So St. Francis and St. Benedict Walk Into a Bar…

Rod Dreher and “The Year of Small Things.”

Would Francis order wine and Benedict order beer, I wonder? What would the two men talk about? And most importantly, would Benedict shake his head dismissively at Francis’s accompanying band of baby birds?

Two of the best known and most important saints of the Middle Ages, Benedict of Nursia (c. 480-543) and Francis of Assisi (c. 1181-1226) were separated by several centuries, yet they were both instrumental in reforming the Church during periods of crisis. And while their efforts varied in emphasis and tone, they both left a lasting mark on our understanding of Christian community. It doesn’t seem coincidental, then, that the two most recent popes have taken the names Benedict and Francis during a similar period of crisis – what some cultural critics consider the end of Western civilization and the dawn of a Post-Christian era.

It is an era in which community is more difficult to cultivate, whether one is part of a faith tradition or not, and despite our increased connectivity thanks to technology. The question of authentic community and how it might be formed in such a fractured and fast-paced age is a focus of two recent publications hitting the shelves this spring: The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher and The Year of Small Things by Sarah Arthur and Erin Wasinger. Although different in emphasis and tone, much like St. Benedict and St. Francis, both works suggest that Christians today must become acquainted with “living on the edge of Empire” if the kind of community — and the kind of communion — our hearts most desire is to survive a restless climate where it has become all too easy to forget what it means to be human.

The Benedict Option

St. Benedict found himself on the “edge of empire” because that empire had effectively collapsed all around him. With the decline of Rome in the 5th century — a seemingly impenetrable power that ruled the West for hundreds of years — Europe entered a period of instability and turmoil often coined “the dark ages.” Fortunately, Benedict had enough imagination to establish a new way for Christians to live together while also preserving their ancient heritage — monastic communities founded on a Rule of prayer, order, stability, and hospitality. In The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, journalist Rod Dreher argues that Rome has once again fallen and the political battle for an American society that embraces (or even tolerates) traditional Christian principles is lost. Instead of continually beating the dead horse of the so-called “culture wars” — the social project of some conservative Christian groups in the late 20th century — Dreher asserts that now is the time for preserving and rebuilding a vibrant culture of faith that exists alongside the broader, secular culture that has rejected it. Dreher has styled this strategy “the Benedict Option,” and encourages Christian communities — Protestant, Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox — to build thriving subcultures instead of seeking “positions of power” primarily through politics (83). Critics of the Benedict Option often characterize it as an intolerant or unrealistic retreat from the world — an effort to convince all serious Christians to move to rural areas, unanimously homeschool their children, hate on homosexuals, and disconnect the internet. Yet after reading his book, this doesn’t seem to be what Dreher is advocating. Rather, he has identified the current cultural and political climate in the United States as one in which Christians should perhaps give slight priority to contemplation over action (to use the monastic notion of ora et labora, or “prayer and work”) if we are to raise future generations of believers who have the depth of faith to live in ways that are not merely countercultural, but perhaps radically so. It isn’t that Christians in the United States are “persecuted” in any manner that comes close to the martyrdom some are facing in non-Western nations, but rather that the deceits of “the world” reign with great power in the West, gently numbing our hearts with the false promise that this life is ultimately about gathering up as much comfort and security as possible. These enemies of Comfort and Security may be even more sinister than the Caesar who openly demands idolatrous worship because it is so difficult to recognize them in our midst unless we occasionally withdraw and reflect, as Dreher suggests:

If we are going to be for the world as Christ meant for us to be, we are going to have to spend more time away from the world, in deep prayer and substantial spiritual training—just as Jesus retreated to the desert to pray before ministering to the people. We cannot give the world what we do not have. 

Again, this does not mean people of faith stop engaging with society through acts of charity and service toward neighbors (hospitality being one of the core principles of St. Benedict’s Rule), but rather that the Church commits itself to the formation of intimate, committed communities in a society where people rarely know the neighbors on their own block, communities by which we receive the strength to intentionally resist the consumerism and decadence of Western nations that can no longer be described as “Christian.” Instead of placing our trust in institutions of power and influence, BenOp communities should seek to conserve their most cherished traditions and promote change at a local level. “Losing political power might just be the thing that saves the church’s soul,” Dreher says. “Ceasing to believe that the fate of the American Empire is in our hands frees us to put them to work for the Kingdom of God in our own little shires” (99).

That’s right — think hobbits. St. Benedict kept the light of Christian culture alive through an age of darkness by building up small bands of hobbit-monks and elven-nuns who acknowledged that “it is no bad thing to celebrate a simple life.” Dreher claims we must now do the same, though our “monasteries” and ways of living will of course look much different in our modern age.  In fact, instead of establishing “countercultural” communities, those who engage with the Benedict Option in a time when the barbarians sweeping in are utility, self-centered individualism, and passive entertainment may find there is increasingly little culture to “counter,” but rather that their task is the creation of culture. Period.

The Francis Alternative?

Dreher’s new book has brought St. Benedict to the foreground while stirring up some controversy along the way, but there is another medieval saint whose popularity never seems to wane. Perhaps this is because the sandal-wearing, animal-loving friar is often painted with an inoffensive hippie veneer, when in reality . . . the dude was kind of crazy (in all the best ways). Although their book isn’t about St. Francis of Assisi, Sarah Arthur and Erin Wasinger capture some of his ordinary radicalness in The Year of Small Things. Written in an accessible style, slightly more conversational than The Benedict Option, Arthur and Wasinger’s book also draws on the Church’s monastic tradition, though their emphasis is on the “new monasticism” movement — a blend of several traditions, both ancient and modern — rather than on a particular cloistral thread from the tapestry of the past. And while contemplation and community are still the foundation of the efforts Sarah and Erin strive to live out for a full year, many of the new monasticism’s “marks” have a distinctly outward-facing focus. For example, “Sharing economic resources with fellow community members and the needy,” “Lament for racial divisions within the church and our communities,” “Care for the plot of God’s earth given to us,” and “Peacemaking in the midst of violence.” Rather than living on “the edge of Empire” out of necessity due to shifts in power, the authors of The Year of Small Things suggest this is always how Christians should seek to live — with the outcast and marginalized — in good times and in bad. This, after all, was how St. Francis of Assisi chose to live in an era when the Church had much political power, but was threatened by scandal and heresies — enemies that have a tendency to crop up internally when the world “out there” seems like less of a threat.  

The Year of Small Things is also about community and why it is necessary for living a simple yet radically Christian life — especially in the midst of soul-numbing, suburban sprawl. In this area, especially, what Arthur and Wasinger propose has much in common with The Benedict Option, though again, their emphasis is less on the challenges posed by secular society and more on the practical actions Christians can take to live out the marks of new monasticism. While The Benedict Option makes it clear that social justice and good works will not preserve the Church unless there is also thoughtful catechesis and a rich culture of traditions that provide its members with deep roots, The Year of Small Things reminds us that Christianity isn’t about tending a walled garden, but about planting trees by water “that sends out its roots by the stream . . . and never fails to bear fruit” (Jeremiah 17:8).

In other words, the Church is big enough for both St. Benedict and St. Francis. And if the two men ever met in a bar, I’m sure they’d have much to discuss and learn from one another, “as iron sharpens iron.” In our complex age, we need both saints with their distinct emphases and ways of cultivating community. Thank God. I mean, who wants to live in a world where the only option is either wine or beer?

Ashlee Cowles is the author of Beneath Wandering Stars (Merit Press/Simon & Schuster), a Young Adult novel about a teen who walks the Camino de Santiago trek through Spain. Raised in a military family without roots, Ashlee currently makes her home in Colorado. When she isn’t discussing classic literature with high school students as a teacher, Ashlee is probably traveling overseas or writing in a local coffee shop. Join her author newsletter to learn more and stay in touch!

[Image: Saint Francis in the Desert, by Giovanni Bellini, 1480]

Ashlee Cowles
Ashlee Cowles is the author of the Young Adult novel “Beneath Wandering Stars” (Merit Press, August 2016), the story of a teen girl who walks an ancient pilgrimage route on behalf of her wounded brother. She blogs at The Wandering Writer. (Photo credit: Lancia E. Smith.)

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