How Monasticism Can Shape Our Souls and Our World


My borderline obsession with monks began about four years ago with Trappist monk and renowned author Thomas Merton. I had seen Merton quoted in the writings of Henri Nouwen and Brennan Manning, two authors who greatly influenced the reconstruction of my spirituality, but it wasn’t until a drunken pastor began quoting Merton to me at a Halloween party that I decided to finally order Merton’s bestselling autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain. It was the right thing to do. You should always trust a drunken pastor. Merton’s writings found me at a time when I was beginning to confront my own mental busyness, learning to let go of thinking I could outthink situations that could not be outthought, which is a lot of thinking about nothing. Merton, whose personality I deeply identified with, helped me feel less lonely in my struggles; but more than that, his writings about monasticism and his life at the Abbey of Gethsemani just south of Louisville, Kentucky, brought something of a reprieve to my own mental chaos. I remember a friend asking me why I was so obsessed with The Sign of Jonas, Merton’s spiritual log five years into monkhood. I responded, “His monastic life at the abbey helps me to come up for air.” Merton was by no means my salvation; but, he became my contemplative guide. Though Merton would surely scoff at my making of a pilgrimage out of his life, I began swinging by the Abbey of Gethsemani when I was near Louisville, spending an hour or two on the abbey grounds as if to walk in his footsteps. This ultimately led me to another monk at the abbey named Brother Paul Quenon.

About two years ago on my first silent retreat to the abbey, I wrote a letter to Brother Paul about my love for Merton, and he kindly agreed to take me to Merton's hermitage. I could not have been more excited to see the place where the works of my favorite author were written. Brother Paul fetched me from my room one morning, and we began our hike to the hermitage.

Brother Paul’s arrival in my life, like Merton’s years before, was perfectly timed. On retreat, I spent a large amount of time wrestling with my ego, confronting my angst in relation to my struggle to publish my first book. Little did Brother Paul know, he knocked on my door a good forty-eight exhausting hours into this wrestling match! There’s definitely a fine line between healthy introspection and obsession. While walking through the woods to the hermitage, Brother Paul shared that Merton (known to the monks as Father Louis) served as his spiritual director. This surprised me; Merton died in the late 1960s, and Brother Paul didn't look a day over fifty. Brother Paul went onto explain that he had been a