Monastic life is a life marked by doors. There is a door to the Refectory, to the Calefactory, to the Church, and to one’s cell. One enters monastic life by passing through the door of the Enclosure. Yet, there is no door in the monastery the monk must pass through which will cleanse the monk of his anger, his lusts and his twisted pride. These are brought wholesale into the Enclosure with him and these vices prowl the cloisters. Thankfully, there is a door which we may pass through which cleanses us, transforms us, and which, as we pass through it, renders the entire sacramental system obsolete. That door is not in the monastery. That Door is Christ Himself.
What should repentance look like? In particular, what should repentance from a system of false belief look like? I ask because for roughly 20 years I was not only an enthusiastic Roman Catholic, but one who was convinced that he had a vocation in the Church. In 2006 I joined a Benedictine monastery in the UK and progressed through the various levels of formation and vows. Purely by the gracious action of God, I was liberated from the cloister in 2014 and was consequently freed from the Roman sacramental system. I currently worship in a church that is part of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of England and Wales.
So how do I repent of two decades of spiritual enthusiasm and a monastic vocation? I seem to recall the excellent Christian apologist Dr. James White once saying, with regard to leaving Catholicism, that if you escape across the Tiber you should break up your boat, make it into a pulpit, and preach to those still within the system. Strangely though, as I read The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher, I feel more inclined to warn Evangelicals rather than Catholics due to some of the rather dubious goods that Dreher is trying to sell them. He’s a member of the Eastern Orthodox Church, a fact which makes the success of his book among an Evangelical audience all the more surprising. Something else that I found surprising was that he appears to hold to a form of ‘mere Christianity’. He has no difficulty seeing Orthodox, Roman Catholics, mainline Protestants, and Fundamentalists as all being Christians despite the competing and necessarily contradictory truth claims of these groups. Indeed, the boundaries of Christian faith become so elastic that, in an unlikely addition to this spectrum of Churches, he seeks to draw inspiration even from Mormons. The consistent use of such a reductionist approach to Christian faith throughout the book risks leaving the term ‘Christian’ as a diminished adjective.
In my experience, in a situation where monasticism is operative, there are some common underlying presuppositions that form a foundation and frame of reference. Two of these are certainly present in The Benedict Option. They are an acceptance of a synergistic view of salvation and also of a distinctive class of professional religious who are seen as being at a higher stage of commitment than other members of the Church. The force of these presuppositions in part derives from the way in which they logically and experientially appear to follow from one another. If you believe that you have some effort to contribute to your salvation, then you will be working within a synergistic framework. If you see your monastic vocation as the way in which you work out and live your Christian commitment, then salvation, sanctification, and vocation become perilously intertwined. I have heard monks using the slogan My vocation is my salvation to describe their approach to life in the monastery. If your whole personal identity (your name is changed when you become a monk) and status are wrapped up in your monastic identity, these presuppositions combine and intertwine to form a very persuasive frame of reference.
Turning to the positive content of the book rather than its preconceptions, I am very aware that I cannot cover all the areas that the author raises. I am not an American so I do not attempt to analyse his view of President Trump, for example. He does spend an interesting chapter drawing out the unraveling of Western culture over recent decades. Much of this is cogent from a British perspective too, although he doesn’t address how the rise of Islam in Europe through mass migration from the Middle East and North Africa has created a challenge to Christianity perhaps greater than the secularism he decries. However, I cannot help feeling that an equally legitimate presentation would be to claim that the world is always in the state described in the first chapter of Romans. People have different ways of expressing their rebellion against God. In terms of social norms, it may well be that the morality of respectability from a previous century gave way to hedonism, which has calcified into an intolerant secularism. All these are just the same rebellion under different forms, rather than the deepening state of crisis Dreher indicates.
As Benedictine monasticism is a subsection of a wider body of communities living Catholic religious life, it might have been interesting to read how Dreher would respond to some of the other Rules in use, such as the Rule of St. Albert used by Carmelite friars, or the Rule of St. Augustine. His treatment of the Benedictine Rule is positive, but he does somewhat distort the discussion of the Rule by stressing that it is a manual dealing with the prosaic aspects of monastic life. It is simply inaccurate in speaking of the Rule to claim that:
Modern readers who turn to it looking for mystical teaching of fathomless spiritual depth will be disappointed. (Ch1 p.15).