Between the Lines: A Conversation with Dennis Okholm – Part 1

We recently had the chance to talk with Dennis Okholm about his book Dangerous Passions, Deadly Sins: Learning from the Psychology of Ancient Monks.

Dennis Okholm (PhD, Princeton Theological Seminary), a Benedictine oblate, speaks frequently in church and youth group settings and serves as assistant pastor at Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Costa Mesa, California. He is also professor of theology at Azusa Pacific University and adjunct professor at Fuller Theological Seminary. Okholm is the author or editor of many books, including Monk Habits for Everyday People.

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What are the seven deadly sins? What makes a sin cardinal, mortal, or venial?

The so-called “deadly sins” didn’t start out as a list of seven but as a list of eight thoughts that plague us simply because we are fallen human beings. They were listed and reflected upon by Evagrius (fourth century) and John Cassian (fifth century). The list included gluttony, lust, greed, anger, dejection (tristitia), weariness of heart (acedia), vainglory, and pride. Gregory the Great (sixth century) did some rearranging and came up with our list of seven, essentially combining tristitia and acedia into “sloth,” taking pride out as the font of all, and adding envy.

These are “cardinal” sins because they give birth to progeny, as it were: lesser but related sins. But they don’t become “deadly” (just “venial”) until they so consume your thoughts that they clog up your spiritual arteries so that God’s grace cannot flow through your life; as a result, spiritual death ensues and, sometimes, even physical death. You get an idea of this if you compare what they said about gluttony—our thoughts about food—to contemporary research on eating disorders. In fact, that’s what I am doing throughout the book—noting that what they said about these sins has much in common with what we think we’ve recently learned about similar issues in psychology and sociology.

 

How would monks have pursued emotional health, and what did that look like? What can we learn from them? What can we imitate?

The monks I write about in this book—monks who lived centuries before us—were living together in close relationship with others day in and day out. In the process they dealt with all the issues with which we deal every day—how to think about food intake, lust, anger issues, envious thoughts about fellow monks, desiring more than is needed for daily life, and so on. When it comes to our spiritual, emotional, and bodily health, things really haven’t changed that much over the centuries; so their insights can be very helpful for us, particularly because they were processing it all from a specifically Christian understanding.

They analyzed these problems—causes, symptoms. Essentially, they were providing an etiology of psychological and sociological problems that ail us. Then they prescribed strategies to deal with these problems. As an example, in their discussions about anger they recommend, among other strategies, what we would call “reframing”; that is, they encourage me to think what might have caused someone on the LA freeway to cut me off—such as word that a family member has just gone to the hospital—before I impulsively vent in a fit of road rage. And they recommend the cultivation of counterveiling virtues, such as patience in the case of anger—the virtue of expansion of the heart to relieve the built-up pressure that is anger.

Along the way I discovered that at times the ancient monks anticipated cures that we only recently discovered. To use anger as an example again, I discovered in psychological literature that research reversed the long-held supposition that cathartic venting was the best way to deal with anger; in the 1960s research began to demonstrate that a response of verbal aggression actually increased anger—something that Cassian said 1500 years ago.

There is much wisdom in the writings of these early Christian monks that I have tried to unpack so that it will help us to diagnose what ails us and to develop strategies and cultivate virtues so as to be healthier human beings. I can honestly say that I myself have taken their wisdom to heart, analyzing my own sins and developing strategies for dealing with them based on what they have recommended.

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Next week Dr. Okholm will explain how “chastity is the queen of the virtues” and what role grace plays in our purity.

For more information on Dr. Okholm’s new book, Dangerous Passions, Deadly Sins, click here.