"And the house of Elrond was a refuge for the weary and the oppressed, and a treasury of good counsel and wise lore."
A few days ago, we had the chance to interview Dr. Cameron Thompson, PsyD., an organizational psychologist and anthropologist who recently emigrated from Minnesota to the town of Orvieto in the Italian region of Umbria.
Dr. Thompson is a noted backer of the “Benedict Option.” He wrote “The Original Benedict Option Guidebook: Benedict of Nursia’s Own Rules for Living Christian Community in a Post-Christian Society” You can find out more about his writing and professional work at his personal website.
He recently established another website called Romenna which aims to be a “BenOp Online Community and Resource Center,” to help Christians around the world to connect with one another, share resources, and learn from and support one another.
The name is inspired by a line from Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, “And the chief dwelling of the Faithful in the later days was thus nigh to the harbor of Rómenna. Therefor Amandil withdrew to Rómenna, and all that he trusted still to be faithful he summoned to come thither.”
This fall, he is leading a virtual workshop series on “Applying the Benedict Option.”
The term “Benedict Option” was popularized by American writer Rod Dreher in blogs at The American Conservative and in his 2016 bestselling book by that name.
While Dreher beautifully advocates for Christian cultural renewal in his books and Substack blog, his day job as a columnist at The American Conservative has led many to conflate his concept of the Benedict Option with his political conservatism and cultural pessimism.
As a result, here at Save Our Shrines we were somewhat leery of the concept of the Benedict Option as it seems to have congealed in the public imagination, since it is not our wish or mission to be involved in culture wars on this blog. However, we are curious about all forms of cultural promotion and preservation, and wanted to hear from Dr. Thompson about his own conception of the Benedict Option and in particular how he would respond to the critiques of the Benedict Option concept that have arisen in the five years since the publication of Dreher’s book.
SOS: Dr. Thompson, welcome to Save Our Shrines. For those who don’t know you, can you give a brief summary of your thought and life mission?
Dr Thompson: First of all, let me say in regard to your mission at Save Our Shrines something that I am discussing in the ongoing workshop for “Applying the Benedict Option,” which is that preserving cultural memory is primarily not something intellectual but something that we do. The historian and anthropologist Christopher Dawson would say that culture is the rituals and behaviors and ways that we interact with one another, in the relationships and institutions we construct that endure across generations.
So what you are doing at Save Our Shrines in preserving and bringing attention to beautiful places brings to mind the Dostoevsky quote “Beauty will save the world.” People tend to approach that as just a nice saying, but it is actually a profoundly prophetic statement. “The thing that will actually save the world is beauty.” So let’s actually put our efforts into finding and promoting beauty.
Regarding your question, I am an anthropologist and organizational psychologist. I worked in leadership development and training in the corporate and non-profit world, and I now spend most of my time teaching and writing.
My life mission and general project is to seek out and live (not just as an academic exercise) the ways of being that are necessary to revive first an authentic human culture and then orient that culture toward its supernatural dimension, which is to be transformed in Christ. My task is to help create the spaces wherein human flourishing—and indeed sanctity—can become as natural as breathing. I want to live out myself, and help others to live, that authentic human flourishing both today and in the generations yet to come.
SOS: In reading your website and writings and watching interviews with you, you seem heavily influenced by the Rule of St. Benedict, Rod Dreher's book The Benedict Option, and J.R.R. Tolkien's writings. Could you explain how you are influenced by each?
Dr. Thompson: I’d have to clarify that I would not consider myself influenced so much directly by Rod Dreher’s book as by two of the sources that in turn inspired Dreher: the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre (whom Dreher highlights for his reflection on the role St. Benedict played in preserving culture through the last dark ages), and St. Benedict himself. Tolkien of course is a huge influence, in his mastery of storytelling to convey deep truths about the world, God, and human culture.
When it comes to the Benedict Option, I too used to be a strong skeptic—but then, like most opponents of the idea, I too had never actually read the book or bothered to listen to what Rod actually had said about it especially in the line of thinking he had developed in his lectures in the years prior to writing the book. There are a lot of misunderstandings of the Benedict Option concept from people who haven’t read the book, as well as from some who have. I believe the main fault with this lies in too closely equating the Benedict Option with some warmed-over outgrowth of the American culture wars mentality. However, I think it is absolutely essential to go back to what the very original formulation of what came to be known as the Benedict Option, which we find in the concluding chapter of MacIntyre’s book After Virtue:
“What [Benedict and the Christians of his time] set themselves to achieve… 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. […] 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.”
There are many who disagree with the concept of the Benedict Option because they disagree with Rod Dreher’s politics. They will say “that’s not what MacIntyre meant,” or “that’s not what St. Benedict did,” and so throw away the whole idea altogether.
My goal has been therefore to go back and look at what St. Benedict actually did and what his actions actually meant in order to understand the nature of Christian culture, and what we can do to help it grow. I really essentially bypass the American culture war framework that swirls around many discussions of the Benedict Option. I never was a part of that world (which frankly I think to be rather small-minded and myopic), but I have been profoundly formed by the way of St. Benedict from the time I was a very young child.
I should note that I was first exposed to the Rule of St. Benedict – which are his guideposts for monastic living – at a young age, maybe 9 or 10, and took it deeply to heart as a guide to Christian life, which I’ve been studying ever since. My maternal grandmother’s family had lived for countless generations among the Benedictines in Austria and in Bavaria, many members of the family had been nuns or monks, etc. My great-great grandfather was a lawyer in Bavaria who emigrated to American and bought land in Minnesota. He brought the Benedictine nuns over from Bavaria to live on a large tract of land that he donated to them. The schools they founded became St John’s University and College of St Scholastica in Minnesota. So St. Benedict has had a long-term influence on my family broadly speaking, and on myself personally. For that matter, Benedict exerted an even more profound influence on the whole of Western Christendom, in that Benedictine monasticism gave the dominant shape and form to the Christian way of being in the world over the subsequent 1,000 years.
In terms of other influences, I am profoundly influenced by St. Thomas Aquinas, Christopher Dawson, and J.R.R. Tolkien. I’m also influenced by the Syriac and monastic church fathers and my own experience as a member of the Maronite Church, an Eastern Catholic church in full communion with the Roman church (i.e. the Pope).
The Maronites, who came into being gradually during the 4th through 8th century within the Syriac church of Antioch, are also a profoundly monastic church. Historically, Maronite society centered around monasteries on the eastern fringe of the Roman empire, and as time passed, our way of life and our orthodoxy generally became more and more distinct from other groups in the area (who either broke communion with the Orthodox Catholic churches, or were replaced by invading peoples), helping a new society to emerge. Our forebears recognized that to live as a Christian is fundamentally a communal-ecclesial activity. Being moral, civil, and religious are all things that we do together, with each other. It is a very different way of thinking than you find in the individualistic age inhabited by the Modern West.
SOS: Were you always a member of the Maronite church?
Dr. Thompson: No, I was raised in the Latin rite church of Rome, but began going to a Maronite Church in high school. My wife and I were married in the Latin Rite but shortly afterward found a much more “incarnated” version of Christianity lived-out in the Maronite church, which instantly became home for us. Now living in Orvieto we find ourselves with a singular challenge: There are only two Maronite churches in Italy (both in the expensive centers of downtown Rome and Milan, respectively, which are a long distance from where we now live). Thus, we have recently contemplated the idea of moving to France to be near to a Maronite community, since due to the deep historical ties between France and Lebanon (where the head of the Maronite church is situated), there are a much larger number of Maronites and Maronite parishes there.
Going back to the question about my influences, this form of Christian living is very much opposed to the bourgeois notion of the radically detached individual. Christian culture, as culture, consists in is the rites and social structures that we participate in together as a social fabric of people, that is, in community. Historically, the principle vehicles that exemplified Christian community living, and became the seedbeds and fountainheads of new expressions of Christian culture were the monasteries—in western Europe, this meant those following the way of St. Benedict. As such, that is why it is extremely important to rediscover, preserve, restore and renew our historic shrines, abbeys, and pilgrim routes. These sacred places are epicenters of our life-source as a people.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the only thing that effectively Christianized Europe was the expansion of monasteries and the communities that grew up around them. Culture is an organic thing – the word ‘culture’ literally means “to grow/raise/cultivate” – and to do it right you need to live together with other people, share celebrations, festivities, and communal days with them. Incidentally, it also is rooted in the ancient word for sacred worship. It—culture—cannot be done as radically isolated individuals.
This does not mean that we should seek out “intentional communities.” America especially has had long experience with these intentional communities – starting with the Puritans – that have sought to carve out a space separated from the rest of “sinful” society and that do their own thing cut off from the rest of the world. That has had a very profound influence on the American imagination and has made Americans somewhat allergic to the concept of community of any sort, those experiences with closed intentional communities having left a bad taste in their cultural memory.
It would be a grave mistake to associate what I’m promoting with the Benedict Option with the concept of “intentional community.” To the extent that people conflate the two, maybe some would say we should even get rid of the term “Benedict Option,” but since it is so well known—and more importantly, because I want to restore Benedict’s good name and the urgent call to action that Alasdair MacIntyre made over 30 years ago, I prefer instead to try and help people understand better what the Benedict Option is (or should be) actually all about. At its core, the Benedict Option has as its practical goal and essence the aim to create spaces where Christians can be truly free to worship God — communities wherein to live a life conducive to union with God.
SOS: You are putting “skin in the game” by implementing the Benedict Option in your own life with your move to Italy. How has that gone and what would you tell others contemplating similar moves?
Dr. Thompson: This has been a journey for our family for the last five years. It started with the realization for my wife and I that we cannot serve both God and Mammon. The gospel tells us that you will love the one and despise (which doesn’t mean ‘hate’ but rather ‘overlook’/’neglect’) the other. We realized that we could not do both, and so we started to look to make some life changes.
Our first realization was that we were living in an entire infrastructural system built around serving Mammon (which by the way is the ancient Semitic word for ‘money’/’currency’, not ‘wealth’ as such; and so represents a sacral cult marked by the abstraction of value away from the concrete essence of things). So the first step we took was to move out of St. Paul, Minnesota where we had been living and where we had corporate jobs (also where I taught at a classical academy) and move out to live on my in-laws farm in the central Minnesota countryside.
We realized though that the isolated lifestyle that resulted was deeply in conflict with what I was coming to understand as the philosophy behind the Benedict Option. The “homesteader”-style isolated family pulling-themselves-up-by-their-bootstraps is not conducive to human flourishing. It truly does take a village to raise children and even just to stay sane. The “little house on the prairie” ideal has never been a healthy one, nor ever a norm for human culture. Rather it was something forced of necessity upon 19th century immigrants to North America, and further reinforced by federal land divisions and perpetuated by modern building/land use codes. Let me just say that it is not the human ideal for an individual nuclear family to be self-sufficient any more than an individual person, but instead a village of families can and historically often has been, quite self-sufficient for day to day life.
We were living in an area of Minnesota with agricultural land as far as the eye could see for an hour’s drive in any direction, but which was an absolute food desert. There was no healthy fresh food available to be had within any reasonable distance unless you grew it yourself. So we had to grow fresh food ourselves. We tried to live the Gospel as best we could in that context, but really lacked community. We tried many avenues to lay the foundations that could in time create such a community, but multiple doors closed on those efforts, which we very clearly saw as the hand of Providence.
From my professional experience and research as an anthropologist and organizational psychologist, I can tell you that an ideal social organism—a community—that could serve as a model for anyone trying to live the Benedict Option is not what we find in ideological “intentional communities” (which aside from the ideological problems, also tend to be characterized by bourgeois homogeneity of ideas and lifestyles) but rather what we find in traditional villages (which tend to be founded around very practical things and marked by a diversity of types of people). Our goal has not been another “intentional community” centered around some idealogical principle or another, but actually to revive or restore something more like a “traditional village.” In other words, a place where people live in proximity together in their own spaces, that creates a habitat that is conducive to human flourishing.
We finally concluded that to live in such a traditional village we would have to move to Europe, and moreover, in many places in Europe “the dirt itself is still Catholic.” The dirt in most of the USA is literally poisoned by Roundup and other toxins continually pumped into the system, to say nothing of the blood of the native peoples and the eradication of all traces of their culture (and in some places whole cities) that stood in the way of the new federal program for the continent.
So we moved to Orvieto, Italy. One of the beautiful things about Orvieto is that everyone walks on the streets. In traditional spaces in Italy (and most of Europe), the streets are primarily for people, not for cars; the streets are first and foremost for walking. In the USA streets are where people get hit by a car and die. Over there the streets are for machines, if you walk on the street you’re at great risk for your life. This seems like a superficial difference and a bit of an exaggeration, but this reality shapes a fundamentally different way of being in the world.
My wife and I had previously studied abroad at the Angelicum in Rome, so we knew Italy. The cost of living is also far lower here. We have fresh food available, grown locally—and by local, I don’t mean like what we used to see in Minnesota, where local meant “sourced from within the upper Midwest”, but here I’ve discovered “local” means grown pretty much within sight of the city walls. There’s an existing Catholic culture in Italy and throughout most of Europe, really, that it is possible to tap into. Which is not to say that everyone is Catholic, but it is easy to find, and even if not everyone is actively seeking it, it’s still a part of their lives, and those who want to can graft onto that. This simply does not exist in the USA, and where it did once exist (think the old Spanish Florida and missions in the Southwest as well as the old French dominions), it had been all but totally eradicated generations ago. Here we do not have to create a culture by ourselves, but merely tap into and give new life to the taproot which already exists here. To riff on a theme from Tolkien: a fire can be woken from glowing embers—and it will be—but without the embers you can’t simply breathe new life into it. Back across the Atlantic we faced the stark reality that we would have to do everything ourselves, which is a very dangerous thing to attempt, as you are bound to lead yourself astray.
As people learn about what we have done (most folks think it’s practically impossible to move “that direction” back across the Atlantic to Europe), and what we are about in actively immigrating here and not merely living as expats, it’s awoken a lot of interest. We have a lot of people reach out to us and ask how about our experience and help them explore how it might be possible for them to do since they’ve been feeling the same thing we were. It is definitely not easy and is not possible for every individual case. For us the easiest thing to do was to come over on a student visa, but for others it works if they are self-employed or if they are able to work remotely. I know people in each of those categories, as well as those who’ve been able to obtain citizenship in an European country because of family ties they have. Each European country has its own rules and procedures, but common to all is that you need a way to demonstrate that you can support yourself. In our case, we know that God called us to come here and he will provide what is necessary for us here or wherever he leads us to next. You can’t reason it out or plan for every possible circumstance. You can’t calculate all the possibilities and arrangements you need. It comes down to one simple fact: Deus providebit - either you trust that God will provide or you don’t.
We chose Orvieto simply because it was where there was Providentially an available apartment with a landlord who was willing to sign a rental contract with us virtually from across the Atlantic, and who we trusted signing with “site unseen”. Orvieto also is close enough to Rome for what we need to do as immigrants, and also somewhat close to other BenOp friends of ours – the Zennaro family - who recently moved from Milan to a hamlet near Norcia in the mountains of Umbria. We met Giovanni Zennaro after Rod Dreher profiled him and his nascent community of families on his blog. Giovanni and friends and their families had established a type of Benedict Option community near Milan, and then later moved to Norcia to be near the original birthplace of St. Benedict and the monastery there. We personally could not make it work to live in that remote of a place (to be quite frank, it’s a hamlet of 5 families) since we don’t yet have Italian drivers’ licenses nor car, which would be absolutely essential living in that particular location. We do also have deep reservations about a car-dependent lifestyle, and try as hard as possible to avoid it, but that’s a whole other conversation.
SOS: There are multiple critiques of the concept of the Benedict Option. If you had to steelman the critiques of the Benedict Option listed below and then respond to them, how would you do so?
First let me just say that I think underlying all of these critiques is an image or images that the objector has in mind when they think of the term “Benedict Option.” And the problem is that often that image does not equate to the image that proponents of the Benedict Option have when they use that term, nor does it correspond to how they intend to live and in fact do live. In other words, a lot of the objections raised by people in fact hold true for the picture they have in mind, but the problem is that that picture doesn’t correspond with what we’re talking about when we talk about the Benedict Option. I’m familiar with many different intentional communities that match the profile that objectors to the BenOp have in mind, and I know very well the problems that often come with those. In contrast, that kind of thing is just not what I see in the majority of BenOp-minded folks. As a psychologist, I have to say that the people I meet who are trying to live the “Benedict Option” are in general healthy and well-balanced people.
But let’s turn to the objections:
SOS: A first critique: the Benedict Option is a call for cultural retreat/defeatism, or somehow evidences the heresy of "quietism:
Quietism historically speaking is the same tendency that became what we know today as Quakerism. This attitude, in its expressions among Christians involves essentially a passive sitting in a circle until God/the Holy Spirit moved someone to speak “prophetically” or something else of the sort. As a point of fact, the early Charismatic Renewal movement in the Catholic Church started out similarly, until the hierarchy pointed them more toward the active and emotive form that we know today.
But “quietism” as it is understood today probably means more of an attitude that “it doesn’t matter if X is broken because God will fix it,” rather than taking action to fix it themselves. Which is by definition the exact opposite to what proponents of the Benedict Option are doing. Otherwise they would just be sitting in the broken culture and not taking any action, which in fact may be more true of opponents to the BenOp than folks who actually get up and make radical change to their life in order to follow God whole-heartedly in seeking to change their circumstances.
The critique that the Benedict Option is a form of cultural retreat or defeatism comes from a misunderstanding of Rod Dreher’s use of the term “strategic retreat” in his book. If you haven’t studied military strategy, or been in a position of military leadership like many good people I know, you can make the mistake of thinking of retreat as synonymous with fleeing the battle and running away. However, a “strategic retreat” is not at all the same as quitting the field and running away but rather prudently removing yourself from a disadvantageous position and seeking higher ground to re-engage the enemy from a vantage point where you are going to be more successful.
I still think that the use of the word “retreat” is an unfortunate framing because it still evokes in many people’s minds the American theme of the culture wars. But what Rod meant there was not about developing a new tactic for engaging in the culture wars, but a whole new strategy (hence the subtitle of his book) for Christian living in the modern world. This isn’t about moving about to engage in a new way the same old left-right American culture wars, but about refocusing on what matters for Christian survival in the new world we live in today: the creation of local forms of Christian community life. This means sidestepping the relatively petty conflicts between the different interest groups of a paradigm which has failed on the level of the whole system.
When I think of the culture wars, I often think of the satire Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. The Lilliputians – the little people that Gulliver visits – are split into two camps: the Big-Endians and the Little-Endians, who fight over which side of a hard-boiled egg should be cracked first. I say, let the Lilliputians fight over hard-boiled eggs! We need to stop engaging with such distractions and start focusing on what matters. And that is: tilling the ground to cultivate real, genuine Christian culture, just like Benedict (and those Christians throughout history who’ve followed his way) did.
Benedict actually engaged in the opposite of “retreat.” For centuries prior to him, monks had been withdrawing from the world – they lived in the desert or the wilderness. Benedict saw the collapse of the dominant global power of his time and the social and material infrastructure that depended on it, and so realized that for Christian life (whether monastic or “in the world”) to be possible, Christian communities would need to create that kind of social and material infrastructure they need to support themselves. So it was that Benedict transformed the vision of a monastery from a cluster of hermits living dependent on an outside city, into a almost civic structure in its own right, which organized the community structure and format around the model of a village or town rather than just a bunch of guys living off in the wilderness.
Alasdair MacIntyre talked about this in a speech where he criticized the concept of Benedict Option as a withdrawal and clarified what he thought a more accurate assessment of St. Benedict did:
“What is very interesting about St. Benedict is that he quite inadvertently created a new set of social forms. He founded a monastic order and one thing about this monastic order was that they had to survive to make their living, so they had to be farmers. So, we have monks who are farmers. Now the interesting thing about monks is they don’t breed. They can’t reproduce themselves. If you simply had monks going out into the wilderness and farming there soon wouldn’t be [any left]. So there had to be non-monks around. And this is what always happened. Benedictine communities existed in a set of villages, often very close to one of them. Then it had a crucial symbiotic relationship with them. First of all, they were all farmers, so they exchanged these goods. Secondly it is from the sons of these villagers that novices were found. And the monks therefore had a keen interest in the education of the community. So over time the monastery became the place that supplied schooling and liturgy. The villages provided lay-recruits and so on. What was built up was a local community which was largely independent of the feudal order, not entirely but very much so.
So this is not a withdrawal from society into isolation… this is actually the creation of a new set of social institutions which then proceed to evolve, a very interesting set of social institutions too.”
And that’s the key point. Intentional communities of the early modern period (and we still see groups like this today) were reacting to the perceived sinfulness in society and separated themselves to try and create some form of utopia. The Benedict Option is not that. It is not about fleeing the world but rather about creating the ability to materially and socially survive by creating village-level socioeconomic centers that enable human and social life to flourish. It is not about rejecting sinfulness in society because when you withdraw from society you just bring your own sinfulness with you, and if that’s your goal... that’s when things get weird.
SOS: A secular critique of the Benedict Option might be that traditional village community living is not necessary or even possible in today’s economy. Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto argued that “When the ancient world was in its last throes, the ancient religions were overcome by Christianity. When Christian ideas succumbed in the 18th century to rationalist ideas, feudal society fought its death battle with the then revolutionary bourgeoisie.” It also argued that “man’s ideas, views, and conception, in one word, man’s consciousness, changes with every change in the conditions of material existence.” Most Westerners’ modern “condition of material existence” is no longer to live in an agrarian economy where villages first sprang up, so is traditional village living still even practical?
Dr. Thompson: Regarding the quote about Christian forms of living being overtaken by bourgeois capitalism – yes, I think that’s right. In Communism, the collective is sacralized. In Capitalism, money and the market is sacralized. These truly are competing religions to Christianity.
Marxist and Capitalist theories of society are that people only seek out their own material wellbeing, and only what is materially necessary (in their limited market-based anthropology) is important. So under those paradigms, no, living in community is not “necessary.” But what we’re saying is that there’s way more to to be a human being and to human life than material interests. Look at over the last two years when people were forced to live isolated during pandemic – this experience we all feel very forcefully makes clear to us just how much people need other people, need a social community to be fully human.
And I don’t think that the optimal habitat for human thriving is to live in a McMansion on a one-acre lot in suburbia with your WiFi and your Amazon delivery. The human organism finds its optimal environment in the tangible social community of the village or town. Moreover, it’s a far more antifragile infrastructural system to live in a town where everything you need is within walking distance, and most everything the town depends on is produced locally.
SOS: What about the idea that the economic conditions no longer exist for families to exist in community while also being able to hold jobs in today’s economy.
“Community” does not mean living in a commune. That’s not the idea of community I mean. I mean living like in a traditional village. There are some people who are trying to create a commune-style version of the Benedict Option where everything is held in common and very little private ownership, but I think that’s a very problematic thing. No. The way to do this is for people to have of course their own private property, of course like good neighbors we should share what we can with those in need, and naturally there is some property held in common—there always has been! That’s what the word “republic” literally means: res-publica, the common things. But this isn’t about sharing one common bank account, but about having common/shared ownership of the town well, the grazing pastures, the mill, the main piazza and church building, that kind of thing.
But on the topic of modern economic conditions, after 2008 I’d say it became clear that the economic conditions no longer exist for families not to live in community. Families need a community setting to live and survive and thrive. Someone needs employment when your company goes under and you’re out of a job (again), etc. We need to start building resilience, and it’s a simple economical fact that local, productive economies are more robust than widely spread networks of individuals otherwise isolated from each other and dependent on outside, often distant, sources.
SOS: Sometimes it seems that people interested in the Benedict Option have seized on a particular time period in history as being somehow more pure or better and they try to recreate the externalities of past forms of Christianity instead of applying Christian ideals to today’s circumstances. Is this not “putting new wine in old wineskins?”
I have not seen that as much with Benedict Option proponents as I have with Extraordinary Form Latin Mass traditionalists, who are actually some of the biggest critics of Rod Dreher and the Benedict Option. It seems like there are a lot of people in that community who are nostalgic for the 1940s and who dress like they’re in the 1940s. They wear bow ties and play big band music and get really into swing dancing. They’re the ones that are LARPING [Live Action Role Play]. That’s weird nostalgia for a past form of living, and I just don’t really see that kind of thing in any of the BenOp folks I know.
Now, there are some things that BenOp-minded people are looking to return to, or at least restore and revive. But returning to a more human scale and human pace of life isn’t nostalgic, it’s just psychologically healthy. It’s something I’d prescribe as a professional psychologist. Speaking anthropologically, that’s just what’s necessary to create a culture with “Christian ideals updated to today’s circumstances.” Returning to a more humane form of life is the only thing that’s going to get you to a new culture.
I think this nostalgia and the weirdness of LARPing comes from the fact that most people live such a modern fast-paced life that there is no time to create authentic culture. People stuck in suburbia are unhappy with the lack of culture around them and so they just get nostalgic for the past. That’s what happens. If you stick in the modern consumerist framework of living, all you’ve got is nostalgia. It’s those who take up and move to some place they can put down roots in fertile soil and cultivate a really human, organic, from of community life that are the only ones who are working to free themselves from that perpetual dystopic nostalgia and actually seek out a healthy way of life.
When I was in Minnesota I used to grow grape vines in my backyard in the city. Many of them were cultivated from a vine that had been in my grandparent’s family for generations. But we then moved, and if you know about grape vines you know you can’t be moving them all the time if you want them to grow to the point they can produce fruit. You have to let the roots set, and that takes many years.
Same thing for culture. You have to deliberately slow down and till the soil in order for anything lasting to be created. And you may find that the place where you’re at right now might not be good soil, or not be a healthy environment for the vine to flourish. Keeping it there is never going to get you the fruit you want, let alone be able to make wine. What’s necessary in that case is to relocate to a better environment where there is fertile soil and the right conditions to flourish. And I’ve never seen a successful vineyard with just one solo grapevine.
SOS: Another critique is that closed-group or commune-type living can easily devolve into cult-like behavior or result in significant abuse, particularly if it attracts malformed individuals as either leaders or members.
Dr. Thompson: It does indeed. 100% of the time in the cases that I know of. It almost always attracts malformed individuals. And this is the valid critique of clericalism as well, which we see all throughout the church today. You end up getting a boys’ club that’s immune to criticism. That is hugely problematic. You absolutely don’t want to just be attracting people with the same views.
But again, I’m not advocating for commune-type living, but for a return to the human scale of a traditional village, you know, the norm for human living for at least the last 6,000 years.
SOS: But even if living the Benedict Option doesn’t mean living in an “intentional community,” it still entails a certain degree of community living, so what’s a good prophylactic against that tendency toward abuse?
Dr. Thompson: Don’t base anything you do off ideology, off looking for people with the same viewpoint, or forcing people to pass a doctrinal test. You’ll get a lot of people who pass the ideological test but like the peasant says to King Arthur in Monty Python, “That’s no basis for a system of government.”
This line of thinking betrays a confusion: It conflates the idea that anyone who is seeking to live a good life must be a person who thinks like me.
Ideology-centric community is actually part of what gave birth to the modern world and many of its problems rather than the traditional model of coming together to fulfill common needs, regardless of personal beliefs.
Another important preventative is to not be closed in on ourselves. And a huge driver of being closed in on ourselves is actually being plugged into our mobile devices all of the time. Hyperactivity online and hyperconnection is not good for us psychologically. We like to think that these are what keep us connected, but psychologically, socially, culturally, it just isn’t the same thing.
The person living in a town of 5,000 people who develops real relations with neighbors is much less closed off to the world around them than someone living in their 6th floor apartment in the metropolis fully plugged into the internet.
Another safety measure – don’t try to share your goods in common beyond what is necessary for the “res publica” - the “republic” (the common needs of the community). In a traditional village maybe the brick oven is shared in common for bread baking, or the village well for water. But definitely not sharing things in common that are proper to the level of individual families (i.e. strict sharing of bank accounts, housing, food and clothes, etc). That’s where abuses creep in.
Subsidiarity has to be respected. Family members should share in common what’s appropriate to the family level — my kids eat at the same table the same food my wife and I do, and we share the same spaces of the house together. Together with the other apartments in my building we share a common stairwell, front building door and through condo fees pay for the cleaning and upkeep of the main entryway. As a town, all residents of Orvieto share in common the parks, the piazzas, the streets, and the water main into town, and we share the financial responsibility for garbage pick-up, police, and all manner of town-based utilities. You see, certain kinds of shared common property is just a normal part of human social living. The problems come when you start crossing those boundaries of what’s appropriate to which level.
SOS: If you had unlimited financial resources, what are some steps you would take to implement your vision of the Benedict Option? Which actually contains a hidden premise: do you have a vision for the Benedict Option as a larger project, or is this something more personal or familial?
Dr. Thompson: The idea of the Benedict Option – in our case so far at least that of moving to a walkable small town – is definitely something we have chosen as a family because we feel that this is our optimal way of thriving as humans and as Christians.
But I also want to make this way of life possible for other people so that it results in a Christian culture.
If I had had vast financial resources (I cannot comprehend what “unlimited” looks like), I’d try to buy up some of these abandoned villages in Italy and restore the buildings up to modern standards for heat and utilities and then begin to sell it or – if resources permitted – to give it for free to people interested in this way of life.
I’d acquire land nearby that could be cultivated, tilled, or grazed to provide food for the village. I’d rebuild common properties like the well, piazza, church, bakery, mill. I’d start a school of sorts where people could learn the trades and crafts that would enable people to live in that village and support themselves and their neighbors while living that more human-pace of life. And of course once a village has enough people – the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker – to provide for the basic needs, it can also support others with less materially-connected work-from-home jobs, writers, consultants, etc., whose work doesn’t directly contribute to the material development of the town.
Brunello Cucinnelli and his work in the small Italian town of Solomeo is a great inspiration for me in this regard.
[SOS Note: Italian luxury cashmere sweater maker Brunello Cucinelli has been revitalizing the medieval town of Solomeo in Umbria for several decades. A 2010 profile by Rebecca Mead in the New Yorker captures the essence of his story: “a local boy made good, who is thought to be making the locale even better.” Cucinelli restored a medieval castle to serve as his company’s headquarters, and he practices and preaches a form of “humane capitalism” that enables his workers to live close to their place of work in Solomeo.]
Obviously I don’t have those financial resources, but the main point is that pain point number one for the Benedict Options is the lack of geographic proximity to other people. I hear from people all the time who are trying to live a form of Christian community that their biggest problem is how far apart they live from other people. So I would try to solve that, and do so in a way that makes it absolutely feasible, materially and socially, to live in a human-scale community with other people centered on a common way of life.
That said, rebuilding a Christian culture is something you must work for in a 300-500 year plan and not a 3-5 year plan.
SOS: A few weeks ago, Jeff Bezos tweeted a picture of the cover of Barron’s magazine from 22 years ago - May 1999 - that predicted Amazon would soon fail. Bezos captioned it “Listen and be open, but don’t let anybody tell you who you are. This was just one of the many stories telling us all the ways we were going to fail. Today, Amazon is one of the world’s most successful companies and has revolutionized two entirely different industries.” If your wildest dreams are successful, what do you think you’d be able to write about the Benedict Option and your life mission 22 years from now?
Dr. Thompson: I would want there to be at least one “Rivendell” – a “Last Homely House” that’s a self-sustaining traditional village rebuilding authentic Christian culture.
I think that is eminently more possible in Europe, because the roots are here. You are grafting on to Catholic roots.
In the United States, all of our zoning laws prevent traditional village development. For example, the plans for the Veritatis Splendor community in Texas is, in my estimation, just another modern suburban subdivision built around a church.
If you’re just replicating a suburban environment, you are replicating soullessness. If the human habitat is not optimal, your project will not survive into a second generation.
A good resource for understanding the type of development that is most conducive to human flourishing is Christopher Alexander’s Pattern Language: A Timeless Way of Building.
Most modern developers have lost touch with what is most conducive for human development. And there is a lot of research about how zoning laws were designed in the States with an anti-community intent: to break up ethnic communities and divide and separate people (often with a hefty dose of racist motive). The organization Strong Towns talks a lot the problems of modern American zoning laws on their podcast.
That’s why I think this is easier done in Italy or another “Catholic” country like it that still has traditional villages that could be reclaimed.
SOS: How do you see yourself fitting in to this project? If Rod Dreher’s tagline is “promoter of the Benedict Option,” what would your tagline be?
Dr Thompson: Rod Dreher is a promoter of the idea. And there are a number of thinkers who I see as providing theoretical groundwork for this concept. MacIntyre is one. Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, who wrote A Secular Age and Sources of Self is another, as is James K.A. Smith, who writes on the theology of culture in Desiring the Kingdom, Imagining the Kingdom, and Awaiting the King.
I am very much a bridge maker between that scholarship and actual practice, between thinking and doing. I want to help make actually living the Benedict Option practicable for people.
There are many people who reach out to me interested in the Benedict Option who say that “I’m the only one I know of interested in this” and “I live in the middle of nowhere.” These aren’t people trying to live isolated lives. That’s already their reality. They’re seeking community.
SOS: What else would you like readers to know?
Dr Thompson: I get many questions about where to even begin living the Benedict Option. I compiled some practical advice on where to start at the website romenna.community, and wrote a blog post about “where to begin” where I concluded that “you must begin—already now—living the way of life you would want to find in a community of orthodox Christians authentically living the Gospel. If you wait to find the right community, you will be lost; and only in beginning now to live that way of life, as best you can, will you ever be able to find—or create—a genuine Christian community.”
SOS: Dr. Thompson, thank you very much for your time!
Dr Thompson: Thank you. It was my pleasure.