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Wednesday, October 8, 2014

"Dangerous Passions, Deadly Sins" (Dennis Okholm)

TITLE: Dangerous Passions, Deadly Sins: Learning from the Psychology of Ancient Monks
AUTHOR: Dennis Okholm
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2014, (240 pages).

The latest psychological advances are not rocket sciences. In fact, they are based on principles already discovered previously in ancient practices. Modern psychotherapies are not new. They are based on fundamental truths discerned and practiced long time ago. This is the key point of this new book that argues against what CS Lewis has labeled "chronological snobbery," a term that describes the modern infatuation with all things latest and greatest. Here, Okholm shows us that things new are often not as new as people boast them to be, especially in the realm of modern psychology.

Taken from presentations given to Churches and universities, plus articles published at American Benedictine Review, books like Care for the Soul, and interactions with other travelers in spirituality matters, Azusa Pacific University Professor of Theology, and ordained Presbyterian minister, Dennis Okholm takes a look at the traditional seven deadly sins. He argues just like how John Cassian and Evagrius saw it, that the list of cardinal sins are all connected in more ways than one. Evagrius categorized the sins into three fundamental thoughts: "gluttony, avarice, and vainglory." Cassian connected the vices in pairs, like gluttony/lust; anger/envy; and so on. How serious is each vice depends on the context. Recognizing the way these saints of old had connected the vices with the associating passions, Okholm pounces on the key idea that our modern psychology of linking science with sociological behaviour may not be rocket science. In fact, rather than researching forward (that is, predicting a future discovery), go back to the ancients to learn how they had first discovered this link. This book expands on this by showing readers how a "deadly sin" is connected to a "dangerous passion," or what the author also called a "specific pathology or addiction."

The first is Gluttony which Okholm notes how modern advertisements link food and sex, just like the ancients who linked gluttony and lust. The sin of gluttony has more to do with the "manner" in six ways that the ancients connected both acts and attitudes: a) gorging ourselves; b) frivolous eating outside regular hours; c) "anticipating eating,"; d) "eating expensively"; e) delicacy seeking; f) over attentiveness to food. The remedy? Abstinence via the ancient art of arcedia.

The second is Lust which connects food with sex. Lust is a kind of compulsive behaviour that needs to be tackled on two fronts: "mind and body." Okholm goes beyond mere abstinence because abstinence is motivated by human effort and fear. Instead, we are urged to take on chastity which is a willing form of patience that surrounds anger and fear. In such a state, humility comes as a staunch ally to chastity.

The third is Greed, what the author deems as "death by consumption." It is also the "least psychological of the seven" vices. It is that inordinate love and coveting after money and things, that instead of possessing these things, they possess the coveting person. The ancient Gregory notes how such people tally up how much they give away but quickly forgets how much they are seizing. Cassian and Gregory urges us to fight greed firstly with self-reminders about greed often giving us the opposite of what we seek.  The second thing is to avoid greed like a plague. Thirdly, starve the greed desire. Re-orient ourselves to do things that help us, not consume us. Live simply.

The fourth vice is Anger, which Evagrius called the "most fierce passion." Cassian teaches us that there are legitimate ways to use anger, which is a natural human emotion: be angry at sin. We are reminded too that anger can inhibit praying, prevent listening or good discernment, obscures our sight of the divine. Cassian also teaches us to use neither venting or suppressing, but adopt patience and humility in community. The monks learn to do that via retreating to their cells to read and to pray. The community element is important because it provides opportunities to practice patience and humility. Okholm briefly mentions abusive relationships as he applies Cassian's wisdom to this modern problem.

The fifth vice is Envy which the ancients had listed several characteristics like wanting something other had; desiring something a "relative equal" had; refusal to submit to trust in God; etc. The remedy? According to Cassian, this is the most difficult to cure because the culprit also envies the very person who comes to help him. Envy is also elusive and hard to detect. Gregory devises some remedies: love what others have instead of envying them possessing it. This means learning to see the good of others more than ourselves. Okholm observes the dangers of envy in the academic world, that people in that environment need to be "immunized against envy's bite."

Sixth, Sloth or acedia according to Evagrius is the "noonday demon." In helping us to understand the roots of depression, Okholm points out the concepts of acedia and tristitia. The former is "carelessness" while the latter is a kind of sorrow or dejection. According to Solomon Schimmel, sloth is "misdirected activity" which is what Gregory identifies as one who neglects himself and does not direct themselves to "higher things." Instead of rightly desiring the divine, they crave for pleasure.

The final vice is vainglory which has been interchangeably used with pride. Modern psychologists call this the "dark side of self-esteem." Evagrius calls it "most damaging" while Gregory points it out as the "queen of sins." What makes it most treacherous is that the prideful person will not even acknowledge it in the first place. Okholm mines the ancients for wisdom regarding the roots of pride as well as the cures.

Overall, this book follows a familiar structure of firstly defining what the deadly vice is. Readers will be introduced to some modern description of the problem before Okholm shows how early saints had already discovered the link between sins and passions, long before modern psychotherapy experts were born. He has shown us how wisdom can still be learned from Evagrius, Cassian, Gregory, and the monastic tradition. The solution is not something out there in the future. The many remedies are already known and are somewhere back in the past for us to learn, to appreciate, and to apply to our modern world. As a student of the monastic movement and ancient spirituality, I can appreciate the many insights that Okholm brings from the writings of the three saints of old. There are many more saints who can speak into the massive need for tackling our modern sins. Given time and space, Okholm's thesis has a lot more to build upon, but for the present situation, the point about using ancient spiritual remedies for modern psychological challenges is relevant, practical, and very holistic. Kudos again to Dennis Okholm!

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Brazos Press and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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