Monastic habits for non-monastics–Glimpses from Dennis Okholm


Cover of "Monk Habits for Everyday People...

A fascinating modern exploration of Benedictine ways

The following are brief excerpts and quotations I marked while reading Dennis Okholm’s Monk Habits for Ordinary People (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2007). Along with works by Kathleen Norris, Phyllis Tickle, Leighton Ford, Karen E. Sloan, Tony Jones, and a growing group of other Protestant authors, Okholm’s book explores medieval monasticism–especially the Benedictine tradition. The forward is by Kathleen Norris.

As with the David Bell and Jaroslav Pelikan “glimpses” and the glimpses of Benedict and Francis by Columba Stewart, William Short, G. K. Chesterton, and Mark Galli, I thank my t.a., Shane Moe, who transcribed these and inserted  brief contextual tags where helpful. Page numbers are at the beginning of each excerpt. The designation “Q” means I wanted to save the text as a quotation, for use in teaching and writing. D means the definition of a term. “U” means I want to use an idea or statement in my teaching:

Q, 9 (from Kathleen Norris’s forward to the book, on Ockholm’s discussion of Protestants being attracted to monasteries): “He demonstrates that it is not just another case of Americans shopping around for their spirituality, but a genuine reclaiming of the taproot of Christianity, a reconnecting with a religious tradition and way of life that predates all of the schisms in Christendom.” [Close, but she forgets the early ejection of Nestorians, etc. from the catholic church]

Q, 9 (also from the forward): “He believes that monasteries, by demonstrating the religious significance of Christian community to an individualistic society, are a true witness in the world.”

Q, 9 (also from Norris’s forward): “Now there are many books to help Protestants understand that Benedict’s Rule is not just of use to monks, but also to churches, married couples, families, and individuals seeking to pray in a more contemplative manner.”

Q,  14 (quoting Calvin’s Institutes): “Therefore, in a word, I interpret repentance as regeneration, whose sole end is to restore in us the image of God that had been disfigured and all but obliterated through Adam’s transgression. . . . And indeed, this restoration does not take place in one moment or one day or one year; but through continual and sometimes even slow advances God wipes out in his elect the corruptions of the flesh, cleanses them of guilt, consecrates them to himself as temples renewing all their minds to true purity that they may practice repentance throughout their lives and know that this warfare will end only at death. . . . The closer any man comes to the likeness of God, the more the image of God shines in him.”

Q, 19: “When I left [the Benedictine monastery he visited in South Dakota] I knew I had experienced something profound and I would have to visit again. On the way home, when I made a stop at the Fargo mall for a pair of tennis shoes, I found myself feeling out of place in the consumer culture that had shaped me. No forty-eight-hour experience had ever left such a huge crater in my life.”

Q, 21: “Protestants do not usually go for the habitual when it comes to spirituality.”

U, 25: “Seeing the community as the sphere in which the Spirit worked, they lived under a common roof with a common authority, sharing possessions in a conscious attempt to imitate the communal life of the early church as described in Acts 2:42 and 4:32-36. Members of the community took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. These came to be known as the ‘evangelical’ vows or ‘counsels of perfection.’

U (for context on Benedict), 25: He was heir to the deteriorating political environment of the Roman Empire’s last days. The fifth century into which he had been born had in common with our twenty-first a struggle to make sense of the troubled and torn world that people were experiencing. Rome had fallen and had been sacked several times, by the Goths, Vandals, and Lombards. The dismembered Western empire, once ruled by the ‘eternal city’, was not only in political chaos but troubled by ecclesiastical dirty dealings and underhanded ploys to win theological battles over the crucial issues of grace and the divine nature of Christ.

U, 26: It [Benedict’s Rule] is less like the Law and more like the wisdom literature of the Old Testament (such as the book of Proverbs). It passed on a tradition of wisdom from the lived experience of monastic life.

U, 26: “Just as Presbyterian leaders have no intention of setting up any way of life other than the way of the gospel but seek guidance from the lived experience of those in our tradition as to how to live that life, so Benedict’s Rule (regula) became the indispensable aid to help monks live according to scripture.”

U, 27: Benedict’s Rule combines theoretical spiritual teaching in the first seven chapters (such as his description of humility) with practical regulations to govern the daily life of the monastery in the remaining sixty-six chapters. These deal with the time and quantities of food, sleep, and prayer, relations with the outside world, authority structures, and so on.

Q, 27 (quoting B’s Rule): “What page, what passage of the Old and New Testaments is not the truest of guides for human life?” (RB 73.3).

U, 27: Only twelve of the seventy-three chapters have no biblical allusions, and Benedict laced the entire Rule with quotes from the Bible—quotations that no doubt came from a memory that had been trained by countless readings in private and in community.

Q, 27 (on the Rule): “copied more than any other piece of literature in the Middle Ages except the Bible.”

Q, 28 (on the Rule): “a masterful summary or synthesis of the whole preceding monastic experience.”

U, 28: “It didn’t hurt that it [Benedict’s Rule] was also brief, human, thorough, and adaptable.”

U, 29: First, as Mark Noll has pointed out, to their credit Protestants, especially of the evangelical persuasion, have tended to be activist in their piety. But, Noll argues, this has not always benefited evangelicals; they have sometimes neglected the development of the mind. And, we might add, they have similarly neglected the more contemplative side of the spiritual life.

Q, 31: “Often when I am teaching a college class on monasticism or lecturing at a church on my Benedictine experiences and lessons learned, I hear the complaint that I’m not talking about the ‘real world’. Of course this begs the question. We must first determine what the real world is.”

U, 32: “is the monastic balanced life, which puts possessions and relationships and the life of the soul in proper perspective, less real than our consumptive preoccupation with gadgets, television, celebrities, war, and spirit-numbing work? Who has distorted reality: the monk or the materialist?”

Q (vs. charge of monastic elitism), 35: “We have become consumers of religion rather than cultivators of a spiritual life: we have spawned an entire industry of Christian kitsch and bookstores full of spiritual junk food that leaves us sated and flabby. As if we believed the infomercial that promises great abs if we just buy the right piece of equipment for $39.95, we think that the secret to being a spiritually fit Christian can be had by finding some secret technique or buying the most recent hot-selling inspirational devotional.

Maturity in the Christian life does not come in these ways. The life of the disciple is like that of the athlete who prepares for and runs a marathon. We can have the snazziest running garb, assemble a library full of training schedules and tips, and watch Chariots of Fire each day every day for a year, but while all of these things might help, they will not be a substitute for the unspectacular training and diet that we must engage in if we are going to become mature Christians, ‘perfect and complete, lacking in nothing’ (Jas. 1:4). It’s that way with anything in life—being a concert pianist, a skilled sculptor, or an insightful historian.

Of course, no pianist, sculptor, or historian would say she’s finally ‘arrived’. Neither would a Benedictine monk.

Q (on slide), 37 (quote from Esther deWaal): “St. Benedict points to Christ. It is as simple as that. Christ is the beginning, the way and the end. The Rule continually points beyond itself to Christ himself, and in this it has allowed, and will continue to allow, men and women in every age to find in what it says depths and levels relevant to their needs and their understanding at any stage on their journey, provided that they are truly seeking God.”

Q, 40: “When words were necessary, Benedict exhorted them, they should speak rarely, briefly, directly, and simply….”

Q (cf. Columba Stewart), 42: “Benedictine spirituality can help make us aware of God’s presence in every area of life and in every encounter.”

Q, 55 (discussing obedience): “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.”

U, 56 (discussing obedience as strengthening liberty rather than stifling it): Good Bible-believing, disciple-minded Protestants know this. It’s a principle Jesus emphasized in John 8:31-32 (even though we usually hear only the latter verse, ripped out of context). To paraphrase: If you abide, live in, obey the words of Jesus, then you are his disciple. And then you will know (experientially) the truth of Jesus’s words, and obedience to his truth will set you free.”

U, 57 (discussing mutual obedience, quoting Paul): “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21—the topic sentence for the rest of Ephesians 5)….”

U, 60 (discussing how relational virtues like obedience and humility can only be learned in community): This is why Benedict insists that monks cannot become hermits in the desert until they have ‘come through the test of living in a monastery for a long time’, so that ‘thanks to the help and guidance of many, they are now trained to fight against the devil’—‘to grapple single-handed with the vices of body and mind’ (RB 1.3-5).

Q, 60: “In the end, obedience is responsiveness.”

Q, 60: “It is involvement in the coenobium—the common life—that makes it possible for me to grow into a deeper awareness of God’s will for me.”

Q, 64: “The metaphor of conversation characterizes the Benedictine interplay of authority and obedience.”

U, 65: In the end, Bob Dylan was right: ‘Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord/But you’re gonna have to serve somebody’.

Q, 68: “Through such obedience born of love, I risk being converted by the involvement of others in my life to become more than I would be otherwise.”

Q, 71 (discussing pride): “If a person possesses a realistic assessment of who she is, whence she’s come, and where her place is in the scheme of things, she has a good chance of accepting others for who they are, whence they’ve come, and what their place is in the scheme of things—without necessarily approving of all that is included in the assessment.”

U parallel, 91: We, who often are not content with God’s global positioning coordinates for our lives, are more like the gyrovagues, the fourth kind of monk Benedict lists in the Rule’s first chapter—a kind worse than sarabaites. The term combines Latin for ‘circle’ and Greek for ‘wander’. In other words, these guys were going around in circles.

U: The Rule of Benedict draws on the Egyptian tradition (Eastern), such as the Pachomian rule; the Cappadocian tradition (Eastern), such as Basil’s rule; and the North African tradition (Western), such as Augustine’s rule. The third was a more direct influence than the second, but the first was the most influential, coming through John Cassian and then the Rule of the Master (from an unknown author soon after 500 AD). All had the purpose of regulating the life of monks living in the coenobium.

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One response to “Monastic habits for non-monastics–Glimpses from Dennis Okholm

  1. Pingback: Western Lineage | In Otherhood

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