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.
Part 1 of this interview is available here.
You write that “chastity is the queen of the virtues”; how so? How is chastity different from abstinence? What role does grace play in our purity?
As I did for all seven deadly sins, in the chapter on lust I related what I found in the monastic literature to what I found in psychological literature—in this case, what I found out about sexual addiction. Along the way, one of the scholars of early monasticism who helped me understand what the monks were proposing as a counterveiling virtue to lust—namely, chastity—was Columba Stewart, a Benedictine who teaches at St. John’s in Collegeville, Minnesota. Both in conversations with him and in his book Cassian the Monk, he helped me to see that chastity was the queen of the virtues because it really had to do with sound spiritual health—an “abiding tranquility” that is very different from the constant struggle that mere abstinence requires. In fact, in Father Stewart’s words, abstinence just wrestles lust to a truce.
He helped me to see that, in one respect, when the monks insisted upon certain disciplines to keep lust in check, those disciplines also helped the monk to realize the limits of human effort to combat lustful thoughts. In other words, success cannot be achieved by human effort alone; ultimately, it requires God’s grace.
Interestingly, Cassian “proves” this by discussing our dreams—our unconscious states. Those who have conquered lust will not even have salacious dreams, and this is something that is impossible by mere abstinence (or continence). I think that this corresponds to the first of the twelve steps that tackle addiction—the admission that the addicted person is not in control but must depend on a higher power. Or, as one book title asserts, “willpower is not enough.” This recognition ought to be acknowledged by youth ministers in our churches!
By the way, I thought Cassian’s discussion about what we refer to as “wet dreams” (the monks are not as queasy as we often are when talking candidly about our embodied lives) goes well with Luther’s evening prayer that concludes, “and graciously keep me this night. For into your hands I commend myself, my body and soul, and all things. Let your holy angel be with me, that the wicked Foe may have no power over me. Amen.”