Saturday, April 5, 2008

St. Benedict: Model for Revolution

Alasdair MacIntyre ends his book After Virtue with the following paragraph:

"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 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."

There are several different theories about how changing the world happens. Some say to enter into politics and fully engage in the conversations and power struggles that take place in the world. This might be effective for some, but this approach appears to have disillusioned many in our modern world. The average person seems intimidated by "the system" that seems too big, too complicated, and too overwhelming for them to be effective in the change they are trying to make.

I think it's fascinating that St. Benedict was actually effective in changing the course of Western Civilization by taking the exact opposite approach. Rather than engaging the politics of decadent Rome and try to convince Rome of the error of its ways, he retreated from it. He spent three years in virtual solitude in Italy, as a hermit working on his relationship with God and working on his internal struggles. When he emerged from his solitude, one couldn't help but notice the holiness of this man. Like the density of a planet creates gravity that attracts its moons, so the intensity of Benedict's holiness created a gravitational field that couldn't help but attract a community of people hungry for holiness. Through these small communities, followers of Benedict lived a powerful "alternative lifestyle" and this attracted many others, creating the foundation of Western Monasticism. Ironically, the world from which Benedict retreated from came to him.

As we enter into what MacIntyre describes as a moral Dark Age in which modern man seems to have forgotten that it has purpose, let alone having a concrete understanding of what that purpose is, I think those wishing to live the moral life will have to seriously consider what it is to retreat from the world so that the world may come to us. There are certainly modern challenges, such as in the age of the Internet and mass communication, is it even possible to retreat to the mountains like Benedict did? Yet, these are merely challenges that can be worked out, not insurmountable road blocks.

Ultimately, the power of the Christian witness is that the human heart is naturally attracted to truth and beauty, and Christ literally is that Truth that makes everything beautiful. If we can provide that witness to Christ as purely as possible, without diluting it, Benedict has shown us that we really can be effective in changing the world.