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  • Writer's pictureIan Sutton

Choosing Exile

San Benedetto di Norcia. Home of Benedict. Voluntary exile.
San Benedetto di Norcia

The post Exile to Babylon and the associated letter to the Washington Post have generated some useful discussion. The basis of the post is that our current situation and dilemmas can be compared to that of the Hebrew people almost three millennia ago. They were driven out of their homeland Judah and its capital city, Jerusalem, by Babylonian troops under King Nebuchadnezzar. The Hebrew people were now in exile.

Exile has the following features:

  • It is involuntary.

  • We are forced to leave our homes and our established way of living.

  • During the process of exile many people will die. Most of the remainder will undergo hardship.

  • We don’t know if there is even a destination. If there is a destination, we don’t know what it will be like, but we do know that we don’t want to be there.

  • There is no promise of return to the old homeland.

  • Even if we do return, the old world, the “old normal” has gone for ever. You cannot swim in the same river twice.

The theme of that post was that our climate journey is also an exile. It has the same features that were just listed for what the Hebrew people experienced all those years ago.

But exile is not always enforced; sometimes people choose to remove themselves from society. The image that this conjures up for most people is of some freakish personality holed up in the woods in isolation from the world. He has his stash of food and weapons and talks to no one. This type of person seems to be weird to the point of insanity.

There is, however, another form of voluntary exile that is profoundly sane, and that makes much sense, particularly in a society where prosperity is declining and central authority is losing its grip. In such a situation some people may choose to live in isolation from society at large, but in community with other like-minded people. In other words, they choose the monastic life.

In the western world the best known example of monastic life is that created by Benedict of Nursia/Norcia (c. 480-550 CE). He wrote what is now called The Rule of Benedict in the year 516. At the heart of Benedict’s approach were the following precepts:

  • Moderation: the Rule it balances individual zeal with organizational structure.

  • It is also moderate in that it allows monks and nuns to live a strict, but sensible life style.

  • The phrase ora et labora (prayer and work) is at the heart of this way of living. The monks and nuns live a life that is both spiritual and practical. They spend much time in prayer, but they also work hard on tasks such as growing food.

The monks’ vows are built around Stability (community and commitment), Conversion (a continuous process) and Obedience (attentive listening).

The Friends of St. Benedict say the following about their Rule.

The Rule of St. Benedict is a timeless document - in so many ways as fresh and relevant as it was when it was written almost fifteen hundred years ago. Although written for monastics, many of the issues addressed in the Rule can be applied to life in the world outside the monastic community. The qualities which make up a valued life - humility, patience, simplicity, solitude, caring for others, and living in community - concern everyone. These specifics of the Rule, and the framework it provides, have great meaning for people who are seeking to live out their faith in the world today. < my emphasis >

I have stressed the sentence to do with use of the Rule for those living outside the monastic community. The Benedictine way of life does not require that its followers become monks or nuns — it can be used by people living in the world. For example, Rod Dreher has written a book The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. In his book Dreher argues that western civilization is in a period of decline, not unlike that of Rome in in Benedict’s time. Therefore there is both a need and an opportunity for people of faith to voluntarily exile themselves from the world. They can then live a Benedictine-style life, either inside or outside a formal monastic setting.

Nuns-1. Benedictine nuns — post about the rise of monastic orders in a time of material and political decline.
Credit: Associated Press

Last week we published the post Too Late. In it we discussed the fact that we have chosen to ignore the warnings from writers such as Hubbert, Meadows and Hansen. We continue the theme this week with the post Later and Later. We consider the fact that many writers basically give up trying to communicate their message. We also take a look at the important book Overshoot, written in the early 1980s. Its message provided a foundation for much of the work from other writers.

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