The Benedict Option... Where to begin?
Updated: Aug 19, 2021
In a recent interview on my book, The Original Benedict Option Handbook, the following question was posed to me: “Where should someone who takes the Benedict Option seriously even start?” I fear I did not answer the question adequately in the interview, so here is my more thought out answer in detail.
We find ourselves today in the midst of a society where it is increasingly difficult, in some places impossible, to live faithfully a Christian way of life. In some parts of the world this reality has come about only in recent decades; in other places it is as though we’ve finally opened our eyes and realized that we’ve been living in a pseudo-christian framework that, crumbling away, has made us see that this society has been incompatible with genuine orthodox (“little o”) Christianity for some time. However the situation arose in our particular regions of the Global West, we find ourselves facing the same challenge:
In a world increasingly incompatible with—in many cases hostile to—an authentic Christian way of life and the Truth of the Gospel, how are we to remain faithful (or to be honest, how can first repent and become faithful and then remain faithful) to Christ and cultivate authentic Christian community, without which the Gospel cannot be lived and flourish?
In other words, we find ourselves facing the existential challenge of utmost importance: How can a Christian begin to cultivate that way of life here and now in the midst of a society at odds with the basic tenets of our existence? For a Christian seeking to live not by lies and follow something like the Benedict Option as a real and viable strategy of life, where can you even begin?
I propose that we look at what the 6th century monk St. Benedict of Nursia, quoting Sacred Scripture, has to say to us: “If you would have true and everlasting life, keep your tongue from evil and your lips from deceit, turn away from evil and do good, seek after peace and pursue it.”
Thus I propose as an answer to our problem this simple three-step starting point from Scripture (none the wors for having been used by Benedict himself too), namely:
I. “Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from deceit.”
That is to say, start very simply with “live not by lies.” First of all shun falsehood, and not only the lies we tell others and the lies we tell ourselves, but also have the courage to and earnestness necessary to refuse to partake in, support, or have anything to do with lies and untruths. Do not repeat lies, do not give them strength, do not even passively accept their intrusion into your home and ways of being.
This means, though, that you must also simplify your thoughts and your speech—your ways of thinking, speaking, and communicating. You need to begin by extricating your very mind from the unceasing noise of meaningless propaganda propelled at us day in and day out that distracts us from “the one thing necessary”. It’s not only outright lies that we must avoid, nut we must avoid all evil wrought with our tongue as well as any semblance of deception or duplicity in our words and in the thoughts of our heart.
The first step in this way of life—the only way for your faith to survive and remain intact with integrity in the midst of a world hostile to the Gospel—is to simplify your thoughts and speech, your patterns of communication, by removing distractions and extraneous elements (for example, overcoat conversational narcissism, constant news consumption, and feeling like you need to always be making jokes or sarcastic remarks).
Moreover, you must give your thoughts and words to God more than to the hollow things of this world (the vanities of vanities—‘vanitas’ meaning ‘hollow’). What does this look like? It’s what the ancient Christians called the prayer of the heart, cultivated primarily through what’s called the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me/us”), repeated, prayed unceasingly (I Thess. 5:17) on the lips and in the heart. This is an ascetic practice incumbent on every Christian who wants to remain faithful to Christ amidst the attacks and pitfalls set up against them. The result of cultivating this prayer of the heart through continuous prayer unceasing throughout our daily activities, forming our hearts and minds night and day, is purity of heart, which is necessary if we would see God.
II. "Turn away from evil and do good."
Now that you’ve simplified your thoughts and your speech, you must also simplify your life itself, purifying, cutting out, from your life the paradigms/structures and systems of Mammon (the spirit of money and consumerism that rules the modern West) and begin to
Turn aside from those structures and routines and systems—which, I know, we’ve all been embedded in from our youth—that inhibit us from living the Gospel. And this may require quite radical changes in your lifestyle.
Establish yourself in the stability of a structured prayer routine in obedience to something outside yourself: that is, daily liturgical prayer (sometimes called the Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours). Some great examples are the Book of Common Prayer, the Roman Liturgy of the Hours, or in a simpler and more accessible format: Pray Unceasingly. Commitment to a structured liturgical prayer life—beginning with yourself and inviting others to join you—is a singularly powerful way to shape your mind and heart and life toward union with Christ and break free from the individualistic determinism *precisely because this structure of prayer is established as something outside yourself and not ruled by your mere whims of the moment.
III. "Seek after peace and pursue it."
Practice—really get into the habit—of quiet listening, open and peaceful listening and hearing what others are saying, and what God is saying through the world around me. Only by quiet listening can I hear the voice of God, and hear the real needs of others (and not only what I imagine them to be in the conceit of my heart), and so discern rightly how to engage with the circumstances around me in the present moment.
This doesn’t mean keeping your mouth shut. On the contrary, it means courageously and boldly speaking up when need demands, and doing so with the confidence that can come only from having been listening in silence.
Finally you must begin—already now—living the way of life you would want to find in a community of orthodox Christians authentically living the Gospel. If you wait to find the right community, you will be lost; and only in beginning now to live that way of life, as best you can, will you ever be able to find—or create—a genuine Christian community.
And finally, commit yourself to seek alone the one thing necessary: the hidden pearl of great price—union with God in Christ.
For a more in depth exploration of how to faithfully live as a Christian in the face of a society incompatible with the Christian way of life, come check out our real-time virtual workshop series running from September to February. I look forward to seeing you there!
Dr. Cameron M. Thompson