can become havens of peace, centers of culture, education and reason. They can become places where prayer, work and study are valued.
Without forming new monastic communities, our families and parishes can become “domestic monasteries,” where we live simply and consciously nurture the faith — and so take refuge from the encroaching deluge of societal breakdown.
To do this, we will need to re-assess our relationship with the surrounding culture. We will need to simplify our lives. Do we really need all the material stuff that weighs us down and puts us into debt and stress? Do we really need to be running about in such a hectic hurry all the time? Do we really need to conform to the high-paced, achievement-oriented, money-worshipping society in which we live? Do we really need all that entertainment and the distraction that leads to destruction? I think not.
Instead, the “Benedict Option” will focus on the vows at the heart of Benedict’s rule: stability, obedience and conversion of life. Stability will help us develop deep roots in our faith, our families and our Church. We will find our security there, and not in our work, our money and our achievements. Obedience means we will constantly seek to submit to the sacred Scriptures, to the teachings of the Church, to God and to one another. Conversion of life means everything we do, everything we say and every decision we make will be determined by our desire to be completely converted into the image of Christ. Or, as St. Benedict puts it in his rule, “To prefer nothing to the love of Christ.”
St. Benedict’s humble and simple communities became the foundation for the greatest civilization the world has ever seen. For 1,000 years, Christian Europe was rooted in the simple vision established by Benedict, and should Catholics quietly take the “Benedict Option,” we may yet form a strong and fresh foundation for our society’s future.
Father Dwight Longenecker is a priest of the Diocese of Charleston, South Carolina.