Written on the train on the way home to Manchester having been a monastic guest this week with the brothers in the beautiful and inspiring setting of Buckfast Abbey in Devon, which was first built in 1018 and then rebuilt by a few monks working for 20 years from 1882.
27 years ago I went there as my Anglican pre-ordination retreat before serving as an deacon in my first parish in Cullompton and now I’m on a 3 month sabbatical thirty years after leaving the police. It was wonderful to go back having had a month to REST in May, June is mostly REVIEW and JULY will be RESET as I consider not just my own ministry but also pray into the future of the church generally.
Christendom is collapsing in our day. Not only because of external cultural foes bleeding into internal ideological battles, I believe the eternal God is blowing away our inherited model in the west, evidenced by denominations in doomloop decline and many churches in the death throes. I believe the pace of that will only increase, replaced by new (old) ways to be church formed around true biblical discipleship. The conversations I’m connecting with now talk of a reformation of ecclesia, ‘apostolic hubs’ and the like, as Ken Gott so powerfully alluded to in his keynote at last year’s LAUNCH event.
Apostolic Hubs? What could this look like?
I’ve been looking back to look forward. Spending time worshipping seven times a day with this Benedictine community not only took me back at times to my Roman Catholic roots, but refreshed my spirit with a great stirring of the Holy Spirit in me. I have been reminded me of the importance of spiritual disciplines for disciples, and the silence in the private gardens and woods open only to monastic guests also gave me much time to walk and read, pray and ponder, particularly on the work and writing of its founder, St Benedict of Nursia, Italy.
This noble’s son visited Rome to study about 500 and was shocked and disgusted by its decline – not only in power as an empire but witnessing the moral and spiritual decay of a world in chaos as order gave way in society in his time took him first to solitude as a hermit for three years, then having been asked by others to do so, to rebuild and reorganise better, differently (incidentally the first ones to invite him later tried to kill him, such is ministry life!).
Before his death at the age of 67 he founded and prescribed what life would look like in twelve autonomous communities, ‘schools for the Lord’. The movement grew and these monasteries became centres of agriculture, manufacturing, knowledge and invention. Benedict’s reforming activity not only reshaped the Middle Ages, but resounds through history and culture.
You may well be aware that Rod Dreher has of course written extensively on this ‘option’ as a contemporary way forward for those who committed to “orthodox biblical Christianity” in the face of relativism, secularism and compromise.
His book whet my appetite a couple of years ago, but I wanted to engage with the text firsthand on what was for me a mostly silent retreat, apart from moments such as when one of the monks coughed fairly loudly when he saw me taking an extra meatball (I think that was why, maybe he just had a cough, but he glared at me at breakfast when I put the toast in the wrong place too).
Perhaps in future blogs I’ll write more about how practically Benedict lays out how this was to be organised – and it is very practical not mystical or theoretical so that we who read it are to be like the wise who don’t just hear the words or discuss them but build on the rock by ‘daily translating Christ’s teaching into action.’
Full of succinct wisdom, biblical quotations and drawing on the Desert Fathers, whether in my room or walking in the lovely grounds I was absorbed and fascinated by the slim volume. The Rule, written originally in Latin in about 540 AD was not be ‘harsh or burdensome’ but rather as a new operating system provided guidelines to ‘regulate’ life for anyone who would both ‘pray and work’ – “ready to give up your will, once and for all.. and do battle for the true King, Christ the Lord.”  Such persons and they alone could be part of the ‘school for the Lord’s service’ – from which one would never graduate – that he set out to create.
Doesn’t that opening challenge as to who will enrol contrast greatly with how we call people to Christ, and what comprises a true disciple of King Jesus, versus a ‘churchgoer’? Too often the invitation we offer sets a very low bar, desperate to have anyone, on their own terms in the hope of filling buildings on Sundays, whether because numbers and finances are declining or such metrics are your real measure of success.
But then as Chapter 1 opens, the challenge for leaders and especially church leaders is very clear in terms of what kinds of ministers there are based upon Benedict’s observation of the his own day, how to distinguish between them and what to do about it.
Interestingly most the Bible readings in the services this week ‘just happened’ to be about false prophets and false teachers - and the call and cost of being faithful ministers to Christ and his gospel in the face of lies, heresies and error. What should our approach be? We don't have to go looking for trouble it seems, one day of my time here was the feast of St Cyril of Alexandria who famously defended the doctrine that Christ is in essence really and fully God and fully human against the Nestorians in the C5th. Then we remembered Irenaeus who wrote even earlier against the Gnostics of his day, so resurgent in new clothes in ours.
What Kind Of Monk Are You?
The Rule begins by stating ‘There are clearly four kinds of monks.’ As today’s paper tells me there is a resurgence in teaching Latin in the UK (thank Boris?) I’ll give them the same titles he does, though they sound to me to have more to do with computers than convents or clerics!
CENOBITES (COMMUNITY MEMBERS)
These are the kind of disciples he mentioned already who for the sake of their true King have come to join a school and learn obedience in Christian community. They are not trying to go it alone. They put roots down where they live submissively and humbly according to a Rule. They are not just part of a team, they are part of a community – that word has Latin roots meaning ‘to eat bread together’ and through hospitality and bonding over common work they became “Those who belong”.
Finding a people and a place, following routines to eat and drink and pray together, to work and serve, to loyally play their part is one of the primary virtues Benedict wants to establish through his rule – ‘Stability’. Healthy spirituality flows out of this abiding, a promise to remain – fully part of somewhere, some place, with some people, come what may.
ANCHORITES (SPIRITUAL WARRIORS)
Having been part of such a community for a long period of time, some are called to advance the frontiers of the Kingdom through prayer and by ‘the help and guidance of many, they are now trained to fight against the devil. They have built up their strength and go from the battle line in the ranks… to single combat.’ Benedict makes such the exception not the rule and doesn’t want to train for spiritual superheroes like this, but to build the kind of environments where some such may emerge or be sent from having been trained and grown to true maturity in community.
SARABITES (FALSE SHEPHERDS)
He says these are “most detestable.” Why? They are building a so called faith on their own terms but ‘still keep faith with the world in what they do. In groups of two or three or even singly, without a shepherd, enclosed not in the Lord’s sheepfold but in their own, they take their own desires and pleasures as their laws, calling their every whim holy In groups of two or three or even singly, without a shepherd, enclosed not in the Lord’s sheepfold but in their own, they take their own desires and pleasures as their laws, calling their every whim holy and claiming that whatever they do not want to do is unlawful.’
This word literally means those who wander around in circles. This wouldn’t only translate in our day as ‘church hoppers,’ many in ministry bounce from place to place like this and it may look very successful, but an individualistic self centred focus means Gyrovagues never make progress. Always looking for an easy life, skipping from place to place, region to region, picking up what they want or need from Christian communities and relying on the work of others as they ‘live by faith (in others generosity)’ going wherever next takes their fancy.
Benedict’s verdict is that such rootless uncommitted instability, constantly searching for the next new thing and never settling anywhere leaves them “slaves to their appetites… worse than the Sarabites”!
THE REAL BENEDICT OPTION
What do we do when so called Christians, even those regarded as leaders, show themselves to be compromised in the world or not part of any stable Christ honouring community of disciples? Here’s what Benedict prescribed, and I love it!
“It is better to say nothing than to speak about all of them and their despicable way of life. And so, leaving them aside, let us proceed with God’s help to make provision for the cenobites who are the most effective kind of monks.”
I struggled with how polemical Dreher’s book became, and prefer the real Benedict Option that the man himself proposed and modelled.
Rather than wasting time quarrelling or arguing with the lies of false Sarabites, rejecting the individualistic ways of unstable Gyrovagues, in a culture totally and thoroughly morally and spiritually adrift, Benedict simply got on with building something better, in obedience to Christ.
He rose to the challenge (calling others who would awake to it also) of another way than that offered by the Church of his day – creating alternate counterculture learning communities to live simply, biblically and faithfully. He didn’t set out to change the world and had no idea how important these little groups of faithful, obedient disciples would prove to be for generations to come. As those monks who rebuilt the abbey did in the photo above, just put one stone on top of another, as we build with living stones.
Benedict goes on to lay out practically what life and learning and leadership in such communities would look like. Much of it is still applicable I believe, and perhaps as I say I’ll bring that onto future blogs. But now as I pray I wonder how founding and forming such learning communities and ‘apostolic hubs’ might look in our day, ‘for such a time as this’? Wouldn’t you want to be part of that?
It’s certainly something to look at more later this year in our own LAUNCH community (come and join us!)
 The Benedict Option, A Strategy For Christians In A Post Christian Nation pg 10
 The Rule of St Benedict In English, Timothy Fry OSB, Prologue, 35
 The Rule of St Benedict In English Timothy Fry OSB, Liturgical Press, 1981. Prologue, 3.
 Ibid, 45
 Ibid, page 20
 Ibid, page 20