Some years ago, upon becoming a father, Rod Dreher — formerly a colleague of mine on staff at National Review – noticed that Christians “seemed content to be the chaplaincy to a consumerist culture that was fast losing a sense of what it meant to be Christian.” Now, in a post-Obergefell country, “Christians who hold to the biblical teaching about sex and marriage have the same status in culture, and increasingly in law, as racists,” he writes in his new book, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation.
“Don’t be fooled,” he adds, “the upset presidential victory of Donald Trump has at best given us a bit more time to prepare for the inevitable.” He writes The Benedict Option “to try to wake up the church and to encourage it to act to strengthen itself, while there is still time.” We talk about the Option — and Saint Benedict, too.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Your book was causing controversy even before it was out. What’s your pitch to people who think they already know what you have to communicate?
Rod Dreher: A number of people are under the false impression that The Benedict Option is a call to head for the hills. It’s not. The book is about the crisis of Western civilization and Western Christianity, and about how believers living in this post-Christian culture can respond faithfully to it. We are not called to be monks. Our vocation is to live in the world. But how can we do that while facing challenges that Christians have not had to face for 1,500 years? Pope Benedict XVI said that we are living through a period of disruption comparable to the fall of the Roman Empire. I think he’s right. That’s why I say we lay Christians of the 21st century need to look at how St. Benedict of Nursia in the sixth century responded to the collapse of his own civilization. There are lessons for us there.
Lopez: Why do you find the Benedictines in Norcia so awesome? And have they become even more so after the devastation they’ve experienced in the last year?
Dreher: Those monks re-founded the monastery in St. Benedict’s hometown in the Italian mountains after it had been closed for nearly two centuries. Most of them are Americans, and most of them are pretty young. They are all traditional Catholics who chant the mass and the Psalms in Latin. That’s pretty incredible on its own, to find young monks living in an ancient way today. But what is most impressive about them is their serenity and openness. They live mostly a cloistered life, but when you do get to spend time with them, you are struck by how peaceful they are, and how luminous. These men know Christ, there’s no doubt about it. They are a sign of hope to a world growing cold and dark, just like the early Benedictines were.
Last October, the most severe earthquake to hit Italy in 30 years struck Norcia. It reduced the monks’ medieval basilica to rubble, and rendered their monastery uninhabitable. By the grace of God, all the monks survived. The reason? After smaller earthquakes shook Norcia in late summer, they moved out of their monastery and set up tents outside the town’s walls. They resumed their life of prayer in temporary quarters. So, when the big one hit, they were in a place of safety, and they survived to minister to the people of Norcia. And they will be there for the rebuilding.
I think there’s a lesson in that for us all. The monks of Norcia did not head for the hills in the sense of abandoning their town. They just moved to safer ground to continue their life in proximity to the village. Similarly with us, I don’t believe we are called to abandon our stations in the world, but we do have to put some distance between ourselves and the chaotic mainstream, or we will not be able to be for the world what Christ calls us to be.
The monks of Norcia see their ruined basilica and monastery as a symbol of the church in the West today. They see no other path forward but to keep praying, keep worshiping, keep fasting, and prepare to rebuild what has fallen. The disciplined life they have been living in community for all these years has built inside of them an inner resilience that will help them overcome these incredible challenges. In this, they are a sign to all Christians in the West today — and an inspiration.
Lopez: Why are you at peace with being called an “alarmist”?
Dreher: Because the times really are alarming! I mean, we have a lot to be alarmed about. In addition to the considerable geopolitical turmoil in the world today, the state of the churches in the West is weak. The faith is flat on its back in Europe. We have long considered the United States to be a counterexample to European secularization, but research over the past ten years is conclusive: America is now headed down the same declining spiritual path. The Millennial generation rejects religious belief in percentages never before seen. Older Christians like to comfort themselves by saying that the young people will come back when they get older. It’s not really true.
Plus, the content of the Christian faith that people actually profess has decayed dramatically from its historic orthodoxy. Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith and his team have documented exhaustively that among younger Americans, the faith is only nominally Christian in terms of its content. They have cast aside coherent, biblically consistent Christianity for a shallow, feel-good counterfeit that Smith calls “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” This is not the kind of Christianity that will endure — but this is the Christianity that most Americans hold. In my travels to Christian colleges, both Evangelical and Catholic, I hear the same thing from professors: Our students are coming to us from churches, families, and Christian schools knowing next to nothing about their faith. Contemporary American Christianity is a house built on sand.
Lopez: And yet, why do you describe your book as not “a standard decline-and-fall lament”?
Dreher: Because I don’t just curse the darkness. I try to light some candles. All is not lost, not by any means. In The Benedict Option, I highlight a number of communities — Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox — that are trying to meet the challenges of our time creatively. This is a book about Christian hope, which is not the same thing as optimism. I don’t believe that we have a lot of cause to be optimistic these days, but we have every reason to hope. Look at the Benedictines of Norcia, who are not defeated by the disaster they have suffered, but are drawing deeply on their faith and traditions to overcome it. I hope that my book encourages all believers to do the same.
Lopez: Is the Benedict Option really withdrawal, or is it renewal?
Dreher: It’s both. It is withdrawal for the sake of renewal. My book is heavily influenced by a 2004 essay in First Things written by the early-church historian Robert Louis Wilken. He said we in the West were losing our cultural memory of Christianity. Because of this, he said, there is nothing more important for Christians today than the church telling itself its own story, and nurturing its inner life. His point is not that we shouldn’t evangelize, but that we are forgetting what Christianity means. We cannot give the world what we do not have. Therefore, we have to withdraw in meaningful ways for the sake of contemplation and formation — this, so we can truly bring the light of Christ to the world.
When I started writing the book, I asked my friend Michael Hanby, a philosopher at Catholic University of America, for his advice. He said, “Ask yourself: ‘What would Karol Wojtyla do?’” I didn’t understand what he was getting at. He said that when the Nazis invaded Poland, they sought to crush the Polish nation by erasing its memory of what it meant to be Polish, and what it meant to be Catholic. The future Pope St. John Paul II and his circle realized that the most important form of resistance they could offer was to keep that cultural memory alive. They wrote and performed plays about the faith, and about patriotism. They did this under fear of death. If the Gestapo had found them, they would have imprisoned them all, and maybe killed them. But culture was that important to the survival of the nation, and those Poles risked everything to keep the story alive.
We don’t face anything that severe, obviously, but as Wilken says, we are losing our cultural memory all the same. The hopeful thing is that the future is not fated. There are things we can do, in our own families, parishes, and schools.
Lopez: Can every Christian really be called to be St. Benedict?
Dreher: No, but every Christian is called to be a saint. God had a special historical mission for Benedict of Nursia. I believe God has a mission for each of us, and the standard of holiness is for all of us. As the French Catholic novelist Leon Bloy once wrote, the only true tragedy in life is not to have become a saint. Few of us are called to be monks or nuns, but all of us are called to holiness. St. Benedict and his followers can help us meet that standard in our own vocations. Benedictine spirituality is not for spiritual superheroes. It is very practical, very much geared to everyday life. He is a saint for our time and place, just as he was for the sixth century. I hope that my book helps all Christians — Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox alike — find their way through the darkness, to Christ.
Here’s something neat: As you know, I’m an Eastern Orthodox Christian. The publisher of The Benedict Option, Sentinel, told me a while ago that they planned to publish the book on March 14. I thanked them for this, and asked them how they knew. “Know what?” they said. “That March 14 is St. Benedict’s feast day on the Orthodox calendar,” I said. They had no idea! It was just a coincidence. Well, I don’t believe in coincidences. I like to think that the saint himself — who is my patron saint, by the way — is praying for this book’s success.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and an editor-at-large of National Review. Sign up for her weekly NRI newsletter here.