Book Review

"Monk Habits for Everyday People: Benedictine Spirituality for Protestants" By Dennis Okholm

Patricia Anders
Dennis Okholm
Friday, September 5th 2008
Sep/Oct 2008

Of making many books on living the "spiritual life" there is no end (to paraphrase Ecclesiastes 12:12), and so one more is not surprising. The twist, however, is that this is a book on Benedictine spirituality written by a Presbyterian pastor and professor of theology. What is also surprising is that this book sold out at the annual meetings of both the Evangelical Theological Society and the American Academy of Religion this past November, which shows a definite interest in a title such as, Monk Habits for Everyday People: Benedictine Spirituality for Protestants. Obviously aware of the raised eyebrows this book would cause in Reformed circles, Dennis Okholm's first chapter answers the question on everyone's mind: "What's a Good (Protestant Evangelical) Boy Doin' in a Monastery?"

Its spirituality has enriched my Christian life so much so that, as I tell my Benedictine friends, I am glad to be their evangelist to my Protestant brothers and sisters. That's the reason for this book….I hope to entice Protestant readers (especially those like me whose pedigree includes Baptist and conservative evangelical strains), and others who care to join the circle….In sharing the wealth, then, this book will hopefully serve as an apologia to my Protestant brothers and sisters who often understandably have misconceptions about monasticism, as well as objections to Roman Catholicism more generally. (19-20)

I first realized Okholm was not your typical Presbyterian when he arranged for Wheaton graduate students in his medieval church history class (which I was invited to attend) to visit a Benedictine monastery not too far out in Illinois farmland. We experienced a day of community and hospitality that was both enlightening and refreshing. So it was not surprising that some fifteen years later, Okholm would want to publish this book in order to share with a wider audience his learned experiences as a Benedictine oblate. Of course, he is not the first Protestant to become involved in monasticism-a notable example is the poet Kathleen Norris (another Presbyterian), who wrote the foreword to Monk Habits and is the author of the best-seller, The Cloister Walk. But why this desire for Protestants to live in and learn from monastic communities, a lifestyle we know the Reformers denounced?

Okholm is certainly aware of the theological differences between our Protestant faith and that of Roman Catholicism, and in the book's appendix he discusses the "'semi-Pelagian (translation 'semi-heretical') label affixed to John Cassian, whose theology undergirds Benedict's Rule" (21), as well as the objections raised by Calvin and Luther against the corrupted monasticism of the fifteenth century. Okholm's main focus, however, is on the Rule itself and Benedict's honest attempt at a needed reformation for the church in his day (sixth-century Italy): "By taking a critical stance toward the prevailing ethos, Benedict began a movement toward redemption of the created world whose fall Augustine had so eloquently described a century before in The City of God" (26).

Despite the theological differences, Okholm believes that the basic spiritual habits of the Benedictines are truly Christ-centered and therefore relevant to all Christians-especially today in a society where he feels that Benedictine virtues are "healthier than much of the spiritual junk food that permeates our culture and satiates the appetites of folks who would do better to graze on something more nutritious" (20).

Seven of his ten chapters concentrate on particular practices Okholm believes are necessary to the Christian life. One can surmise the content by the chapter titles: "Learning to Listen," "Poverty: Sharing the Goods," "Obedience: Objectifying Providence," "Humility: Letting Go of the Mask," "Hospitality: The Guest as Christ," "Stability: Staying Put to Get Somewhere," and "Balance: God in Everything." All of these worthwhile habits are important to each believer's spiritual discipline and maturing, a part of the Christian's sanctification process.

What was most striking to me was how obvious these practices are and yet how scarce in my life and, let's be honest, in too much of the church I see around me. How many of us can be quiet enough to really listen to what God is telling us through the Scriptures? How many of us deliberately consider the best way to use our money or our goods, following "Martin Luther's notion that goods are not really 'goods' unless they can be shared"? (46). Okholm states: "We live in a culture that consumes to the extent that avarice is no longer one of Gregory the Great's deadly sins but one of Donald Trump's virtues" (47). As Elizabeth Seaton (1774-1821) said, which Okholm echoes in his book, "Live simply so that others may simply live" (53).

Not surprisingly, it was the chapter on obedience I found the most convicting. Okholm says of obedience that it's "almost a dirty word outside of military schools. But it really needs to be part of the Christian's vocabulary. The monk's surrender of his will to others sounds harsh to the modern Western ear, which places a premium on individual autonomy and freedom of choice" (55). We are to be obedient to the Word of God and also to those in authority over us-which can mean the church, the household, the workplace, the government, and so on. There is accountability for us in many ways and, in response, due obedience. This indeed is hard for anyone who feels free and autonomous; but this is part of what it means to die to ourselves, to live for God and for others.

Another part of this dying to ourselves is humility, which Okholm shows is vital not only to monks but to every Christian, especially as we live within the community of believers:

Like obedience and poverty, humility is an exercise in giving up my own will. It's all tied to the self-emptying that the apostle Paul talks about in Philippians 2. In different ways, obedience, limiting speech, poverty, and humility all involve the eradication of self-will and self-centeredness. (72)

The chapter on hospitality is also an important reminder to welcome everyone as we would Christ himself, but it is the chapter on stability that is convicting for those of us who live in a culture of church "s/hopping." Okholm encourages us to find a good church and truly commit to it just as seriously as the Benedictines committed to their communities-usually for life. We find it too easy to leave one place rather than face up to the challenges we may find in living within the family of God (as with your parents or siblings, you have to learn to live with them-which means you may not always like them, but you are called to love them nevertheless). Okholm adds: "The amazing irony is that only through stability-staying where God has put us-can we change" (97). Iron sharpens iron after all.

The last chapter is on balance, which includes body, mind, and soul. For the Benedictines, "There is a balance to the day that maintains proper perspective. We need this to keep us from serving possessions, egos, jobs, and all the other wonderful things that easily become idols that demand our all" (101).

Although we know that Reformation theology teaches us to have an external focus-that our salvation and all good gifts come from outside of us; that is, from God-it is still good practice to keep always in mind these spiritual habits-in essence, fruits of the Spirit-that help us die to ourselves, love and serve others, forming us into mature followers of Jesus Christ. This was true for the early church and remains true to the church universal. As Okholm concludes: "Benedict…gave us instruction in virtues like obedience, stability, and balance in life. We would all do well to listen once again and appropriate what this saint offered the undivided Christian world a millennium and a half ago" (113).

Friday, September 5th 2008

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology