The Anglican spiritual theologian Martin Thornton once remarked that “the genius of St Benedict cannot be confined within the walls of Monte Cassino or any other monastery.” In continuing a discussion of the so-called Benedict Option, and what it means for Anglicans, my suspicion, and what is becoming my conviction, is that we Anglicans hold to a tradition which is not only well-suited to the Benedict Option, but which is the very thing itself.
To be sure, there are Anglicans who would never in a million years consider themselves as such, but one can hardly deny the Benedictine character of Anglicanism, in her Prayer Book, in her mission, or in even the unique spiritual tradition of the English people. In the Middle Ages, England was often referred to as the “land of the Benedictines,” dotted as it was with monasteries, typically tied to the cathedral cloisters, following the Rule.
Thornton himself was perhaps before his times in suggesting the revival of Benedictine ways. He writes: “the Regula is not only a system of monastic order, it is a system of ascetical theology, the basis of which is as applicable to modern England as it was to sixth century Italy.” Indeed, the Book of Common Prayer can be understood as an attempt to bring Benedictine life not only into the 16th Century, but to the laity, especially as the monasteries were being destroyed.
Cranmer’s vision was that of a renewed Christian England, the prayers of the faithful ringing out morning and evening in every parish church throughout the realm. Perhaps the surprise to me and many others is that it took not only the collapse of Christendom, but the erasure of Anglicanism’s Erastian moorings as Anglican missionaries spread throughout the world to bring it about!
To Thornton, there are six unique features to what he calls the “English School” of spirituality. They are:
- Consistency in maintaining the “speculative-affective synthesis” – the unity of heart and mind, the intellectual life and the affections.
- An insistence on the unity of the Church Militant, priest and people together carrying out the mission of the Church.
- A unique humanism and a unique optimism, summed up by Dame Julian’s “all shall be well.”
- The liturgy as the foundation of the Christian life, in both the Eucharist and the Daily Office, “from which flows personal devotion based on the Bible.”
- Private prayer remains subservient to the recollection of Christ’s presence.
- Spiritual direction as not only a pastoral practice, but as the source of ascetical theology. (You can read Thornton’s English Spirituality at Google Books)
While I do not intend to expand much upon them, I would submit to you that these six are a great starting point for an Anglican vision of the Benedict Option. Can you imagine it? I get the sense that today’s Christians (the kind who are taking up the Benedict Option) are no longer suspicious of the paradoxes inherent to faith and reason, but truly embrace this self-understanding. Further, they are not satisfied with either clericalism or anti-clericalism, but they carry out an identity as the Church engaged in a battle together for hearts and minds. They are uniquely optomistic about the destiny of this world, engaged in the advancement of the Kingdom, but in a uniquely Benedictine way – disengaged from political life.
We are also seeing a growing movement of young Evangelicals taking on traditional ways of living out the Christian life, leaning on the liturgy, hungry for the Eucharist and the Daily Office. Last of all, there is a demand for spiritual direction as opposed to pietistic self-direction. There is a demand for confession and absolution, for an understanding of the Church’s spiritual theology, and for the revival of spiritual disciplines. These are, to Anglicans, the air we breathe and the well from which we draw.
But, I would submit that the rapidly changing culture which surrounds us has made certain dormant aspects of Anglican spirituality come to life again.
Living Among Enemies
One of the prime conversations in the Benedict Option is the question of how we traditional and orthodox Christians can stand and flourish in the midst of a culture which views us as enemies. It is perhaps important to clarify. There are many who are open-minded and generous enough to hear what we have to say. But, there are those who, in increasing numbers, desire the destruction of traditional churches and orthodox Christianity, finding it intolerable for modern society. I believe that the Prayer Book holds the answer to these pressing questions and issues. Let’s take a few examples.
In Morning Prayer, we daily recite the words of Zechariah:
“That we should be saved from our enemies, *
and from the hand of all that hate us;
To perform the mercy promised to our forefathers, *
and to remember his holy covenant;
To perform the oath which he sware to our forefather Abraham, *
that he would give us,
That we being delivered out of the hand of our enemies *
might serve him without fear,
In holiness and righteousness before him, *
all the days of our life.”
This daily proposes to us the very core of the Benedict Option – an ecclesial life of faithfulness to the tradition and more importantly to Our Lord in the midst of our enemies, trusting the Lord to deliver us. It is further a way of “eschatological sanctification,” trusting the Lord to sanctify us for the day of his coming.
Also in Morning Prayer, we often recite the Collect for Peace:
“O God, who art the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom: Defend us, thy humble servants, in all assaults of our enemies; that we, surely trusting in thy defense, may not fear the power of any adversaries; through the might of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
As I read more about the Benedict Option, there is a sense in which its proponents desire to withdraw from the culture wars for the sake of peace. While recognizing that we are under assault, there is a conscious effort to retreat into community and catechesis for the sake of building up the Body for the sake of a robust witness. What a grace that what Cranmer was likely directing at the Catholic armies of Europe we now naturally take to be directed at neo-Pagan culture warriors! In this, I would add, we have the daily recitation of the Psalter, with its many requests for deliverance from the hands of enemies.
Lastly, the Prayer Book provides us with a way to both forgive our enemies and pray for their conversion. The Litany states: “That it may please thee to forgive our enemies, persecutors, and slanderers, and to turn their hearts.” The challenge today is to suffer enmity with our neighbors, but with joy and gladness as opposed to hardness of heart. Prayerbook spirituality offers to guide us in praying for those we all too easily forget: our enemies.
A Charter for Common Life
The hope of Alasdair MacIntyre at the end of After Virtue is that new Benedictines would construct “local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages.” The Benedictine Rule is certainly a starting point for chartering these kinds of communities. Benedict sought to teach those first brothers how to live in community, to cling to their brethren, in a sense, as the means to their own sanctification.
As Anglicans, we believe that this can be translated beyond the monastery, particularly to the parish church. But, what happens when Christian community is forced to subsist outside the congregational forms of Christendom? What happens when Christians meet, spontaneously or out of necessity, as naturally in a living room as in a parish church? What happens, when, as is becoming normal today, Christians demand a common life beyond what the parish church can provide?
What is needed is a charter for extra-parochial communities of prayer, life-giving fellowship, and solidarity in the midst of marginalization, a charter for a new rule of life – not for the individual, but for whole multi-generational groupings of Benedictine Option Christians. We need communities oriented towards the pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful, communities in which virtue can flourish. Let me put all my cards on the table.
I believe that Anglicanism offers just such a charter. We have forms for daily prayer and common intercession, forms for confession, and litanies for ourselves and for the world. We have an emphasis upon the domestic church and family catechesis. We have in our DNA a way for families to join together in their neighborhoods for evening prayer and cookouts, for students to come together for morning prayer and intercession for one another, for baptismal promises to become enfleshed in sacrifice for the sake of our brothers and sisters. In one of the great ironies of Anglicanism, what was intended for the chapel works best in the home! What was intended for the parish church comes to life outside her four walls! Thanks be to God, for we have a goodly heritage.
The Rev. Lee Nelson, S.S.C. is a priest, church-planter, and catechist. He has planted churches in Waco and College Station, Texas with the aim of making disciples on college campuses. He is currently the Chair of the Committee for Catechesis of the Anglican Church in North America which produced To Be a Christian, an Anglican Catechism.