Opting for Benedict
The sun hovered low over the ragged western edge of the Ozarks as I parked my dusty car in the gravel lot. I was late for vespers, and probably dinner as well. I walked up to the abbey guest house, nerves strained from the hours of driving and the uncertainty of what awaited me. But almost immediately, a monk opened the door and beckoned me to come inside. He showed me a seat at the table. Had the entire monastic community delayed their meal to wait for me, a stranger? We prayed, we sat in silence, the dinner reading began, and then we ate.
At the time of this pilgrimage, I was betwixt and between. I had resigned my first post-graduation job as a political assistant at National Right to Life in DC. We had endured the long, hard, disappointing slog of the 2008 election season less than a year before. With my short career shoring up the present-day Roman imperium finished, I was set to enter religious life as a Benedictine novice at St. Meinrad, located in southern Indiana. But between D.C. and southern Indiana, I had time to do a little monastery-hopping.
I had read online about a new yet traditional abbey in rural Oklahoma, so I drove down to pray and work the land for a couple of days. I loved how radically devoted the monks were to prayer and simplicity, but I figured my vocation was back in Indiana.
Anyone who has read Alasdair MacIntyre’s revolutionary (and, in my case, life-changing) book After Virtue will recognize the imperium reference above. Thanks to retired Professor David Solomon, who introduced this seminal work of moral philosophy in his Morality and Modernity course at Notre Dame, so many of us amateur philosophers were able to ponder MacIntyre’s call for the “construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained” through ignorant times. With St. Benedict having fled a morally bankrupt Roman society to form new monastic communities in the countryside, “we are waiting … for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.”
In moving from the nation’s capital to a Benedictine archabbey, I saw myself—probably far too self-consciously—as a kind of new St. Benedict-in-training. I was a would-be savior to all that ails modern society today. So I threw myself into life at St. Meinrad. I absorbed the life of balanced prayer, work, and community. I received tonsure, rang bells, read Scripture, and wrestled with restlessness. But without entirely knowing why, I knew I was called elsewhere. With much difficulty, I left before making vows.
Upon leaving St. Meinrad, I knew I wanted to teach. The Alliance for Catholic Education accepted me, and within a year of my departure from southern Indiana, I was back under the Golden Dome for my first ACE summer (love thee, Notre Dame). Providentially, the school that wanted a high school theology teacher was back in that land of beautiful sunsets, Oklahoma.
I am now in my fifth year of teaching theology at Bishop Kelley High School in Tulsa. Tulsa is home to LaFortune Park (yes, that LaFortune family). Furthermore, Tulsans recently elected as mayor the great-great grandson of a particular LaFortune. According to the story, before earning great wealth in the oil industry down here, that particular ancestor got his start as a janitor at a certain place called Notre Dame.
Just sixty miles east of Tulsa, those Clear Creek monks continue to audaciously pursue purity of heart among the scrubby hills of Eastern Oklahoma. Amid the untamed ranchlands, they are building up true Christian civilization as St. Benedict originally intended. They are contemplative, yet they actively pursue the pure Christian life. They pray fervently for us; the rest of us, in our own modest ways, serve and support them in return.
When spring break came a few weeks ago, the “most discussed and most important religious book of the decade,” according to David Brooks, finally appeared in bookstores. The Benedict Option is the fruit of over a decade of Rod Dreher’s work on how orthodox Christians can answer MacIntyre’s call to forge those new, intentionally virtuous forms of community. There are myriad temptations, distractions, habits, and institutions that keep us from building up a robust civilization that is centered on Christ, and Dreher follows MacIntyre’s radical belief that the barbarians “have already been governing us for quite some time.” So what do we young adults do?
To Dreher’s credit, as he writes in the introduction, his book is not “a political agenda. Nor is it a spiritual how-to manual, nor a standard decline-and-fall lament.” It does not uphold a single religious community as ideal. It does argue bluntly that orthodox Christians have lost the larger culture for the foreseeable future. Given that many of our own peers have lost their own faith, the overriding priority now is to protect the next generation from losing its faith.
Following St. Benedict’s rule, Dreher reminds us of the importance of order, prayer, work, asceticism, stability, community, hospitality, and balance. He does not propose that we refrain from all political activity, but does remind us that political dilemmas are but symptoms of a deeper cultural forgetfulness and heedlessness. Rather, we should focus on that which really does move souls: goodness, beauty, and truth. When we do what it takes to protect or reintroduce reverent liturgy and beautiful art, we inspire ourselves and others. When we build intentional networks of committed believers who really do help each other with Christian education, child care, and job prospects, they will know we are Christians by our love.
I do not believe I am called to become a Latin-chanting monk of Clear Creek, but I do believe —even more so, ten years past graduation—that God expects each of us to be creative with the great gifts that He has given us. No, most of us are not called to be monks. But with God all things are possible, even the re-imagination of a vigorous Christian subculture for the 21st century. Maybe the new St. Benedict that MacIntyre envisioned is the Clear Creek abbot who so hospitably washed my hands that evening eight years ago. But (says Dreher) “maybe, just maybe, the new and quite different Benedict that God is calling to revive and strengthen His church is…you.”
During his time at Notre Dame, Tim Wymore served the Rover as Politics & Economics Editor and Co-Managing Editor. After graduating in 2007, he worked as a political assistant at National Right to Life in Washington, DC. After the 2008 election, he joined the Benedictine monks for a year and a half as a novice at St. Meinrad Archabbey in southern Indiana. Upon deciding not to make vows, he was accepted into the Alliance for Catholic Education, which sent him to Tulsa, Oklahoma. He graduated from ACE in 2014 and has been teaching theology at Bishop Kelley High School ever since.