In 1981, the great Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre published a book on the collapse of moral discourse in the modern world. He ended the book by talking about another collapse, the Dark Ages, when the Roman Empire collapsed. St. Benedict arose, he says, as an alternative, building a new, Christian society instead of clinging to the failures of old Rome. We need a Benedict today, he said.
The Benedict Option, then, can refer to a question: what would today’s St. Benedict look like? How should Christians rebuild among the collapse of our moral order?
But more often – if I may caricaturize a little – the Benedict Option refers to an answer to that question, in which Catholics say we should retreat from society, forget the pagans, and do our own thing. At its worst, this version of “the Benedict Option” seems to say, to hell with the world. Maybe I’m being unfair, but sometimes it feels to me like some of my fellow Catholics are gleeful about the collapse of our society. Hurrah, we have no responsibility! Damn the world!
Reading Scripture is important because Scripture presents us ways to think about things that we wouldn’t think of. Above all, Scripture portrays a God far more alive than we expect. We cage him up, box him in, think he can’t do it. Scripture presents him as living and acting.
Our first reading this past Sunday showed Abraham’s take on the Benedict Option. His world, too, was in moral collapse. Sodom and Gomorrah is the epitome of moral collapse. And it was all going to hell.
Abraham did not retreat, did not head for the hills, did not gleefully rub his hands together and think about how superior he was and how glad he was to see Sodom go.
Abraham knew the living God. I don’t need to walk you through the story, except to say that Abraham begged God’s mercy, not on the innocent but on the guilty. He didn’t pray that the righteous could escape. He prayed that the whole city might be saved on account of the righteous.
And so the second Benedict-Option lesson from Abraham, after praying for society, is that we can save it. We are called to be the yeast, the light, the salt. God did destroy Sodom, because not even ten righteous people could be found. But we are called to be the ten, the remnant, right in the middle of our fallen world, begging for mercy. We are called to be the ones for whom God saves the world.
In our Gospel, the disciples said, “Lord, teach us to pray.” He teaches them to be persistent. Ask and you will receive, seek and you will find, know and the door will be opened to you.
If we think God is gone, we should absolutely give up on our society. But God is not gone. He tells us he is here – without Scripture we would never think this way. He says, keep begging for God’s mercy, just like Abraham prayed for Sodom.
I might be wrong, but I have often argued here that Luke’s Gospel is like a commentary on Matthew’s, a reworking of the basic facts. Matthew gives us the full Lord’s Prayer, all the words – and they’re great. (And I’ve written more than one commentary on them all.)
But Luke pairs it down to the essentials, to make it stand out. Hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us this day. We forgive everyone. Save us from the final test. Beg.
Luke concludes his account of Jesus’s words about prayer with something suprising. We’ve been begging for bread. But the last words say, “How much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit.”
How important it is to read St. Paul, so that we may not forget the Holy Spirit! Let us turn to our second reading, from Colossians.
Through faith alone, we know that Christ is risen from the dead – that God can make life where there is death, for us just as for Christ – and for a culture that is dead around us. We are called to pray because the resurrection is real.
And not only physical resurrection. The death of Christ is a sign of our death in sin – and his physical resurrection is a sign of our moral resurrection. To repent of our sins, for the unholy to become holy, is no easier for us than is physically rising from the dead. But God can do it. He can send the Holy Spirit to make us holy.
Let our Benedict Option, then, not be a retreat from a dying society, but persistent prayer that God will bring moral and spiritual life to those who are dead in sin. Let us pray.
Where have you lost hope for moral regeneration? How can you restore the faith that enlivens that hope?