Why Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option Needs St. Patrick

Why Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option Needs St. Patrick

Rod Dreher is a fellow Louisianian, a conservative writer/journalist on the issues of faith, culture, and politics, and promoter of an approach to the secularization of the West for Christians called The Benedict Option. I have been reading Rod regularly for the last several years and had the privilege of meeting him for coffee in New Orleans about a year ago to interview him for his new book, How Dante Can Save Your Life. I thoroughly enjoyed our meeting and every correspondence that I have had with Rod and I consider him a friend. When we met, we also talked about the Bendedict Option and his work on a new book on that subject. I encouraged him to also consider St. Patrick as an addition to the good work that he was doing on Benedict.

Benedict (480-547 AD) was the founder of the Benedictine Monastic movement, which was an approach to preserving Christianity in Italy during the Fall of the Roman Empire and the Barbarian Invasions that were sweeping across the crumbling Western regions. He developed the Benedictine Rule, which helped bring order in the midst of chaos to those who went into the monasteries and to parts of Christianity as a whole.


Rod describes the Benedict Option here:

What is the Benedict Option?

Start with this famous paragraph from philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s book After Virtue:

It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman empire declined into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead often not recognizing fully what they were doing—was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St Benedict.

The “Benedict Option” refers to Christians in the contemporary West who cease to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of American empire, and who therefore are keen to construct local forms of community as loci of Christian resistance against what the empire represents. Put less grandly, the Benedict Option — or “Ben Op” — is an umbrella term for Christians who accept MacIntyre’s critique of modernity, and who also recognize that forming Christians who live out Christianity according to Great Tradition requires embedding within communities and institutions dedicated to that formation.

What is MacIntyre’s critique? Be succinct.

MacIntyre says that the Enlightenment project cut Western man off from his roots in tradition, but failed to produce a binding morality based on Reason alone. Plus, the Enlightenment extolled the autonomous individual. Consequently, we live in a culture of moral chaos and fragmentation, in which many questions are simply impossible to settle. MacIntyre says that our contemporary world is a dark wood, and that finding our way back to the straight path will require establishing new forms of community that have as their ends a life of virtue.


I agree with much, if not most of what Dreher is saying here. Benedict truly has much to offer us. And, I want to say that Rod is NOT arguing for a complete withdrawal from culture and a forsaking of the Great Commission. He is simply saying that Christians need to focus on building up their own institutions and on discipleship and a passing on of the faith to the next generation more than trying to immerse ourselves in the larger culture. These are good, needed points.

However, I think that Rod’s focus on Benedict is good, but incomplete. I believe that Apostolic Christianity is better understood as a movement. While Benedict is a good model from church history, I think that we have better models available, or at least perspectives that should also be considered along with Benedict. One is St. Patrick of Ireland. Patrick also lived amongst barbarians in a time and place when Christianity was under attack. Patrick also created/developed monastic communities where Christian thought and culture was nourished and propogated. His priests were disciplined and they taught new converts and passed on the faith in significant and creative ways. But, the thrust of their monastic communities was not preservation. Rather, it was mission.

Where you stand influences where you go. I truly believe that Christianity is at its best when it has a missional impulse. Preserving and strengthening the faith for future generations is really important. But, if there is not a strong missional impulse, then what faith are you preserving? Is it really Biblical Christianity, or is it the form of religion that will ultimately morph into something that exists to promote and defend our own “way of life” over and against others? Christianity is defined by the Cross of Christ – sacrificial love poured out for the world for its salvation to the glory of God. If Christianity’s primary focus is preservation and not mission, then it will lose both. Patrick gives us a picture of a missional monk who understood that you had to have a strong foundation and strong teaching and a strong community to model what Heaven is like in the midst of a pagan culture, but he did all of this with a focus on bringing Jesus to the nations. And, Celtic Christianity maintained this focus all over Europe for the next several hundred years.

Below is a description of how St. Patrick can be our guide to the development of missional/monastic communities in the West as secularization and deChristianization grows rapidly. I am all for the Benedict Option. I think that Rod Dreher is right and adds a great deal to current discussions on how the church should respond to what is happening in the world. I just think that Benedict needs Patrick to be complete, or we will end up making self-preservation our focus instead of the gospel of Christ. I would rather not trade one problem for another.

St. Patrick: The Slave Turned Missionary To Ireland

In my 2014 book, When Heaven and Earth Collide (NewSouth Books), I tell the story of St. Patrick as an example of the way that the gospel of Jesus Christ can change a person and then ultimately change a nation. We celebrated St. Patrick as a pioneer and example of Celtic Christianity last week (March 17) in America and Ireland and other parts of the world, so I thought that it would be fitting to share this excerpt from pages 248-254 of the book:


In the late 300s or early 400s AD, a boy named Patricius, or Patrick, was born to a Briton family in what is now northeast England. His family was not Roman by heritage, but they had adopted the Roman ways and had become aristocrats during the days that Rome occupied England all the way to Hadrian’s Wall in the north. The wall was built in 128 AD to keep out the savage Picts who could not be civilized or controlled, even by the power of Rome. Patrick was born to a Christian family and his grandfather was a priest. He was familiar with the teachings about Christ, but he had not yet internalized them or believed them for himself. When Patrick was sixteen, his region was invaded by Celtic pirates from Ireland and he and quite a few other young men were captured, brought to Ireland, and sold into slavery. Patrick was sold to a tribal chief and Druid named Miliuc moccu Boin, for whom he worked for the next six years herding cattle.

During this time with the cattle, Patrick had a lot of time to think. Much like David in the Bible who learned to trust God as a shepherd boy tending sheep, Patrick began to pray as he tended the cattle. He spent many hours praying and contemplating the God that he was taught about in his youth but who he had not previously known. Young Patrick reflected on the catechism and the triune God and saw God at work in nature and in the world around him. Patrick later wrote:

After I had arrived in Ireland, I found myself pasturing flocks daily, and I prayed a number of times each day. More and more the love and fear of God came to me, and faith grew and my spirit was exercised, until I was praying up to a hundred times every day and in the night nearly as often.

George Hunter III says that several things happened to Patrick while he was being changed by God out in those fields. Patrick began to understand the Celtic people and their language, culture, and ways. He began to love his cap- tors and identify with them and pray for them to be reconciled with God. The commands of Jesus to love his enemies and pray for them were being birthed in Patrick’s heart supernaturally. Even though Patrick was a slave, he was free in his heart to love those who enslaved him because his subservient position was not his real identity. This was not a case of “Stockholm Syndrome.” As Patrick received God’s love out in the fields, he loved God in return and was able to see his captors through God’s perspective and was able to love them as well. The process of spiritual formation was happening in Patrick’s heart.

One night, Patrick had a dream where God spoke to him and told him to escape the next morning and there would be a ship waiting on the coast to return him home to England. Patrick obeyed, escaped, and made his way to the coast. The ship was there just as the dream told him it would be, and Patrick was able to secure passage and make his way back to England. For the next 25 years or so, Patrick reentered Roman society in Briton and became a priest. Patrick’s story is important, because having escaped from slavery, many would likely think that God had answered Patrick’s prayers, had de- livered him, and had placed him in a good place where he could serve God among his own people. According to the multiple versions of the “prosperity gospel” that are promoted today, God’s work in Patrick’s life would be seen as deliverance and establishment in a nice situation where his life could be preserved, safe, and secure. That is what we commonly pray for, isn’t it? “Lord, keep me safe, healthy, and cared for. Don’t let anything bad happen to me and keep me from harm.” Life is sacred and important and we should seek to preserve it at all costs, but preserving our lives and our position is not the most important thing. Patrick came to realize this.

When Patrick was 48, God spoke to him again in another dream. An angel named Victor appeared to Patrick with a pile of letters from his former captors in Ireland. Patrick later said that as he was reading the letters, he “imagined in that moment that [he] heard the voice of those very people who were near the wood of Foclut, … and they cried out, as with one voice, ‘We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.” Patrick felt as though this was his Macedonian call to take the gospel back to the people of Ireland—the very people who had enslaved him. He went to his church authorities and asked for permission to go and the British bishops over him agreed. They made him a bishop as well and sent him to Ireland with a small missionary team in 432.

As we have stated, the Celts were barbarians, wild people who were warlike and savage. They would strip naked before battle, decapitate their opponents, and their religious rituals sometimes involved human sacrifice. These barbarians might have been considered by Aristotle as suitable only to be “natural Slaves.” They were definitely seen as inferior to the Romans, outside the reach of civilization and perhaps even outside the reach of the gospel. The population of Ireland at this time was no more than 500,000, but it was segmented into dozens of tribes and relationship networks. Fortunately for Patrick, all tribes spoke the same language—the very language that Patrick had learned while he was a slave.

Hunter describes Patrick’s approach to incarnating and contextualizing the gospel among the Irish people through both proclamation and demonstration, just like Jesus did, in teams of around a dozen people. When Patrick and his team would come to a new tribe:

Patrick would engage the king and other opinion leaders, hoping for their conversion, or at least their clearance, to camp near the people and form into a community of faith adjacent to the tribal settlement. The ‘apostolic’ team . . . would look for people who appeared receptive. They would pray for sick people, and for possessed people, and they would counsel people and mediate conflicts . . . They would engage in some open-air speaking, probably employing parable, story, poetry, song, visual symbols, visual arts and, perhaps, drama to engage the Celtic people’s remarkable imaginations.

Patrick and his little missionary band would proclaim the gospel among a tribe until they had converts. They would then baptize them and form them into a church and appoint a priest over the church from their group. The church would become the hub of spiritual life in the community, but it was not a church in the static way that we often think of church. The churches that Patrick and his band planted became what were known as “monastic communities.” Instead of a building where people would come for worship after leaving their normal regular lives, thus solidifying a sacred/secular divide, the “monastic communities” were akin to Christian communes where the new converts lived, worked, studied, and worshiped together. Instead of just starting a church with a priest and a church building, Patrick and his mis- sionary band were starting Christian communities that would demonstrate to the pagan Celts an alternative way of life—the better Way of Jesus. Each monastic community was established not as a place of escape from the world in the way that we often think of monasteries, but as a way to engage the world from a Christian framework. In these missional, monastic communities, the gospel of the kingdom would be believed, lived out, and propagated. These communities were places where Heaven and Earth collided.

Hunter, in his description of these monastic communities, quotes Philip Sheldrake, who explains what life was like behind the enclosures where Christians would live together in community:

This enclosure, or termon, was to be a place free from all aggression. Violence was legally and absolutely excluded by this precinct . . . Monastic settlements [were] anticipations of paradise in which the forces of division, violence and evil were excluded. Wild beasts were tamed and nature was regulated. The privileges of Adam and Eve in Eden, received from God but lost by the Fall, were reclaimed. The living out of this vision of an alternative world involved all the people who were brought within the enclosed space.

Instead of withdrawing just to protect themselves or have a good life for themselves or to attract others by giving a better version of the larger society’s status quo, the Celtic Christians led by Patrick and those who would be his spiritual descendants in the following generations, came together to tell a better alternative story—the biblical story of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Consummation. They created communities of faith in Christ where they reoriented their lives away from pagan expectations and realities and they demonstrated how life was lived in the kingdom of God. In a land filled with violence and paganism and oppression where Christianity was not known, it was essential that the Christian community told a better story. I am not saying that all Christians everywhere should live out the implications of the gospel exactly this way. This approach is what fit Ireland at the time and it is the way that the Spirit directed. But I am saying that we are given a mandate to love God and love people all over the world and that means that the Christian church is constantly on the advance by laying our lives down and repositioning ourselves to be able to live out and tell the story of the in-breaking Kingdom that has come in Christ. Patrick ably led his converts to do just that.

Patrick was wildly successful in spreading Christianity throughout Ire- land. Legend has it that tens of thousands of people came to Christ, that 700 churches were planted, and that perhaps 1,000 priests were ordained in the 28 years of Patrick’s Irish ministry. Up to 40 of Ireland’s 150 tribes became largely Christian. Social life in Ireland changed as well as Patrick fought against slavery. In a relatively short time, the Irish slave trade ended and murder and tribal warfare substantially decreased. Instead of being overwhelmed by the evil, injustice, oppression, and violence that they were surrounded by, the Irish missional/monastic communities told a better story of a different kingdom where Heaven and Earth collided, and it affected the entire country rapidly.

Much more could be said about Patrick and his Celtic Christianity and missional, monastic communities. But I tell this story because it illustrates what happens when the church sees itself as a cross-shaped colony of the kingdom of God, reflecting the life and work of Christ with a view of heaven instead of as a static institution that exists to protect Christians against the evils of society and promote a way of life for their own benefit. Patrick saw the call to follow Jesus as an invitation to lay his life down in love for others so that the gospel would go to them. He saw those different from him and even those who had enslaved him as his brothers that he was to love instead of separate from. He was inflamed with a love for God and man that could not be contained to his home in Britain, and he gave his life so that this love could spread to barbarians. Patrick believed in miracles and he did not let race, tribe, ethnic group, economics, religion, geography, pagan immorality, fear, or potential violence stop him or keep him home. Patrick embodied the ethos of the missionary—the sent one by God. But Patrick’s way of life was not supposed to be exceptional. This is actually how Jesus intended all of those who have been reconciled to God and given the ministry of reconciliation as his ambassadors to live. Patrick had it right.



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