In the next chapter, Rod Dreher outlines a modern description of and rationale for the Benedictine order. And in the particulars, he says a number of wise and good things. Dreher sees one of the most essential things. “We need to embed ourselves in stable communities of faith” (Loc. 760). And living by rule is not necessarily “a checklist for legalism” (Loc. 774). The point is to make “a place within your heart and within your daily life for the grace of God to take root” (Loc. 786). Discipline is not necessarily the same thing as that old devil that Paul called “works.” However, comma.
Looking back over the course of centuries, asking what one thinks of “monks” is a bit like asking what you think of “soldiers.” What soldiers? What year? What unit? And asking what you think of Benedictine monks is like asking what you think of American soldiers. What war? What cause? What battle? There have been times when the monastic impulse really did save civilization—“that kept the light of faith alive” (Loc. 741). But there have been other times when the monasteries followed the sad arc described by Hoffer—first a movement, then a business, and then a racket. So there have been situations when Ambrose Bierce’s jibe was not entirely out of order: “A monk of St. Benedict, croaking a text . . . Black friars in this world, fried black in the next.”
Protestants tend to think of monasteries in terms of those times when reformation was the most obvious screaming need. And Catholics (and EO) tend to spot them a bit more charitably, looking both to the stated intentions of the founder of the order, not to mention the glory days back when people were sincerely attempting it. But alas, there is absolutely nothing that can be done that will prevent a new wineskin from becoming an old one. The Lord has promised that the Church is going to make it, the Church is going to be preserved without spot or wrinkle, or any such blemish, and so we have a divine promise there. But we don’t have any such promise for particular churches, and especially not for parachurch groups, or monastic renewal groups, or any other “intentional community” (as distinct from the church). In short, all attempts at “Navy Seals for Jesus” units are likely to do a large amount of good in the short run, and handle their old wineskin status poorly in the long run.
At the same time, Protestants do need to remember that ascetic discipline is not necessarily evil. He would be a brave man and a poor theologian who challenged the Lord’s assessment of John the Baptist (Luke 7:28). And even with a widespread movement of sexual asceticism, there is something to be said for Chesterton’s argument (I think in The Everlasting Man) that the ancient Greco/Roman culture had been so licentious that putting a good portion of that culture into sexual rehab was perhaps a necessary evil. So maybe everybody in Manhattan needs to take orders.
In short, depending on where you zoom in, you can find God working through monastic renewal, and you can also find the devil working through monastic renewal. But zooming out, I confess myself dubious about the strategic value of the Benedictine rule for Christians generally. There are two basic reasons—I don’t think we can do this without gospel, and I don’t think we can do it without women and children.
Having acknowledged a place for ascetic discipline, I think we need to recognize that ascetic rigorism does have a strong propensity to try to displace gospel, a propensity that Dreher does not seem to recognize.
“This is why asceticism—taking on physical rigors for the sake of a spiritual goal—is such an important part of the ordinary Christian life” (Loc. 946).
“Asceticism is an antidote to the poison of self-centeredness common in our culture, which teaches us that satisfying our own desires is the key to the good life” (Loc. 953).
“Ascetical suffering is a method for avoiding becoming like those monks called ‘detestable’ by Saint Benedict in the Rule ‘the worst kind of monk,’ namely those whose ‘law is the desire for self-gratification’” (Loc. 964).
The problem is that asceticism is an antidote to only one kind of self-centeredness, but it can be a particularly virulent form of another kind of it. The worst kind of monk is not the lecherous one. The worst kind of monk is the diabolical one, the one who hates marital sex and roast beef (1 Tim. 4:1-4). Notice what Paul says that rigorism cannot do.
“If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (Col. 2:20–23, ESV).
Self-righteousness is not a biological appetite, but it is a fleshly one.
At the same time, I agree with Dreher on the task before us. “As lay Christians living in the world, our calling is to seek holiness in more ordinary social conditions” (Loc. 1078). But I think that such “intentional communities” need to be a place where the pure gospel is prized, where the women are loved, and where the resultant children are brought up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. So instead of Dreher’s proposal, I would suggest that the model for the modern Christian church is not the cloister of the monastery, but rather the Puritan township. The Puritans (at their best—remember our wineskins) were gospel-based, and they included the women. And they lived according to rule. In my view, that helps the odds of long term reformation, over against short term renewal.
This needs to be developed more, and no doubt will be.