Monk Habits for Everyday People: Benedictine Spirituality for Protestants
By Dennis Okholm
Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2007
Review by Carl McColman
Okay, so this book has a lame title. But the point of the book is neatly encapsulated in its subtitle: here is an introduction to the spirituality of St. Benedictine, written by a Presbyterian theologian who has a background in both Pentecostalism and the Baptist community. In other words, this isn’t some sort of Anglican “we’re just like Catholics only without the Pope” kind of a book. Dennis Okholm lives and writes squarely out of the reformed tradition, and as far as I can tell he understands how to love and appreciate monastic spirituality while remaining true to his identity as a Protestant Christian. And because the book is so utterly devoid of any kind of axes to grind (whether Roman or Reformed), what emerges is an elegant and eloquent testimony of how Benedictine spirituality really is simply Gospel spirituality. It may be written for Protestants, but I got enough out of the book that I’m convinced it would be useful for many Catholics as well.
Okholm is an oblate of Blue Cloud Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in South Dakota. He has served on the board of the American Benedictine Academy and, in his own words, “over the years many students at Jamestown College, Wheaton College, and Azusa Pacific University have had to endure course and lectures that were generated out of my interest in Benedictines, medieval monasticism, and monastic spirituality.” In one of the most incisive chapters of this book, Okholm argues for the importance of the Benedictine value of stability — and it is clear that he himself has embodied that very value, particularly in the over twenty years that he has spent learning about and appreciating the Benedictine path. In this book, he shares the fruits of that love and knowledge, looking at the core characteristics of Benedictine spirituality: poverty, obedience, humility, hospitality, balance — and reflecting on how these values can transform and inspire the ordinary Christian’s life. Since Okholm assumes his readers are not Catholic, he does not address the question of possibly discerning a monastic vocation; in essence, the book comes across as a manual for oblates and friends of monasticism, albeit with just the slightest hint of an apologetic tone, acknowledging that some Protestants will have internalized a critical or fearful stance toward anything even remotely connected to Rome. This comes to the forefront in one of most interesting sections of the book, an afterword in which Okholm considers the heritage of anti-monasticism in the Protestant community and the origins of that bias in the writings of Luther, Calvin and Zwingli. He does an admirable job at detailing how the monastic world — particularly since Vatican II — has itself grown beyond its earlier problems that inspired the reformers’ criticism. Although Okholm is enough of a realist to recognize that he cannot just argue Protestants into embracing the monastic way, his gentle and respectful tone ought to help not only Protestants to consider Benedict with a more open mind, but could even help Catholics to see a depth of goodwill that is sadly often lacking on the part of zealous evangelicals who try to “save” individual Catholics from the “error” of their faith.
One disappointment was the book’s silence regarding neo-monasticism. As an emerging trend with clear rootedness in Protestantism but drawing at least some of its inspiration from Benedict, it would be a natural topic to be considered in a book of this nature.
Okholm is not the first Protestant to write persuasively about Benedictine spirituality, nor is he the most literary of non-Catholic voices to take on this tradition (those honors probably go to Esther De Waal and Kathleen Norris, respectively). But by clearly and explicitly aiming his book at the Protestant community and sharing his obvious love for both evangelical and Benedictine spirituality in a thoughtful and inclusionary manner, what results is a book that ought to find many readers among its target audience and, hopefully, beyond.
But I do hope that when the second edition comes out, Okholm will give the book a less cutesy title.