Dennis Okholm knows whereof he speaks.
The theology professor at Azusa Pacific University, who holds a doctorate in systematic theology from Princeton Theological Seminary, wrote “Monk Habits for Everyday People: Benedictine Spirituality for Protestants.” We continued our conversation about his experiences with Benedictine monks, and how COVID-19 can help us achieve a healthy spiritual life for every day practice.
“I do agree that many have become a bit more monastic during the pandemic in the sense that some of monasticism’s virtues, such as silence and living in close community (the vow of stability), have been imposed upon us in ways that some have appreciated,” Okholm said.
He said he enjoyed the relative silence and slower pace of life when he would venture out of the house during stay-at-home orders.
“It was a refreshing change of pace from the frenetic and noisy life that is so typical of SoCal; and it’s the kind of thing I’ve experienced when I am on retreat at a monastery,” Okholm said.
Aside from switching to remote teaching, he maintained his pre-pandemic routine of reading a section of Benedict’s Rule every morning. St. Benedict’s Rule lays out the monastic day into periods of prayer, sleep, spiritual reading and work.
Okholm said the two things that he has leaned into during this past year are listening and patience.
“The word ‘listen’ is the first word in the Rule, and in the political climate that accompanied our sequestering, I have tried to listen more,” he said. “One of my acquaintances who is a Benedictine oblate like me (he’s a Presbyterian pastor in Cannon Beach, OR) published a devotional that unpacks the spiritual classic, ‘The Cloud of Unknowing,’ for daily readings. The frontispiece includes a prayer of Alcuiin (8th century) that begins, ‘Dear God, open my heart and teach me to listen.’ So I pray this every morning, hoping that I am able to continue cultivating that Benedictine virtue of listening, which is something so needed in our hotbed culture today.”The virtue of patience is linked to listening, Okholm added, and he has been thinking so much about patience, he is now working on a book on it.
“I got started thinking about it when I read Tertullian’s treatise on it as he remarked, “God was so patient, he waited in the womb of Mary for nine months,” he said. “I can’t think of a virtue that is more needed during the pandemic than patience.
“For years I have been forced to cultivate it on LA freeways. Now I’m forced to cultivate it during the pandemic. I think I am making some progress, but because it’s ‘patience,’ it has been a very slow project.”
Cloistered as we all are these past 10 months, Okholm said he has rediscovered that St. Benedict mentions “patience” quite often.
“It’s a virtue that is necessary to practice when one lives in community with others, especially with those we didn’t choose, whether because of God’s call to monks to live together or our siblings and relatives that we’re now confined in what may feel like a domestic prison,” he said.
Okholm said he misses being with his students in the classroom and admits online learning has taken some of the joy of out teaching, “but what has taken joy’s place is a deeper sense of generosity toward my students, since some of them are in situations that are not mentally and emotionally healthy due to the lockdown.”
One of the gifts of this time, for me, is connecting to people like Okholm, who shine a light on a new truth or help us discover something about ourselves, or our world, or each other.
It took Okholm almost two decades to write “Monk Habits,” a blessing because it gave him more time to put his spiritual practice into place. He remains firmly in the world, hopeful about the state of things, every day.
“I”m a spiritual adolescent,” he said. “But like the typical adolescent, I dare to charge ahead.”
Anissa V. Rivera Columnist “Mom’s the Word” Pasadena Star-News, San Gabriel Valley Tribune, Whittier Daily News Azusa Herald, Glendora Press and West Covina Highlander San Dimas/La Verne Highlander Southern California News Group 605 E. Huntington Drive, Suite 100, Monrovia CA 91016 (626) 497-4869