Saturday, September 22, 2012

Monk Habits for Everyday People

“The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people of gifted people, but deep people” (Richard Foster). This is how Dennis Okholm opens his book, Monk Habits for Everyday People. Plain and simple: the sheer noise, distraction, stimulation, and escapism that is American culture is as much against the way of Jesus as a BoSox fan is against the Yankees. While American Christians might claim the desire to cultivate such a deep spirituality, the actual practice of cultivating that spirituality often times barely gets off the ground, if it flies at all. People spend their lives either reading about it, without doing anything about it. Or they spend their energy just doing a whole bunch of things without any sense of meaning or understanding that leads to wisdom. Or they stand off to side, ignoring the nudge towards that deeper spirituality they feel in their hearts, hoping that it will just go away so that they can get back to whatever cushy life they’ve created for themselves.

Why Benedictine Spirituality? For one, because it’s so absolutely contra-celebrity. American Christians (specifically Evangelicals) tend towards the celebrity. We switch churches for the one with the new, rising star. Pastors write books, leave their churches, and go on book tours. Fame is the measure of truthfulness, aparantly. We flock to the bookstores to buy the latest book that we think will cure our spiritual apathy and delusion, rather than turning to ancient words of the Scripture, and the Psalms in particular, in order to get our bearings.

Benedictine spirituality is largely a rule of life comprised of the Scripture. It was written by a man who had so digested those ancient holy words that they couldn’t help but invade what he was writing to his monastic community. Scripture is the original rule, but Scripture is always accompanied by the lived experience of the people, which meant that it spoke to them personally. Also, in its day, the Benedictine Rule was not the hot new answer to all of our questions. Benedict stands in history as one of the great consolidators of monastic spirituality. He gathered the essentials and put them all in one place, leaving off to the side some of more arcane and, to be honest, just downright weird aspects of the monastic life (just read some of the sayings of the desert fathers). The Rule was utterly traditional, contrary to most writers today who want to sell us the latest new thing, some answer that they have discovered that no one else thought us. As a rule, the further back, and thus more inclusive one goes in the tradition, the better. New insights will be gained that will help us more forward, but not without a deep reading of the past. This is how you know who you can trust.

Okholm notes several reasons why Protestants might benefit from a Benedictine spirituality:

1. To their credit, Protestants are historically bent towards piety to begin with: daily devotions, regular worship. This is a good thing. Where a Benedictine Spirituality becomes immediately helpful is in regards to the Protestant (especially Evangelical) bent towards individualism. The monastic community (the cloister) recognizes the beautiful relationship between action and contemplation, community and solitude, engagement and withdrawal.

2. It forces Protestants to embrace a wider ecclesiology. Again, tending towards individualism, Protestants (especially Evangelicals) seem to write off too easily other parts of the Christian tradition. One way to know if you’re in the company of a safe and healthy pastor/speaker/theologian is to see how widely they read. Do they read only the books produced by Evangelical celebrities, kitsch pop-culture Christian fluff, or do they readi Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Anabaptist, Anglican, African, Latino folks as well. (Note: this doesn’t mean that they are experts in all of this, but that in some way, shape, and form, their imaginations are being influences in the widest possible way. Narrow influences are an indication of narrow imagination.)

3. Protestants are good at doctrine but bad at living. The rule is a way of putting the words of Scripture and theology reflection into practice. It really is about living good days.

4. The Protestant emphasis on Scripture blends nicely with the Benedictine Rule. As I said before, Scripture is the original rule, but Scripture is always accompanied by the lived experience of the people. The Rule arose out of the depths of a man who had so immersed himself in the Scripture that it couldn’t help but invade what he was writing to his community. 

5. If nothing else, Protestants tend to write off Benedictine Spirituality without really understanding it. We need at least become better acquainted with it because it’s a part of our past.

6. Protestants are typically instant kind of Christians: Instant access to God, instant answer to prayer. We don’t do well with waiting. Benedictine Spirituality sees Christian maturity as something one attains only through a disciplined way of life. It’s the image of the athlete in training. The monastics called it asceticism. While Protestants often look back on the moment of their conversion experience and wonder why things are not as good as it was back then, the monk sees life as a kind of training for the kingdom way of life. We grow and mature, like a tree, into the fullness of life with God in Christ.


Next time: Benedicts thoughts on learning how to be silent.


Tom Schuessler said...

Excellent, Scott. Is there a book or other resource that you can suggest?
How does this form of spirituality compare to the Ignatian exercises?
Tom Schuessler Mayville, WI

Scott Savage said...

Tom -

One of the best introductory books I've read on Benedictine Spirituality, particularly as it relates to a kind of rule of life, is A GOOD LIFE by Robert Benson. Lots to digest in this small book! He also came and spoke at my church once and it was really good.

As far as how a Benedictine Spirituality compares to the Ignatian exercises, I'm not sure. If you come across something, though, do tell!