Faith is not an electric blanket, it’s a Cross

As the example of the Little Sisters of the Poor shows, the powerful won’t be content to leave Christians alone to work and pray. Their refusal to submit is far too dangerous.

“Pastors need to be preparing their people to be forced out of their jobs if they insist on living their Christian faith.”

So said conservative commentator Rod Dreher in a recent thought-provoking conference address.  Dreher, though Eastern Orthodox, is known to many Catholics for what he calls “The Benedict Option” which, contrary to what people seem to think, does not entail “retreating” or “running away” from the world.  It is, rather, an intentional way of living in the world, while trying not to be of it, influenced by the toxic elements of the culture.  

What Dreher thinks we can learn from the Benedictine Rule is that we should lead lives of work and prayer ordered around God, not scattered and dissipated by the pressure to succeed, make a lot of money, or seem important by the worldly standards of the power elite.  “You must push against the world as hard as it pushes against you,” says Dreher.  We cannot continue to live in the world as though God does not exist.  But we cannot merely run away from the world either, thinks Dreher; we must be always be running toward God.  One’s life cannot be merely a no to the world; it must first and foremost be a yes to God. 

Dreher believes that Christians need to be anchored in and by stable communities of faith.  We must be open to the world in a certain way — the Benedictines were commanded to offer hospitality to any stranger who came to their door — but we must also have meaningful walls to make space for the life God commands us to live.  The monks would have had no time to pray if outsiders were wandering the halls.  We must not dissipate our lives serving other masters and lose what makes us distinctive.

“The Benedict Option” for Dreher means cultivating practices to reform our lives and make God present in everything we do — in even the most mundane, daily activities.  The life of the Benedictine monk was characterized by ora et labora: work and prayer.  A common saying was that their daily prayer was their work, and their work was a form of prayer.  So it must increasingly be for us.  

This all sounded very right to me, and I look forward to reading Dreher’s forthcoming book on the topic.  

And yet, I couldn’t help but think while Dreher was discussing the Benedictine life what happened to the monasteries in England during the tyranny of Henry VIII, to all the religious orders during the Reign of Terror in Revolutionary France, and similarly to the monks in Eastern Europe during the twentieth century Soviet hegemony there.  The monasteries were raided, closed, and burned.  “Bare ruin’d choirs” were all that was left in many cases in England even in Shakespeare’s day.  

Take a trip someday to Walsingham, England, where an enormous monastic community once thrived.  All that is left now are two lone archways in an open grassy field.  Especially shameful is the fact that it was the last Prior of the monastery, Richard Vowell, who surrendered his sub-prior and eleven others to be hanged, drawn, and quartered on dubious charges of treason and who the following year assented to the destruction of the entire monastery.  For his accommodation of the king’s wishes, the Prior received a pension of 100 pounds a year thereafter, a large sum in those days.  The site was sold for 90 pounds to one of the king’s aristocratic toadies who erected a private mansion on the spot.  Such are the ways of the world.

It was during the same English tyranny that Thomas More was forced to resign his office as Chancellor because he refused to sign the oath of submission agreeing that King Henry was “supreme head of the Church in England.” In the screen version, A Man for All Seasons, after More has resigned, his wife asks him “What will you do now?” More replies: “I’ll read a little, write, pray.”  To which his wife Alice, an unlettered but wise woman replies:  “Do you really think they’ll leave you alone here to pray?”  More assumes they will.  “Poor foolish man,” she tells him.

This scene came to my mind while Dreher was describing his “Benedict Option.” As the example of the Little Sisters of the Poor shows, the powerful won’t be content to leave Christians alone to work and pray. Their refusal to submit is far too dangerous. 

Dreher showed he understood this problem when he made the comment above about preparing the faithful to lose their jobs.  He knows a bank executive, he told us, who says “it’s only a matter of time” before they present him with a similar oath of submission to the LGBTQ agenda, and he’ll have to resign or be forced out.  In the coming years, said Dreher, it won’t just be bakers and wedding photographers, it will be doctors, lawyers, bank executives, professors, university presidents, provosts who will be forced to submit to abortion, euthanasia, and the entire agenda of the sexual revolution, or be labeled “counter-revolutionaries” and treated as all counter-revolutionaries have been throughout history.

Nor should we expect the institutionalized bureaucracy to defend us, any more than the prior of Walsingham defended his abbey.  Once a group has accommodated itself and become comfortable with the status quo, they won’t want trouble.  People you might have hoped would defend you won’t.

The Greek playwright Euripides once wrote that, “Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.”  In the modern world, we could say: “Whom the gods would destroy, they first make foolish.”  It won’t be enough to get rid of the bakers, photographers, doctors, and civil servants, these people must be made to look like rubes and scoundrels.  A nation that is supposedly “shocked” and “ashamed” at any expression of “look-ism” will have no trouble calling a lowly county clerk in Kentucky a “fat pig” and “poor white trailer trash.”  Any deviation from the approved ideology must not only be punished by termination, the violator must also be reviled publically as “hateful,” a “troublemaker,” “unbalanced,” “uneducated,” “ignorant.”  The wooden stocks in the town square in which criminals were locked and forced to stand bound for hours to shame them before the public count as nothing compared to the shame that can be rained down upon a person now on the internet. 

Martyrdom only seems noble to the faithful; it’s simple idiocy to everyone else.  The Polish agents of the Security Service of the Ministry of Internal Affairs who beat Blessed Fr. Jerzy Popiełuszko to death must have thought the poor man was insane for his support of the Solidarity labor union when the fine for even attending a Solidarity rally was three-month’s pay.  “We’re better ridding ourselves of this trouble-maker,” I imagine they told themselves.  “The sort of disruption he causes doesn’t look good to the higher-ups” — their pitiless, conquering Soviet Russian overlords whom they chose to serve instead of their own people. 

The “Benedict Option” isn’t a retreat from the world, a way of bunkering down in fear.  It won’t keep the forces that threaten us at bay.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  The monasteries are always the first to be raided and closed.  “Be not afraid,” Pope St. John Paul II told us.  Living this way is simply what the security officers should find us doing when they come for us.  And when they do and when that oath of submission is required of us, we’d better be ready to give up everything we’ve worked a lifetime for.  It profits a man nothing to gain the world if he should lose his soul.

Thomas More could have been the most powerful man in England if had agreed to say what he knew to be false.  Even today, there are people in England who want to make him look like a pious fool (Wolf Hall).  In a way, he was a fool, Christ’s fool, which is why his friend Desiderius Erasmus named his famous work in his honor, The Praise of Folly — in Latin, the Encomium Moriae.  Foolish man that he was, Thomas More, like Jerzy Popiełuszko, chose the better part.  

Will we?

Related at CWR:

• “The Benedictine Option” (Mar 6, 2016) by Dr. Randall B. Smith
• “Would Alasdair MacIntyre Live in a ‘Benedict Option’ Community?” (July 14, 2015) by Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille 
• “Traditional religious life: The real ‘Benedict Option'” (Jan 12, 2016) by Hilary White
“The ‘Benedict Option’ or the ‘Gregorian Option’?” (June 15, 2016) by Fr. Andrew Liaugminas and Sheila Liaugminas


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About Dr. Randall B. Smith 44 Articles
Dr. Randall B. Smith is Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, where he teaches courses on Moral Theology, History of Theology, Faith and Science, and Faith and Culture. His books include Reading the Sermons of Thomas Aquinas: A Beginner's Guide (Emmaus), Aquinas, Bonaventure, and the Scholastic Culture of Medieval Paris (Cambridge), and From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body (Emmaus), due out in October 2022. He is also co-author of Why Believe? Volume 2: Answers to Life's Questions (Augustine Institute). Prof. Smith is the author of numerous articles in academic journals, but he also publishes a regular bi-weekly column for "The Catholic Thing."