Today, the U.S. faces a crisis, both in considering the grievous polarization between differing political ideologies and camps and the many systemic issues of discrimination and bias that are evident in many walks of life. This is compounded by societal and economic issues with which we are all too familiar, whether it be the dwindling of children and the subsequent aging of the population or the increase of pressures that make it harder for families to provide a proper environment to raise their children. These issues by no means exclusively pertain to the U.S., but apply to the West as a whole. In all these ways and others, the West is moving away for its Christian roots. One might begrudge the phrase “living in a post-Christian society,” but the practical situation that it describes is immediately observable.
With this in mind, it is an important consideration to make concerning the future of the Christian faithful in the West. What should be the role of Christians be going forward? What has come to be known as the Benedict option seeks to answer this question. According to this theory, Christians should retreat from the culture at large, form their own communities where “neo-monasticism” is practiced, which seems to be a selective retreat from the world, where those participating are laymen and laywomen in every respect except that they remain uninvolved in the culture, one could even use the term quasi-monks. A good example of what these communities would look like would be the Hasidic Jewish communities that exist throughout the U.S.
As I, in my own life and discernment process, consider the monastic life, I must say that this is a misrepresentation of what it means to be a monk. A monk does not seek to retreat from the world because he has some sort of ideological or practical disagreement with it; he does so because he comes to the realization that everything that is in and of the world is to him an impediment to the radical union with God which he seeks. Thus, he gives up everything, including the opportunity go hold a job and have a family and children of his own, to own a home, to network with others, to be able to make meaningful change in society, for the purpose of pursuing only one thing, complete dedication to God. Yet, the monk—though he retreats from the world—does not abandon the world, because his great love, Christ, did not abandon the world. Rather, having retreated from it, he prays for the salvation of the world. Thus, he does not seek to forget the world, but to serve it in a different manner.
With this in mind, it is important to consider when the Christian practice of monasticism started. It was precisely after the age of Christian persecution, when Christians were free to practice and evangelize and where there was no longer the same need for those who would spread the Christian message to give up everything else for the Faith. Thus, those called to singular dedication for God, retreated to uninhabited places to practice hard disciplines and rigorous lives of prayer and devotion, while those who discerned their role as being connected to the betterment of the world took on the task of converting the culture to Christ.
In regards of the Benedict option, imagine the disaster that would have happened had the early Christians chosen it. After all, if Western culture has in some important regards moved away from Christianity, how much farther from Christ was it during the first three centuries of Christian existence? Of course, the early Christians did not choose the Benedict option. They did not choose the Benedict option because they understood that they had a duty to God and a duty to their neighbor to spread the good news that Christ is Lord, that He came back from the dead on the third day after His crucifixion, and that those who believe in Him will have eternal life. And so do we. The correct Christian response to the current culture is not to retreat from it, it is to work zealously to convert it and bring it to the truth and love of Christ. If the Benedict option instructs us to act differently, its validity is questionable.