Eliot and Benedictine Renewal

York Minster. Photograph by Gary Ullah.

Mars Hill Audio has brought to our attention some things T. S. Eliot wrote in The Idea of a Christian Society (London: Faber & Faber, Ltd., 1940), and Rod Dreher wonders aloud what Eliot would say about what some conservative Christians are calling the Benedict Option. Not being too well versed in the details of Eliot’s political thought, I cannot say what Eliot would say. Nevertheless, I have elected to provide some commentary on the passages of Eliot that Mars Hill Audio has posted.

It is clear that Eliot in The Idea of a Christian Society is actually advocating something that secularists today are sure to call intolerant and oppressive: a Christian society. Sharing Eliot’s commitment to the idea of a Christian society, I think myself at least a sympathetic reader, able to think along the lines of what Eliot says while here and there clarifying what I believe to be at least the basic impulse of his thought. Opponents of the very idea of a Christian society, though they may have important insights of their own, are unlikely to give the charitable reading that Eliot’s ideas require.

First, I think it necesssary to identify the basic outlines of the Christian order Eliot lived in and saw to be disappearing in the face of late Liberalism. This Anglo-American public order still exists, though unlawfully subverted. In the United Kingdom this order is explicitly Christian but constantly challenged by politicians who also want to replace the sovereignty of the crown with the sovereignty of a foreign body; in the United States it is Christian but (through a commonsensical but flawed view of common sense) forgetful of its own Christian nature. In fact, this order, however else it has been explained, depends on a Protestant distinction of the eternal kingdom and the temporal kingdom, both under the rule of Christ, one secretly and the other manifestly, one ultimately and one proximately. The distinction itself allows and even calls for religious toleration, but the rule of Christ sets certain boundaries and refuses to countenance, say, the enforcement of sharia law for apostasy from Islam. Likewise, the kind of secularity so maintained, affirming the power of the layman to make sound and godly judgement independent of the will of clerics, denies the supremacy of the Bishop of Rome. This Protestant order is one that Eliot himself basically supported in his reflections on the Lambeth Conference of 1930 – he specifically distanced the Anglican way from the Roman even as he criticized the lack of clarity in the bishops’ resolution on contraception. To withdraw from long-term effort to maintain (and not just to make anew) this essentially Protestant public order, especially for those of us who are committed to living as American citizens, is either (1) to capitulate to secularist thought within our churches or (2) to advocate an adversarial relation between church and state as intrinsic and healthy when such a relation is in fact extrinsically imposed and disordered. With that said, let us see what Eliot says.

That Liberalism may be a tendency towards something very different from itself, is a possibility in its nature. For it is something which tends to release energy rather than to accumulate it, to relax, rather than to fortify. It is a movement not so much defined by its end, as by its starting point; away from, rather than towards, something definite. Our point of departure is more real to us than our destination; and the destination is likely to present a very different picture when arrived at, from the vaguer image formed in imagination. By destroying traditional social habits of the people, by dissolving their natural collective consciousness into individual constituents, by licensing the opinions of the most foolish, by substituting instruction for education, by encouraging cleverness rather than wisdom, the upstart rather than the qualified, by fostering a notion of getting on to which the alternative is a hopeless apathy, Liberalism can prepare the way for that which is its own negation: the artificial, mechanised or brutalised control which is a desperate remedy for chaos.

Liberalism is vague about its ends: it is ‘not so much defined by its end, as by its starting point; away from, rather than towards, something definite’. It leaves ends in the hands of a very wide range of individual actors but has few principles of inclusion and exclusion. Liberalism calls for amnesia about the history of the fundamental principles it rests upon, and so it forgets itself in a Lethean sip: lacking standards for its own maintenance, it is beholden to its own destruction.

The Liberal notion that religion was a matter of private belief and of conduct in private life, and that there is no reason why Christians should not be able to accommodate themselves to any world which treats them good-naturedly, is becoming less and less tenable. This notion would seem to have become accepted gradually, as a false inference from the subdivision of English Christianity into sects, and the happy results of universal toleration. The reason why members of different communions have been able to rub along together is that in the greater part of the ordinary business of life they have shared the same assumptions about behaviour.

A system with no public creed loses its moral principles, and a system without moral principles is hopelessly unable to adjudicate the limits of acceptable ‘private’ behaviour – the very concept of private behaviour depends on the existence of a legal distinction – or even, indeed, to remember either why it should govern at all or why it should not attempt to govern all. As Eliot says, the desperate remedy for the former is artificial, mechanized, or brutalized control. Ironically, in the name of free expression, Mozilla has ousted Brendan Eich for exercising free speech that the company found undesirable for its own interests. And so on. Increasingly, to justify itself, the secularist shadow of the old Liberalism accuses Christianity of the cruelty and illiberality of which it is itself the driving force. In fact – something most have now forgotten – Christianity, as worked out by early modern jurists distilling the principles of the legal order according to the truth of holy Scripture, is what drove our cherished freedom to develop as it did. Today, in some quarters, secularism has given rise to new assumptions about behaviour, sometimes antithetical to those of the old order; and this novus ordo is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

The problem of leading a Christian life in a non-Christian society is now very present to us, and it is a very different problem from that of the accommodation between an Established Church and dissenters. It is not merely the problem of a minority in a society of individuals holding an alien belief. It is the problem constituted by our implication in a network of institutions from which we cannot dissociate ourselves: institutions the operation of which appears no longer neutral, but non-Christian.

The former arrangement of toleration is tenable. It can, subject to prudence, contain Papalists, Jews, and Muslims who can play by the Protestant rules. It is not by chance that the Jews, expelled from England in 1290, were allowed to return in 1656 under Protestant rulers. Even in the Middle Ages they had lived in England as direct subjects of the king, under a royal charter renewed by every successive king, and so lived outside the jurisdiction of the clergy. Such residents a Christian state can contain; the people it cannot contain is those who will neither feel bound to tell the truth under oath nor submit to a common law. Thus both Papalists and Muslims, subject to a foreign ruler and inimical to the Protestant king, often appeared dangerous to the civic order and to the religion that both gave life to this order and grew within it, and their admission to full participation in public life depended on their submitting to the easy yoke of a Protestant polity.

As the Protestant order is gradually dismantled, however, and as society’s institutions are oriented to ends antithetical to those of orthodox Christianity, the institutions first malfunction and then appear increasingly anti-Christian. There never was a sustainable neutrality without some kind of discernable centre, but now neutrality is a front for tyranny and the destruction of virtue.

And as for the Christian who is not conscious of his dilemma – and he is in the majority – he is becoming more and more de-Christianised by all sorts of unconscious pressure: paganism holds all the most valuable advertising space. Anything like Christian traditions transmitted from generation to generation within the family must disappear, and the small body of Christians will consist entirely of adult recruits.

It is not at all surprising that, in these circumstances, even the Church tends to be Baptistic and often declines, in the name of freedom, even to teach its children the faith. Assaulted by pagan thought, Christians are failing to fulfil the charge Moses gave to the sons of the covenant: Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD: And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes. And thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house, and on thy gates. In mainland China, such failure is mandated by the Communist Party, which forbids evangelism to children under 18; in these United States, it often happens by choice. I used to think it good myself. But God has his own ideas about faithful witness, and in this case he has defied me and challenged me to change my mind.

In these times it is all the more important that the Christians baptize their children, that they may be children of the Church. As Jews in Germany have been pressured not to circumcise their sons, based on the practice’s alleged cruelty, so it is likely that Christians will be pressured not to baptize their children. In time, baptism may become a sign of resistance, as it always was latently. This is not a reason to begin baptizing infants, but it is a reason not to give up the practice. What children the pagans claim on secularist pretences, the Church should claim in the name of the true God, in light of his promises.

But it is not enough to claim our own children, even though that may be hard enough. We need, as Moses commands and Christ confirms, to teach our children to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. For the promise, which is for us and our children, is made at the end of the book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. As Genesis shows the generations of Adam, of Noah, of Shem, of Terah, of Isaac son of Abraham, and of Jacob, so Matthew shows the generation of Jesus Christ and, through him, of those whom God did foreknow and also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. As God’s covenant with the generations is evident in the Old Testament, so it is in the New. Therefore it is a more pressing task than it ever was to pass on the faith whom God has elected to enjoy his covenant mercies. Our children are to die and be raised with Christ, for which resurrection their old selves must daily be mortified, that their souls may be invisibly raised in this life and their bodies be raised on the Last Day. For this purpose we need to use the catechisms to teach the tradition of the faith, not only in intellectual assent (though that is needful) but also in daily martyrdom.

What is more, the Church is to call to judgement not only those who are already her own but also those who may be promised by God’s election, and not only them but also the whole world. This she can do only in persuasion, not by force; but she must act as if she is free to do so regardless of what others say, and those who will listen she must guide in every way of godliness. This is her manifest destiny in every kingdom of the world: The kingdom of this world is become the Kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ; and He shall reign for ever and ever. Hallelujah! Whether in Handel’s Messiah or elsewhere, this is our duty, to declare the God whose glory the stones would proclaim if we were silent.

What is often assumed, and it is a principle that I wish to oppose, is the principle of live-and-let-live. It is assumed that if the State leaves the Church alone, and to some extent protects it from molestation, then the Church has no right to interfere with the organization of society, or with the conduct of those who deny its beliefs. It is assumed that any such interference would be the oppression of the majority by a minority. Christians must take a very different view of their duty.

Is the state God? It is Christ who reigns over all, in heaven and on earth. By the majesty of his providence he makes and unmakes kings. An unjust king the Church is to unmake by martyrdom, and the Holy Ghost will undo that king either by converting him through temporal woe into eternal riches or by converting his temporal riches into eternal woe.

But before suggesting how the Church should interfere with the World, we must try to answer the question, why should it interfere with the World?

And here, on secularist premises, the Church should never interfere with the world, because God is not allowed to perform miracles. And what the state has forbidden, let God fear to transgress. A little problematic, I’m afraid, is the way in which Jesus of Nazareth broke the seal of the stone covering his tomb when he rose from the dead.

It must be said bluntly that between the Church and the World there is no permanent modus-vivendi possible. We may unconsciously draw a false analogy between the position of the Church in a secular society and the position of a dissenting sect in a Christian society. The situation is very different. A dissenting minority in a Christian society can persist because of the fundamental beliefs it has in common with that society, because of a common morality and of common grounds of Christian action. Where there is a different morality there is conflict. I do not mean that the Church exists primarily for the propagation of Christian morality: morality is a means and not an end. The Church exists for the glory of God and the sanctification of souls: Christian morality is part of the means by which these ends are to be attained. But because Christian morals are based on fixed beliefs which cannot change they also are essentially unchanging: while the beliefs and in consequence the morality of the secular world can change from individual to individual, or from generation to generation, or from nation to nation. To accept two ways of life in the same society, one for the Christian and another for the rest, would be for the Church to abandon its task of evangelising the world. For the more alien the non-Christian world becomes, the more difficult becomes its conversion.

Clearly, here, Eliot is not about a retreat to personal or even subcultural commitment. No, he means business when he says accepting a Christian and a non-Christian way of life in the same society is giving up the whole task of evangelism. People like to separate Christianity and culture, but in so doing they separate Christ and real life. It may suit them well enough to retreat into a cloud of incense with no doctrinal or practical substance, but that is not Christianity.

Here, the risk that the Benedict option poses is this: in today’s world, those who advocate it may lose their nerve and make it another capitalistic option on offer. This is particularly so because a monastic community can be joined or not joined. Those outside, people may argue, are free to live their impious lives while those inside say the Office seven times a day and complete the Psalter once a week. So said Noah, I’m sure, as the pagans drowned. A Benedictine spirituality works only if it can succeed in leavening the larger society in which Christians practise it.

What I commend to the Church, the best version of the Benedict option, is the Cranmer option. As some have noted, Thomas Cranmer’s reform of the Daily Office of prayers turned the monastery inside out. As monks became secular divines serving the Church of England’s parishes and dioceses, they took Benedictine spirituality to the layman. For domestic life, the father of the family took the place of the abbot, and many divines were then themselves heads of families. As Eliot knew, this family-based spirituality flowered in the community of Little Gidding. Common to both the Benedictine monastery and the Book of Common Prayer is a threefold ascetic system (i.e. a system of discipline) uniting prayer and life: Holy Communion, concerning and by faith effecting union with Christ; the Daily Office, dedicated especially to the praise of the Father; and private devotion (especially recollection of God’s presence), given to keeping in step with the Spirit. ‘Whatever the acknowledged intention of the compilers,’ Martin Thornton says, the Prayer Book ‘can and does add up to an ascetical system of brilliant simplicity. … About one-sixth of the Prayer Book deals with sacraments and rites for the occasional necessities of life, including, of course, the initiatory sacraments. All the rest – five-sixths – is concerned with Holy Communion and the Office; and nothing else whatsoever. It is more rigidly ascetical than the Rule of St Benedict!’ More Benedictine than Benedict, yet more accessible to the life and calling of the ordinary Christian, the Anglican system is a gift to the Church’s learning and witness, providing a framework for ordinary Christians to live a disciplined life together.

Characteristic of this Anglican spirituality, says Thornton, ‘is the insistence that prayer, worship, and life itself, are grounded upon dogmatic fact, that in everyday religious experience head and heart are wedded. English Christianity has constantly rejected the ecstatic, spectacular, and baroque, not because they are “Roman”, or because of “superstition” and “enthusiasm”, or even because “one should not go too far” – they are but passing manifestations – but because of this deep-rooted ascetical principle, of which our saints and teachers will never let go.’ In this way, Anglican spirituality already suggests what Opus Dei aspires to, and it would be only natural that it gave rise to a Protestant way of life that looked like Opus Dei, emphasizing a spirituality practised where people already are; for others, it would be practical to actually live and work at church. Either way, prayer and worship would both shape and be adapted to daily life, and doctrine would be in our affections and our morals, and it would become inconceivable to live human life without the fellowship of Christ. So the Church maintains its integrity, by calling all men to submit to the already existing rule of Christ: this Christ is risen from the dead and ascended into heaven, and today his gospel demands obedience. The public claims that Islam makes – submission to Allah – are not lacking in the gospel of Jesus Christ, who holds all authority in heaven and on earth.

Indeed, the Anglican insistence on public recognition of public truth, kingly recognition of a kingly truth, is its true strength in the face of secularism. A good Anglican is willing to submit the outward governance of the Church to a pious ruler, and even to submit in what is lawful to a disobedient Christian ruler, but never does he submit to make his faith a private affair or to pander it out to the highest bidder. The gospel is not bought or sold: it simply rules. To this gospel Felix, Festus, Agrippa, and Caesar himself must all – if not today, then at the Last Day – bow at the holy Name of Jesus. To the Anglican, it is impossible for man to create such a magistracy as can be without reference to God, or such a society as can have no need for God. Every man must believe for himself, and every king must bow for his nation.

The Church is not merely for the elect – in other words, those whose temperament brings them to that belief and that behaviour. Nor does it allow us to be Christian in some social relations and non-Christian in others. It wants everybody, and it wants each individual whole. It therefore must struggle for a condition of society which will give the maximum of opportunity for us to lead wholly Christian lives, and the maximum of opportunity for others to become Christians. It maintains the paradox that while we are each responsible for our own souls, we are all responsible for all other souls, who are, like us, on their way to a future state of heaven or hell. And – another paradox – as the Christian attitude towards peace, happiness and well-being of peoples is that they are a means and not an end in themselves, Christians are more deeply committed to realising these ideals than are those who regards them as ends to themselves.

A Church that prayed as it lived in the world and also lived out its prayers in the world would not be, like the Anabaptists, withdrawn into itself: instead, it would genuinely belong in this world, even as it was not of this world. Its Daily Office would frame the day, acknowledging that the day and the night belonged to God by nature and not by the will of man. Used by every layman, the Daily Office of morning and evening would be testimony of God’s objective rule in every sector. This rule of God by his Son is not a taste, not an opinion, but a verifiable fact. The public prayer of the Church points to this fact. The pagans who see it at the street corners and in the parks know it to be about fact. When the Church is praying for the good of all and speaking for the good of all and working for the good of all, the world can see that its claim to public space is not about identity politics, a piece of the pie, but about what is common to the commonwealth, the interest that concerns all.

Photograph by Sonja Langford.

For though in Holy Communion the congregation prays for ‘the whole state of Christ’s Church’, and only the Church – because the sacrament is a gift intended only for the Church – in our daily prayers and especially the Litany we pray for ‘all sorts and conditions of men’. The sacrament makes our daily prayer possible, and the object of our daily prayer is for ourselves and others to become worthy recipients of the sacrament. Thou, O God, art praised in Sion, and unto thee shall the vow be performed in Jerusalem. Thou that hearest the prayer, unto thee shall all flesh come. This is why the Lord keeps his Church militant here in the world: that we may be witnesses of his grace to us and to all men.

So the aim, we must remember, is not a self-sufficient Christian community. To leaven the world, the Church needs to work with sons of peace who are interested in the goodness of the Christian faith, rather than shaking the dust off our feet against any place outside of the Church. As Brian Miller says,

On the contrary, Eliot knew that in many ‘public causes to which we may devote ourselves, we are always likely to find ourselves allied with non-Catholics of good will.’ And, he said, that ‘there is a certain saving egotism … which prevents us from despair so long as we believe that there is anything that we can do which may possibly help to improve matters…. I hope that I have not failed to affirm that there may always be schemes, initiated by non-Christians and non-Catholic minds with purely temporal aims, to which we can give unqualified support; and by supporting them give them a firmer justification and inform them with Christian truth… we recognize this possibility in every work of slum clearance and housing reform.’

We may seek to order certain new places according more completely to the word of God, but these are places to which even the pagans must be invited to live and work. In time, schooled by the ways of God being lived out in the ordering of daily life and the learning of the seven liberal arts, they may enrol formally as catechumens to learn the Way and its virtue, which is Christ. These new, more Christian towns, in turn, are to take part as full members in the life of the larger commonwealth. To the good schemes of non-Christian minds, for the sake of the whole and the God who rules the whole, the Christians can give full support; and thereby they will affirm that these good schemes are good by the standard of the one God. Perhaps they will see that the world is under Christ and that they themselves must bow the knees of their hearts to Christ as to the supreme judge of all men.

For whom Christ has secured everlasting life, we do not know. But we know he has died and been raised for the life of the whole world. Let us take the piety of Benedict to the pagans.

Photograph by Flickr user quimby.


9 responses to “Eliot and Benedictine Renewal

  1. Reblogged this on hjohnrogers and commented:

    A magnificent piece. Query: Is there a T. S. Eliot Society? Wallace Stevens has one, etc. “And I will show you something different/ From your shadow in morning rising to meet you/ And your shadow at evening trailing behind you./ I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” Pax vobisccum.


  2. The quote was from memory and I can see a few errors. Mea culpa, mea culpa.


  3. Lue-Yee Tsang: Let me attest to my basic racism: When I saw the article I did’nt notice the name of the author, so when I saw your posted replies I went back to check the name of the author. Now I am doubly shocked by the article, because a) it is so very good in an age when most people seem to consider Eliot passe, and b) it is the product of an “inscrutable” Oriental. I grew in the WW II era and we were taught to consider the Japanese subhuman, which I bought into until, a bit later, I read some Japanese poetry. But enough! I want to talk about Eliot, who with Albert Camus, are great influences in my life. I was a college graduate working as a houseboy out on Long Island when I found an old copy of the “Four Quartets” which struck me like the proverbial bolt of lightening. I had read “The Waste Land” and a couple of the lesser poems [“Sweeney Among the Nightengails” is one I can remember] but none of them really hit me. The Quartets though were a great synthesis of all human knowledge. Some 20 years later after a life of debauchery and drunkenness, when I returned to the Church I would tell people that if the supreme intellect of the second century could bend his knee in an Anglican cathedral what was a little Methodist Wonder bread and Welch’s grape juice to me. When at 49 my wife said that I should name my first child it was easy: Thomas Stearns Eliot Rogers. I would joke with him as he moved out of the teens that his name would get him laid some day. (He says it hasn’t.) I asked earlier is there were any Eliot clubs because I wanted to enroll him before it was too late. His Mother is of Croatian stock and there is a Croatian Club in Benwood, W.Va, accessible to the coal mines and the steel mills. A while back I was in town and went in to by my Eliot a membership.
    “This isn’t the Croatian Club any more,” I was told. “Stan died and Mary’s in the nursing home at Glen Dale. It’s just a bar now.”
    I hope to get my Eliot in an affinity group before people totally forget the man who won the Nobel prize and who was there when I was ready to come back to the Church.
    Pax vobiscum.


    • Ah, no offence taken, Mr Rogers; apologies for my slow reply. Aye, Eliot is the kind of Anglo-Catholic whose thought I cannot afford to ignore, and I certainly hope his name is not forgotten. If I married, I probably should like to name my sons Alexander Herbert Tsang and Andrew Eliot Tsang.


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