St. Benedict and the Fermentation of Culture

The summer feast of St. Benedict is celebrated on July 11th, and as a Benedictine Oblate, there are many things that come to mind when I dwell on this happy occasion. However, my mind being what it is, two things particularly pop up in my head: death and beer. Let me explain.  

We rightly laud St. Benedict for a whole host of attributes: the founder of Western Monasticism, the Patron of Europe, a New Abraham, and a light in the Dark Ages among many others. His Monks are seen as the protector of the Liturgy, the Papacy (just look at how many Popes were Benedictines!), Classical literature and learning, agriculture, and (very important) beer. There is so much we have to thank him for, it is beyond the scope of any one post to do him proper honor. Alas, with Rod Dreher spearheading the talk of a "Benedict Option" for the church in the modern world, the Internet is doing its best to significantly up the number of blog posts mentioning this great saint's name! Folks have a lot to say about it (A LOT a lot!). 

Beyond the fact that I am overjoyed to see St. Benedict accruing intellectual shout-outs across the interwebs (and the same with Alasdair MacIntyre, one of my favorite philosophers), I am excited to see people turn to the legacy of the Benedictines once more in the hopes of reinvigorating Christian practice in our day and age. In fact, I find myself participating in multiple ventures that I would characterize as examples of the Benedict Option. To begin with, as an Oblate at Clear Creek Abbey (who are teeming with monks and need money to build more rooms!), I don't know how much more Benedict Option you can get. This July 17th and 18th, I will be speaking at the Inkling Festival here in Wichita, KS (put on by the noble Eighth Day Institute), and two days of Lewis and Tolkien, pipes and pints (quick beer plug: Hopping Gnome's fantastic Earl of ESB will be there!) surely qualifies. Finally, the organization this very website is about, Catholic Beer Club, seems to me quintessential Benedict Option--but more on that in a bit.

Understandably, folks have been weary of certain portrayals of the Benedict Option (if not the concept itself). These critiques often fall into two camps. The first is a surface complaint criticizing the lack of precision by adherents of the option. The more substantial critique worries about notions of withdrawal tied to the concept, a troubling prospect precisely when our culture needs committed Christians more than ever. Indeed, I share their concern. However, there is a central reality at the heart of the Benedictine order that answers both critiques, and perhaps makes the "Benedict Option" make more sense.

Blessed John Henry Newman, in his "Mission of St. Benedict," "divides" the  "elements of the Church's intellect" into three parts, and assigns a representative religious order to each one. To the "Practical" he assigns the Jesuits, and to the "Scientific" he assigns the Dominicans. Most importantly for our purposes, he assigns "Poetry" to the Benedictines, because "Benedict, entrusted with his mission almost as a boy, infused into it the romance and simplicity of boyhood." Sure, this is by no means a definitive argument of Theology or Church History, but there is much to draw from this simple statement. I would argue it gets something essential about the Benedictines and their various successes throughout time.

First of all, Monasticism is not in a certain sense practical, as it is certainly not for everyone to simply go out and replicate. Additionally, it is not fundamentally scientific, as it is not reducible to a set of propositions that anyone can simply adhere to in an abstract way. Instead, the work of the Monks provide a poetic knowledge for the society in which it dwells, opening up a horizon in the moral imagination in which the City of God begins to be seen as a real possibility here amongst the City of Man. Therefore, the first complaint about the Benedict Option, that it is not specific enough, misses the point entirely. The Benedict Option is not either a practical or scientific stratagem or methodology, but a vision that must by definition remain more an outline than a manual. It will consist more of myriad examples than formal instructions, images rather than arguments.

As for the second critique, a "poetic" rumination on the life of St. Benedict and his monks is in order. In addition to all the accolades given to this Saint at the beginning of the post, St. Benedict is also known as the patron of a good death. This largely stems from the 37th chapter of St. Gregory the Great's account of his life, where he not only predicted his own death, but traversed his way to heaven on "a magnificent road covered with rich carpeting and glittering with thousands of lights." This patronage is reflected in the prayer said in conjunction with St. Benedict's medal: "The Cross of our Holy Father Benedict. May his presence protect us at the hour of our death."

To my mind it makes perfect sense that the patron of a happy death would have numerous monasteries associated with the production of beer. Or perhaps better put, with the process of fermentation. No, I do not plan to give you a lesson in the chemistry involved (science is for the Dominicans, right?), but a poetic look at fermentation provides a rather poignant image of the Benedictine spirit.

While it is certainly true that everything you eat was once living, and must have died before you could consume it to live (a sobering thought), the process of fermentation is a stark image of the interplay between death and life in the natural world. It seems only fitting that the creatures God would save to life through death would also be the ones to harness the almost resurrecting powers of fermentation. Mankind, saved from death by the Cross, is the master of bringing rotted food back from the dead through fermentation (you will never eat cheese or kimchee the same way again!). Surely most fermented food and drink was discovered by accident, but once harnessed, these items became the shining pride of human cuisine. If there was anything this side of the Easter Exsultet that deserves the description "Felix Culpa (Happy Fault)," surely it is beer!

What does this have to do with the critique of withdrawal on account of the Benedict Option? Beyond the use of clumsy definitions while everyone wrestles with this concept, my guess is that folks look at the necessarily enclosed nature of the monastery, and get the wrong idea about an option that highlights Benedict as its exemplar. Putting that next to the admittedly pessimistic tone struck by most advocates of the Benedict Option, it is no wonder this can truly begin to sound like escapism of the most romantic and defeatist stripe.

But in my typical fashion, my contention is that the advocates of the Benedict Option simply aren't pessimistic enough if they are honestly arguing for withdrawal from our culture. Instead, I am arguing for something more drastic: the fermentation of our culture! It seems to me counter-productive to imagine there is anywhere left to run and hide from the hyper-flattened secular age the likes of Charles Taylor and James K. A. Smith describe. On the other hand, I do not see much left of this order to conserve, the roots mostly pulled from any ground that could give us stability. We are living in the dead husk of a formally living organism, much like St. Benedict did in the carcass of the Roman Empire. So be it.

But is this any reason for Christians to lose hope, and embrace defeatism? Surely not! So what is one to do with a pile of rotted grain? Fermentation. It's time to start brewing a new civilization out of the old one. And the only place to start is wherever you are at.

And just like brewing, this fermentation will take many forms. Some folks use barely, others use wheat. Some brews are IPAs, and some are Stouts. Some Benedict Options will look monastic, some will look positively evangelical. Some will involve the political process, some will ignore it completely. The craft brewing culture in the United States did not reach the point it did today because folks waited for a blueprint, nor because they went off into hiding. Some brave folks started brewing, as ridiculous as it sounded to take on the likes of Coors and Budweiser. But lo and behold, others (made bold by their example) followed in their footsteps, in their own particular way. Slowly but surely, even the largest beer companies had to take notice.

Here at Catholic Beer Club, this is what we are trying to accomplish in the cities where we are taking root. There is no formula, only a bold attempt to create community in a world where such coming together (especially for young adults) is difficult. But that is no reason to hang our heads in despair, nor to wait quietly while someone comes up with a better way. The only solution for the problem of culture is the fermentation of a new one off the remains of the old one. This cruciform natural process is the chief poetic image of the Benedict Option: life reborn through death. Our job is not to save this culture, but to bring life out of death. Our job is Resurrection. The only ingredient missing is a catalyst like yeast to add to the old grain to start the process boiling, and my friends, that agent of change is you. 

Start brewing!