Thursday, January 24, 2008

Monk Habits for Everyday People

From time to time Fuller Seminary's Irvine campus holds what they call "Conversations on Culture" in which they bring in a speaker and work through the integration of Christianity and the culture around us. It is a significant commitment to make it down to orange county in the middle of the day, but I couldn't resist today's topic: Monk Habits for Everyday People.

This session was hosted by Dennis Okholm, a professor at Asuza Pacific University who serves as adjunct faculty at Fuller's Irvine campus. Dennis has written a book by the same title as today's topic. Dennis opened the session by telling his story about how he first got connected with the monastic life in North America. His first experience was with a monastery named "Blue Cloud Abbey" in South Dakota where he spent three days there in order to take a break from life. He loved it, and his second visit was a ten day visit with six students for a class entitled "the habits of monks". Since then he has become connected with the abbey on a regular basis. Blue Cloud Abbey is a Benedictine monastery located in South Dakota. Although Dennis has relocated to Southern California, he continues to remain connected with Blue Cloud Abbey as an oblate (a friend of the monastery that shares a spiritual journey with them).

Dennis talked some about the specific activities at Blue Cloud, such as reading through the entire psalter every month. The traditional Benedictine rule has a tighter schedule, with the entire psalter read every week. The monastery also has a mission they founded in Guatemala that serves the people and provides a source of fabric that the monastery in South Dakota uses to make vestments and such. The money from the sale of those vestments directly benefits the people in Guatemala. It's an great arrangement that provides not only spiritual instruction for the people of Guatemala, but also employment.

A lecture on the rule of St. Benedict would have been interesting, but not really engaging. Thankfully, this is not what today was about. Dennis began by introducing us to Brother Jean, Brother Rene, and other monks that are special to him. He also shared some of the customs and activities of the monastery, specifically mentioning how the monks have banquets together after mass. One thought stuck in my mind as I listened: COMMUNITY. This wasn't about rules and regulations and tips for deep spirituality, it was about community. Each of the monks that Dennis has come to know at Blue Cloud have become special to him. The story of those men was what he really wanted to share.

One even that really stuck out to him was how after mass at the end of a weekend at the abbey, one of the monks offered him coffee for his drive home. The simple question "Do you have a thermos?" showed how attuned the monks were to the needs of others. They were thinking about what he would need for his long drive home.

Dennis shared quite a bit about the interaction of his students with the monastery as well. On the first student visit, he had a young southern baptist who was scared and got physically ill due to the tension of being around the monastery. By the end of the weekend she couldn't wait to return. I am constantly amazed at how much we focus on our disagreements, to the point that someone could become physically ill due to being nervous about being around fellow Christians.

One statement that really struck me was from one of the monks, who at the end of one of the visits stood up and thanked the students for coming, because it reminds the monks to question whether they are really living up to their vows. How often do we get so wrapped up in the specks in other people's eyes that we forget that Jesus calls us to examine ourselves.

One of Dennis' points was that Benedict did not expect spiritual gold medalists to be monks. He viewed the monastery as a school for the Lord's service, trying to emulate what we read in Acts 2 & 4. The rule of St. Benedict was first written down for the Monte Casino Monastery. Benedict's goal was to establish a community where we learn to serve others and serve the Lord. The goal of the monks is to create by grace the likeness of Christ, forming themselves and each other in a shared life.

This is, in a nutshell, the entire point of Okholm's talk today and his book on everyday habits. There is nothing in that paragraph that requires a monastic life. As churches we should strive to do exactly what is outlined in the rule of St. Benedict. We should be a community that seeks to form ourselves and each other into the likeness of Christ through a shared life together.

One of the original subheadings for the book was "A book for protestants who are not in a hurry" which I found fascinating. Our society does not value the contemplative or the slow. We have become consumers of religion instead of cultivators of our spirit.

While we have kids stories like the tortoise and the hare, have you ever met anyone who wants to be the tortoise? We have microwave ovens because a regular oven takes too long. We have single cup coffee pots because who wants to wait for a whole pot to brew. We have fast food restaurants because spending an entire hour sitting down at a restaurant to eat is too much. We have powerbars because who has time to eat fast food anymore? Heck, why not just create a home IV kit and avoid food altogether?

Knowing God is not something we can hurry, it's about daily progress. Every day we need to seek God. You can't truly seek God by spending five minutes reading the bible and giving a quick shout out to God before dinner. Seeking God takes time. Lots of it. We can't be in a hurry.

Dennis then moved on to some of the objections to the monastic movement (please note: he isn't advocating that we all become monks, rather he is advocating that we learn from the monks and apply that learning to our daily lives). One objection is that the monastery is a contrived environment, it is not the "real world" so to speak. The answer to that is that wherever there is a fellowship of Christians trying to be what Christ called us to be is the real world.

Another common objection is that monastic spirituality is habitual. Dennis' response to that is that spiritual habits can keep us spiritually healthy. He made a point in his own life how every morning now when he wakes up the first words out of his mouth are "Open my lips, oh Lord, and my mouth shall declare your praise." Yes it's a habit, but it sets a tone for the day as the very first thing every morning. Just because it's habitual does not make it bad. The danger lies in relying only on the habitual, and never taking time to allow God to work in your life.

Some discussion was had about silence. Okholm made an interesting statement: In our activist piety we have tended to prophetic pronouncements rather than quiet listening. The silence of the monastic reveals the sound of the world. Perhaps we fill our lives with noise because we are really afraid to face ourselves. We hardly ever live from within outwards, instead we react to the world and accept as our life what is fed in from the outside.

A great question was given, asking how Okholm's life has changed since he began to try to apply monastic principles to his life. His answers: Morning prayer has become a priority. The psalter becomes indispensible on a daily basis. Balance of life. Being a little more aware of the presence of God in daily life. We just skim on the surface of life, and miss the depth that lies beneath. Being part of the fellowship of monks.

In closing, the key principles of the monastic life were summarized as follows:

Work. Study. Pray.

I have not yet read the book, but I purchased a copy and plan on devouring it soon. Before I review the book, I wanted to share with you what Okholm shared today. It was a blessing to be able to attend.



Paula said...

Thanks for sharing about this book and what was said during the talk. In studying the early church and monestary life last year at length with some high schoolers, I was so intrigued by the life of a monk - their committments are always worth looking at and considering

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading your post, bro. I think listening to God is a thing I lack in my walk with him. It takes time and effort. I'm lazy and I don't want to do that. It is a good thing I don't treat my wife that way or else our relationship would be very shallow.


Anonymous said...


Glad you liked our event so much. It was gratifying to hear the overly-positive response from people like yourself. Our ability to demonize saints is fascinating--isn't it? If demonize is too strong a word, clearly "make irrelevant" isn't. Yet monastic witness is, as you suggest, extremely relevant to ALL Christians. Good stuff. Thanks for such a thoughtful post.

Justin Ashworth