Celebrating the Feast of Benedict with The Colossian Forum
Alasdair MacIntyre, a philosopher who significantly influences the thought and work of The Colossian Forum, concluded his masterpiece After Virtue by describing a turning point in the epoch leading up to the Roman Empire’s decline into the Dark Ages: "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." (MacIntyre, After Virtue, 3rd edition, 263) Indeed, there was a time when a group of Christians did just that, refusing to be defined by the cultural, intellectual, and moral contours of a society that was unsustainable. This group followed the “school” of one Benedict of Nursia. In a fragmented world with no end in sight, Benedict proposed to carve out small communities of faith that would work to maintain the moral, communal, and intellectual vision that would otherwise be rendered incoherent if assimilated to the trends of the age. As the darkness fell over Rome, the light of the Benedictine communities pierced through the shadows for all to see. Benedict encouraged communal living, sharing the common purse, obedience to God, accountability, humility, friendship, hospitality, and intellectual rigor. Indeed, without the monks – who built hospitals and preserved classical texts and even contributed to the experimental sciences – we would doubtless live in a society with little memory of the goodness of civilization. The teachings of Benedict are summed up in The Rule of Saint Benedict, a short work that can be read in one or two sittings. It was written to instruct these small communities in the virtues that would sustain their way of life and, indeed, the life of the world. It was a spiritual guide for a new kind of community seeking to foster new kinds of moral and intellectual inquiry for the hope of a new world to come. Indeed, the Benedictine monasteries showed us that civility is sustained only when it is nourished by salt. And when the world loses its salt, it rots. Lamentably, the world has lost much of its salt in an age gone dark again. In the conversation at the intersection of faith and science, for example, Christians have employed the vocabulary and embodied the practices of polarizing factions in partisan politics, a system MacIntyre says is “characterized by moral incoherence and unsettable moral disputes.” After admonishing us to be careful in drawing such parallels, MacIntyre says that we, like the peoples of sixth-century Rome, have come to a 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. . . . We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another – doubtless very different – St. Benedict." (ibid) The construction of such a community has economic and domestic implications. Consider, for example, the “new monastic” communities that are so influenced by MacIntyre and, ultimately, Benedict. The wisdom of this sixth-century giant does not universally necessitate precisely the new monastics’ form of living, but we would be wise to acknowledge their desire to live in the rhythms of prayer, work, Sabbath, charity, and hospitality. Ultimately, that is the wisdom of Benedict – that we would cultivate the kinds of virtues that enable a steady rhythm of the Kingdom in a world with no discernible rhythm at all. If, as MacIntyre posits, a new dark age is upon us and the virtues are our only hope, we need Christians to carve out spaces where they can be formed, body and soul and mind, by the kinds of virtues that render their moral, intellectual, and spiritual vocabulary coherent among themselves. As long as the body of Christ adopts the vocabulary of a fragmented culture with “unsettable moral disputes,” we too will decline into this dark age. Today marks the feast of Benedict, a day to remember him in our prayers and conversations. There is no greater wisdom to consult than his as we press on in our conversations at the intersection of faith, science, and culture. We don’t all have to be monks, but we certainly should, to some extent, be monastic (the meaning of the word being “one.”). In a world that lacks rhythm, ends, civility, moral and intellectual coherence, and oneness, may the embodiment of our oneness bear witness to the Truth. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.