“As someone whom God has graciously lifted out of the prison that is the Catholic sacramental system, I do not greatly appreciate this attempt to sell my bondage back to me as an uplifting spiritual experience.”
[The following is a guest post by David Bancz, a Welshman and former Benedictine monk. The post, while quite self-explanatory, is primarily a reflection on Rod Dreher’s book The Benedict Option, but is also a beautiful contrast to the series of posts by Paul Liberati earlier this year, “Reformed Seminarian Converts to Roman Catholicism”. Lord willing, Paul will have his own forthcoming reflections on this wonderful example of God’s grace on behalf of His Children.]
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).
Contemporary monks are modern readers too, and one of the roles the Rule fulfills for the modern Benedictine is precisely to be that repository of mystical teaching. This teaching is primarily concentrated in the Prologue of the Rule. In many communities, such as the one of which I was a member, it is usual for the Abbot to give a regular talk on monastic life to the monks, and the Prologue would be a regular source of inspiration for that time of instruction. It is hard to overestimate the importance of the spiritual teaching in the Prologue to the Benedictine; it is frequently read and meditated upon and its phrases and rhythms enter the monks mind. It is a shared Benedictine patrimony. While some parts of the Rule are extremely prosaic and practical, for Dreher to downgrade the whole of the Rule to a purely prosaic level is, I think, inaccurate.
The discussion of monasticism in The Benedict Option is, at one level, merely a piece of a much wider pattern. Dreher is trying, over a number of areas, to gently draw attention to the positives he sees working within a sacramental system. Therefore, in a positive manner, there is talk of fasting and asceticism, of Popes and icons, liturgy and saints, and of course those staples of all sacramental systems, effort and will power. As someone whom God has graciously lifted out of the prison that is the Catholic sacramental system, I do not greatly appreciate this attempt to sell my bondage back to me as an uplifting spiritual experience. In the words of Paul:
This persuasion did not come from Him who calls you. (Galatians 5:8 NASB)
I think it is significant that the experience the author has described is being a visitor to a monastery rather than someone who is actually engaged in a form of monasticism. As a husband and father, the second option is not open to Dreher. I think it is true to state that the paradigm of being a visitor to a monastery is a very privileged and suggestible state, one very different to being a monk where one is open to exploitation in a number of ways by those above you in the community hierarchy. This vulnerability to abuse and exploitation is particularly a concern in that, in my experience, the monastic population divides up into two groups, those who want to be crucified with Christ and those who are happy to start crucifying them.
The presentation of monasticism in The Benedict Option assumes that monks have, through their vows, clearly broken with evil and sin and have embraced a sanctified Christian wholeness. Yet, Dreher does not account for the large amount of twisted sinfulness within the cloister. There are monks more interested in becoming liturgical experts than living a life of Christian service. Others are happy to have unnatural attachments to other monks which they conduct in a grotesque fashion. Others are living with untreated addictions. I had my own vices in the cloister too. What is the reason for this? That it is entirely possible to be a monk while also being unregenerate and dead in your sins.
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.