Another Benedict Option: a book review

St. Benedict has gotten some good press recently. Conservative columnist Rod Dreher published The Benedict Option (March 2017) arguing that Christians ought to segregate themselves from modern society in order to live out our Christian calling away from the corrupting influence of liberalism. Dreher’s thesis harkens back to Benedict of Nursia’s  monastic rule and the intentional and cloistered Benedictine communities he founded.

At-Home-in-this-Life_9-page-001-663x1024-1Jerusalem Jackson Greer discovered another ‘Benedict Option.’ In At Home in this LifeGreer describes how she dreamed of moving with her family to the country, so she and her husband could impart to their children the virtues of hard work and life on the land and mutual life. Unfortunately, their house in town didn’t sell, and as she listened to God’s voice, and the rule of St. Benedict, she heard the call to stay put where she was. Benedict’s call to stability (not moving from where you are planted) resounded louder than the call to withdraw. Greer was called to stay.

Greer’s book is one part memoir, one part DIY manual for life on the homestead, and one part spiritual disciplines guidebook. Greer shares honestly about her hunger for a deeper spiritual life, how Benedictine spirituality has shapes her practice, and the ways she has learned to embody Christian spirituality in everyday life (not that this is always easy). She takes us on a journey from her angsty desire to be somewhere else (e.g. a country farm), toward learning how to embody Benedictine virtues of humility, hard work and hospitality in ordinary life. She describes what she’s learned from the practices of stability, stewardship, silence, stillness, prayer, Sabbath, manual labor, mutual support, humility and hospitality, and along the way she gives us tips for painting walls, making laundry soap, patching sweaters with doilies, crafting prayer flags, starting worm farms and gardening, cooking (together), hospitality, and organizing garage sale fundraisers.

Greer is a different from me. She’s from the south and loves the country. I’m a North-Westerner and am a city boy. I was drawn into Greer’s story by our mutual love for Benedictine spirituality, and the writings of people like Barbara Brown Taylor, Wendell Berry, Kathleen Norris, Joan Chittister, Dennis Okholm, etc. I enjoyed reading her story about how the wisdom of St. Benedict works out in her everyday life and the ways she’s learned from stability, silence, humility and humbleness. Her description of learning to navigate meal preparation with her husband reminded me of some culinary angst my wife and I had early in our marriage. Greer writes with insight, vulnerability and a good humor. I enjoyed this book. I give this book four stars. ★ ★★ ★

Notice of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review.

Benedictine Spirituality For Regular People: a book review

Benedict of Nursia is honored as the patron saint of Western monasticism. His Rule has given shape to the communal life of the monasteries that bear his name, but his influence goes far beyond the Benedictine order. The rhythms of prayer and work in community are staples of monastic spirituality and Benedict’s rule is the impetus for much of that. But what wisdom does Benedict’s Rule offer to ordinary folk–people with jobs and families who do not feel called to the monastic life? Quite a bit actually.

Brother Benet Tvedten has written How to Be a Monastic And Not Leave Your Day Job to help us regular people appropriate the gifts of monasticism and Benedict’s Rule. Written primarily as a guide for those wishing to become oblates, this book explores the history of Benedictine spirituality, the values it imparts for daily life and the requirements for oblates–those who wish to formalize their commitment to the Benedictine way by associating with a monastery. While those considering becoming oblates (literally, ‘offering oneself up’) will get the most out of this book, all who have come to appreciate Benedictine spirituality and wish to incorporate its insights will find food for thought here.

Tvedten begins his book by giving a brief overview of Benedict and Benedictine spirituality. Benedict did not write his rule in a vacuum. He incorporated the wisdom of the monastic communities before him, even appropriating The Rule of the Master, a rule written by an anonymous Italian abbot,  as the framework for the book we’ve come to know as The Rule of St. Benedict. While the former was used by Benedict, Tvedten observes a noticeable shift in tone, “The Master’s Rule is indeed harsh and burdensome. The crotchety old abbot does not have much confidence in his monks, and is constantly suspicious of them”(24).  Benedict’s rule on the other hand is written for beginners (15) and so that ‘the strong and the weak may live side by side’ (26). This  means that the Rule of Benedict is not simply for those who have taken heroic vows and are spiritually strong but has wisdom for those starting their spiritual quest and wishing to grow in their faith.

The values of Benedictine life which are gifts to the whole church include: rhythms of prayer and work, humility,  concern for peace and justice and hospitality.  Tvedten explores these, offering commentary on the rule and examples from the lives of oblates he knows. His commentary on the rule emphasizes how the Benedictine way represents a whole different way of being in the world. However, he occasionally he offers an explanatory note which makes Benedict  more palatable to our ears (i.e. Benedict’s prohibition on laughter is explained as a prohibition on mockery and buffoonery).

His final section explores the  calling of oblates, their commitment to the rule and to the values of conversion (turning from your former way) and stability (commitment to a particular monastery), guidelines for oblates and the value they bring to the wider monastic community, the church and the world.

New to this edition (the book was originally published in 2006) is a new preface and afterward where Tvedten expands his reflection on the Benedictine way to include the New Monastic movement (Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, et al.) and other appropriations of Benedictine wisdom in our all too secular world. A list of recommended readings gives those interested in Benedictine Spirituality resources to go deeper into the themes which Tvedten sketches here.

I am not a Benedictine Oblate but I have a deep respect for the Benedictines. My own journey with Benedictine Spirituality includes my discovery of the Christian pracitice of Hospitality (through my reading of books by Christine Pohl, Daniel Homan, OSB and others), my encounter with Benedictine spirituality (through authors like Kathleen Norris, Joan Chittister, Ester DeWaal) and several journeys I’ve taken through the Rule. I am not at the place where I would formalize my commitment to the Benedictine way, but I am grateful for the myriad of ways the Benedictines have challenged my thinking and way of being in the world. Tvedten’s book and the Rule challenge me to be more intentional about community, hospitality and prayer. These are values I hold dear and am inspired by the Benedictine Community. I give this book four stars and recommend it for anyone interested in exploring the gifts the Benedictines offer for us regular folk.

Thank you to Paraclete Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.