Towards wisdom

Do what you can, now, and keep doing it without the permission of God’s adversaries; do what you can, and discover what you thought you couldn’t along the way. That was my first (muted) instinct, in this discussion of the “Benedict option,” conducted these last few days. It is like the “New Evangelization”: a phrase, a hashtag floating among thousands on the Internet currently. I am mildly allergic to such phrases, which I associate with tarting up the same old, possibly beloved product, in the hope of catching a few new buyers. (“New improved!”) It is an old, tired marketing strategy, that seldom works, and then not for long. Often, if unintentionally, it suggests: “We have tampered with the thing you love!”

The phrase, “Benedict option,” now associated with Rod Dreher, was drawn from Alasdair MacIntyre — his remarkable book, After Virtue, which surely every gentle reader has read. He tossed it off in a particular context, and not as a call to arms. MacIntyre is himself full of reservations about calls to arms. Shorn of that context, the term takes on an utopian flavour, and soon inspires dreams of little “orthodox” communities, which we may also imagine to be “green,” co-operative, or feudally semi-collective in a neo-mediaeval way.

But here is the rub. The original “Benedict option” — presented by Benedict of Nursia, first at Subiaco, then at Monte Cassino in the mountains of southern Italy — was unambiguously monastic. As one may discover by perusing The Rule of Saint Benedict, it bespeaks a carefully ordered and tightly disciplined community, peopled exclusively by avowed monks. It is expressly not a model for Catholic secular life: for monks are not permitted to breed, and need a constant supply of immigrants from “the world” to stay in business. (Not that The Rule lacks useful hints for life outside.)

We, who do not take such vows, live down the hill in that world, in the valley of the shadow of death, and have always lived there. We bear the children. Little gated Catholic communities (or Orthodox, or Evangelical) are by their nature porous. In Christian history they grew out of pagan settlements, by the gradual conversion of the people (there were many stages). These were not utopian experiments; they partook of the vagaries of history, and centuries passed before they were transformed; as more centuries have passed in their descent into pagan communities again.

“Communism is only possible among friends,” as my Czech drinking buddies used to say. The convents offer variations on this kind of communism. They don’t work on any other terms than those which are consciously stated in defiance of sinful human nature. The membership is voluntary; no one is born into monastic life.

Just as no one is born Catholic. We are made, or make ourselves, into Catholics, by the grace of God, but we are all born as little pagans, rife with original sin.

I emphasize the obvious because the obvious is no longer obvious: we dream about things that are not physically possible. All secular utopian experiments fail. It is only possible to sustain them by tyranny, until the tyrants themselves crack up from one natural cause or many. Some, like the Shakers, die seemingly peaceful in their sleep; most perish in conflict. Vast ones like the Soviet, or our liberal-progressive-atheist Nanny State, collapse under their own cumulative dead weight, after the destruction of souls by the millions.

Monasteries have only worked, and flourished through time, because the “problems of communism” have been addressed in them with holy candour. Where these have not, they have also failed — and the implosion of a monastery (or nunnery) is, as we saw again and again in the ’sixties, and since in the utopian “spirit of Vatican II,” quite something to behold. A tipping point is reached when the inmates all go crazy, and from a domain of tranquillity and peace the place turns suddenly into a lunatic asylum, in the brief moments before the inmates fly out to wreak havoc back here in the world. (I have long looked on “liberation theology” and the like as mental conditions.)

The wisdom of the Catholic Church has been, from time out of mind, “don’t go there.” Don’t try to create, or even preserve, a monastic environment without the constant invocation, and quiet reception, of the will of God. Give up on the half-way house of “dialogue” and “dialectic”: Christ is all or nothing.

Outside, the whole world is our dar al-harb. Every parish church is in mission territory, and stays in mission territory, fighting an uphill battle against its own parishioners, often including the priests — who are reverting to paganism twenty times a day, and can only be retrieved through the faith, communicated chiefly through the Sacraments.

We, who are not monks and nuns, are out in the world, and stuck here, among all the temptations, until death moves us along. We are, in the main, incorrigible: we fight over petty things, play nasty tricks on each other, lie like rugs, grab at both spiritual and material comforts that do not belong to us. Our neighbourhoods are like zoos; the best only better kept than others. (This was also true in my beloved thirteenth century.)

My own special pleading for the devolution of government, on the subsidiary principle, is not based on any utopian hope that people with be “nice.” There will always be wars: I would prefer them to be smaller. There will always be tyrants: I’d prefer them to contained. Little governments will fail as big governments do: I’d prefer smaller failures. The world could be made quieter, but it will always be a mess.

Something might possibly be achieved, for a time, but nothing can be achieved with a people unable to comprehend that the world is radically imperfect, that it will remain so, and that this can’t be fixed by grand schemes. Only very specific problems can be fixed, and then only when they can be placed in some degree of isolation. The bigger the polity, the more it is removed from causes and effects that individual people can see with their own eyes; and thus the more that attempts at problem-solving must necessarily make things worse, under a cascade of unintended consequences. For our fundamental problem is sin, and there can be no human scheme to fix that.

This is why my own conception of “Benedict options” is plural: things we can actually do, now, in our imperfect world. There is one in particular on my mind at the present, which I fully intend to leave until tomorrow.


For today is the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel (see missals) — of this Lady who is the Seat of Wisdom; before whom we should sometimes shut up and listen (as we can, through our Rosaries).

Not “Mother Earth” but sister Earth; not “sister Mary,” but Mother Mary.

Our Lady, pray for us; reach into our lives, and help us to order them.

Send us more Carmelites, calced and discalced.

Bring forth your rain, upon our desert.