Book Review: Monk Habits for Everyday People

Monk Habits for Everyday People: Benedictine Spirituality for Protestants
By Dennis Okholm — Brazos Press — ISBN: 9781587431852

Be warned; this is not one of my typical or normal book reviews. Feel free to skip the first two or three paragraphs if you desire to get to the meat of what concerns the book.

My spiritual formation journey began in earnest around five years ago. It was around that time that I was really introduced to the ancient paths and disciplines that assist us in the formation and transformation of our souls. My introduction began with some contemporary writings and teachers who “pointed” back to the early church fathers (first through third centuries) and moved forward from there. As my learning has progressed, certain points and common markers continue to rise to the top of my collective discipleship experience. One of the more prominent commonalties is monastic or communal living. There are so many misconceptions and errant stereotypes surrounding those words (monastic and communal), that I don’t want to get mired down in that discussion. Suffice it to say, you might be well served to do some investigation and self-education rather than trust the tired and mistaken beliefs. More particular and to the point of this review, one aspect of monastic living has surfaced repeatedly during the past five years of my journey; that is Benedictine Spirituality.

Almost a year and a half ago I attended the 2009 Renovare’ International Conference (see the archive for the posts) in San Antonio, TX. While at that conference I was able to participate in a break out session teaching us how to create a personal rule of life. This was based in large part on the Rule of St. Benedict. As I mentioned earlier, I had been exposed to Benedict of Nursia, but only in part. Creating my personal rule sparked more curiosity about Benedict. The creation of my rule included an exercise in learning more about the liturgical calendar, so I spent the next few months learning and preparing for Advent and then beyond for the coming Church year. Advent moved into Lent and Lent moved to Pentecost ultimately landing me into the Ordinary time of the Liturgical Year. By the time I landed, I was more curious than ever about monastic community and the disciplines thereof than I had been and decided to shift my study into that niche.

In the month of May of this year (2010) I entered into an immersion of Benedictine Spirituality. I ordered a host of books (some listed here in a past review) on the subject and a number of interactive devotional-discipline works to help me integrate The Rule into my own lifestyle. The more I read, studied, and incorporated… the more intrigued and drawn to this culture of community and Christ-like transformative instruction I became. During the last five months I’ve tried to explore and share my enthusiasm with others who are close to me and those peers within my religious tradition. Most often the responses are mixed with curiosity, confusion, misconceptions, rejection, questions, doubts, skepticism, dismissal, and a little honest interest. Mostly, this has been discouraging and disappointing to me, although it has not deterred my passion or pursuit in my learning and practice. It was my disappointment in sharing my discoveries with my peers that led me to Dennis Okholm’s book, Monk Habits for Everyday People: Benedictine Spirituality for Protestants.

“As a knowledgeable pastor and theologian, Dennis Okholm… offers a fresh perspective on what attracts Protestants to monasteries… This memoir, gentle in tone and often humorous, is nonetheless full of challenges to Protestant comfort zones.”–Kathleen Norris, author of The Cloister Walk (from the foreword)

Aside from the title of the book, what caught my attention was the background of the author. A little research into the summary of the book and author’s profile revealed to me that Okholm’s background had roots in Baptist, Pentecostal, and Presbyterian traditions. My background, while not as educated as Okholm, is similar in experience of multiple Protestant traditions (Baptist, Pentecostal, and Methodism); I was hooked.

I am recommending this book in the highest order to my friends and anyone else that is searching for whole life transformation into the image and person of Christ… That is, what and who we are called to be; Imago Dei. My earliest memories in the church span over forty years and I have experienced much. In almost every season and chapter of my Christian journey I have fallen short of or lacked fulfillment in my growth as a disciple of Jesus Christ. Perhaps I am in the minority with my experience, but statistics, surveys, and an open-eyed real-world view of the contemporary Protestant church may speak otherwise… maybe I’m not in the minority with my experience. I believe a change in the way we approach discipleship as a tradition might be in order if not on the horizon. Dietrich Bonhoeffer thought along similar lines according to this quote:

“…the restoration of the church will surely come only from a new type of monasticism which has nothing in common with the old but a complete lack of compromise in a life lived in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount in the discipleship of Christ.  I think it is time to gather people together to do this…” Dietrich Bonhoeffer

This, I think, is at the heart of Monk Habits for Everyday People and Dr. Okholm begins to crunch away at the heart of the matter as early as chapter two with “Why Benedictine Spirituality for Protestants?”. The heart of Benedictine Spirituality is covered in the following seven chapters with brief overviews and conceptual explanations of The Rule for Listening, Poverty, Obedience, Humility, Hospitality, Stability, Balance. Don’t be fooled by my description of “brief overview” and assume that to mean shallow or cursory in attention to the subject. While this is a small book by comparison to some I have read on the subject, it is by no means shallow. There are deeply profound and thought-provoking words in this short work.

I have noticed in a growing number of people a hunger for something more authentic in their faith. I believe that many people do desire to be wholly transformed into the image of Christ. Many of these people have turned away from the church in their search… and this is sad. Much of our ill-informed Protestant family has little or no knowledge of the ancient paths of spiritual formation. Monk Habits serves as a wonderful gateway to the disciplines that help us to form our lives around the paths taught by Jesus.

The book includes a wonderful afterword thought which helps to shed some light on the Protestant opposition to monasticism. There is also a great suggested reading list included that completes the book.

My rating = 4 of 5 stars

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