Yesterday, I commented on a Twitter thread about the so-called “Benedict Option.” (I know, it’s my own fault, and there’s nothing that I can do about it–I have a compulsion to respond to nonsense.) I noted that I don’t think Benedict himself would recognize what some people would say is his answer to the current state of the world. Some would say that St. Benedict offers a model of how Christians can remove themselves from the wicked world and live lives more purely devoted to God and Christ. I say that’s bulls#!*.
My reading of Benedict’s Rule leads me to the conclusion that the purpose of the Benedictine community was (and still is) to provide hospitality to the stranger, and a way for communities to learn about the love of God. As Benedict himself wrote, the monastery is “a school for the Lord’s service.” (Prologue:45) I may be reading from a very Protestant point of view, but my reading of the entire Rule suggests not a turning away from the world , but a facing toward the world in a new way. My Protestant reading of Benedict is what got commented on by a Catholic who was also following this thread. Essentially, he accused me of trying to “lecture” Catholics on their own saint, and that as a Protestant I should probably just keep silent. I should mention that this guy’s Twitter bio says he’s an “Integralist,” which is a form of Catholic political thought about which I was unaware until yesterday. (Had to look it up, I’m not gonna lie.)
How could I, as a Protestant, possibly claim to know anything about Catholic saints and tradition? This question belies a belief about the Protestant/Catholic divide that has troubled me for a long time. That is, there is a mistaken assumption by many (both Protestants and Catholics) that there are certain parts of the Christian tradition that only belong to one or the other of our traditions. For instance, the saints that Catholics revere and hold up as examples of the faith belong to Catholics only, and Protestants should shy away from them. Even Wikipedia, that bastion of 21st century knowledge, declares that people in my tradition (Methodists) believe that all Christians are saints (true), and that we should only refer to biblical leaders and martyrs of the faith as saints (true in part, but not the whole picture–thanks again, Wikipedia!) I would argue that the saints of the Church, especially those that came before the great Catholic/Protestant divide, belong to the whole Church, not just to Catholics. After all, we Methodists can trace our ancestry back through John Wesley (who was not a fan of saints, BTW), through the Archbishops of Canterbury, all the way back to the Church of Rome. Wesley’s declaration of saints and other Catholic practices as “Romish doctrine” aside, he was in general in favor of having a “catholic spirit,” or recognizing that the Church is wider than just our particular expression thereof.
So, I believe it is perfectly appropriate for people like me to study and even “lecture” about the Benedictine tradition, because I believe that St. Benedict is part of my tradition as a catholic (universal) Christian. I fell in love with his Rule several years ago, and while I am not by practice a Roman Catholic, I share an affinity with Benedict’s work and legacy that goes beyond denominational affinity. It is my hope that one day, all Christians will be one, and that we will no longer have divisions among us. I dream of a time when the table will be widened, and all the saints will encircle it as we feast at the heavenly banquet with Christ. It doesn’t really bother me that there are those who wish to draw lines of division while we are here in this reality, but I do take issue with those who would see others’ practice of the faith as being less than authentic, or even heretical or evil, simply because they don’t align with how one chooses to practice.
The saints are for everybody, y’all! In fact, I think the saints can even be for those who are not Christian. After all, if the purpose of a saint is to point the way for others to come to Christ, then they should, by definition, be most of all for those who do not yet know Christ. What better way to utilize our brothers and sisters in the faith who have gone before us than to use their lives and their stories to inspire others to see how Jesus still works in the world through everyday, normal people. St. Francis and his love of nature could become the inspiration that an environmentalist needs to see God’s handiwork in their work for climate justice. Saints Perpetua and Felicitas and their companions, who were murdered by the Roman government for their beliefs could serve as models for those who oppose injustice, spurring them on toward a deep connection between their political action and their religious practice and beliefs. There are so many ways that the saints can be for everyone, and to limit them to only Catholics or only Christians is to do a disservice to the grace of God that can work through them to help others come closer to God.
So yes, I believe that Benedict would not recognize what is currently being “optioned” in his name. I don’t believe that he would have slammed the doors and closed the monasteries to those who were outside its gates, even though some of his well-meaning followers have done just that. And yes, I do believe that St. Benedict belongs to my tradition as well, because his perspective on community has changed the way I look at how the Church can be present in the world. I respect my Catholic friends who might think otherwise, but here I stand–I can do no other–which I guess is the most Protestant approach I can take after all.
Yours in Saintliness,
Featured image is from wylio.com, by beau-foto
SHAMELESS PLUG: If you want to learn more about what I think about St. Benedict, buy my book! Benedict on Campus