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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 at the abbey for nearly sixty years, having arrived at Gethsemani at seventeen. This put Brother Paul in his mid-seventies. “How do you look so young?” I laughed. “Singing,” he bluntly said. Trappist monks stand and sing in choir seven times a day.

We continued hiking up a hill through the woods, Brother Paul outpacing me, despite his age, and observantly pointing out different foliage, flowers, and trees along the way, to which I’d dumbly respond, “Oh, beautiful, splendid, cool, neat, green.” It was apparent to me that nature was where Brother Paul felt most at home. It was a gift from God for him to forever explore. He later told me he was the only monk who slept outside on a mattress each night. Being outside united him with the night, with nature, with liminality. We eventually stepped into a clearing, and there it was: Merton’s hermitage, that little white house in the woods. Brother Paul asked me how my retreat had been and what I was learning. I shared with him my publishing woes. He gently listened, with grace and non-judgment, then quoted to me an entire poem by his favorite poet, Emily Dickinson, beginning with “Publication – is the Auction / Of the Mind of Man –” and ending with “In the Parcel – Be the Merchant / Of the Heavenly Grace – / But reduce no Human Spirit / To Disgrace of Price." It was all he needed to say for me to get the point. Worldly constructs do not dictate the measure of our worth or the worth of our creations.

As we sat on the porch of Merton’s hermitage that day reading Merton’s journals and talking about life and God, which is Life, a friendship was born. I found myself deeply inspired by the hippie-like monk who slept outside. I was reminded of what I had told my friend many years before when I was asked why I liked The Sign of Jonas: “His monastic life at the abbey helps me to come up for air.” I felt the same way about Brother Paul; and I have felt similarly each opportunity I’ve had to spend time with Brother Paul since that wonderful day at the hermitage. The abbey has become a special place to me: not a place to escape the world but rather a place for me to rest and to learn so I can engage with the world more thoughtfully. Monastic living has something I believe we all deeply need. There is one book I've anticipated most this year: Brother Paul Quenon’s memoir In Praise of the Useless Life: A Monk’s Memoir, released April 13, 2018, published by Ave Maria Press. I enjoyed the book so much, I read it in three days.

Merton's writings about contemplation can sometimes be confusing and intimidating. However, there is a contagious freedom—a playful, joyous approach to life thriving in the profundity of detachment and simplicity—that rises from the pages of In Praise of the Useless Life, inspiring readers to integrate more monastic wisdom into their everyday lives. Brother Paul writes: “The monastic day provides a rhythm of change, a continual releasing, taking hold, and releasing. It is an exercise in detachment. Through it all I lose myself because I am not always in control, making the decisions…” Brother Paul’s free-flowing memoir, including entertaining stories from his near-six decades at the abbey, many with his spiritual director, the beloved Thomas Merton, did one thing more than anything for me: it inspired me to view Life through a contemplative lens, where all seems to be more vibrant and colorful. Through the theological Circle Dance (Chapter 1), through song (Chapter 2), through nature (Chapter 3), through poetry (Chapter 7), through life’s little annoyances, like a mockingbird that kept waking him up in the middle of the night (Chapter 8, my personal favorite chapter), and through unexpected visitors (Chapter 12).

I have heard that Brother Paul likes to swim in the abbey’s many ponds, and the entire book feels as if you’re swimming along with him—in the flow of life with him and with God. As he writes in the first chapter, “In all, I am carried along by a great dance, and I engage in the dance. And in the end, the dance and the dancer become one.” Brother Paul’s memoir has done for me what The Sign of Jonas did for me many years before: it has helped me come up for air. Yet, this time, not merely as a temporary reprieve; but, more so as a learning how to breathe each moment of every day. Though Brother Paul in his memoir naturally shares a collection of stories from his life at the abbey, with all his wit, knowledge, and theological depth, the book ultimately equips readers to breathe. It helps readers make contemplation less theoretical and more incarnational. There is, after all, nothing quite like coming up for air when the world makes you feel as though you’re drowning. Brother Paul writes, "To breathe often and deeply, to resonate subtly with sound, vibrates all the fibers and is bound to be healthy." While this excerpt is specifically related to engaging the body and the mind through song in the context of his memoir, it could not be more applicable to all of life. By Stephen Copeland

This post was first published on Photographs were taken on hikes with Brother Paul. Below are more wonderful quotes from In Praise of the Useless Life.


Quenon on Thomas Merton's approach to theology: "Fr. Louis had certain reservations about people who study theology thinking it will get them closer to God. He said it quite possibly could take you further away from God. He had a distaste for the neo-Scholastic style where 'everything is cut and dried, all laid out, A-B-C and Bam—you come to a conclusion,' as he put it. His interest was experience-based theology that retains the sense of mystery."

"When I first arrived at the monastery, the guestmaster told me that the contemplative life is not a matter of sitting under a shade tree. The good priest had a point, no doubt, but eventually he left the community and I am still here sitting under shade trees...Why not enjoy something given so freely for all?"

"A friend once said, 'I would love to get inside the head of a monk to see what your life is like.' I doubt anyone would want to stay inside my head for very long. Not much appears there in terms of spiritual excitement, let alone progress. At most, I live with a dim intuition, an implicit faith that something worthwhile is going on."

"Time, as I bear it daily, is weighted with eternity. The God who resists being named has a name for me. Throughout my time on earth, every day is a letter in the spelling out of that name for me: a slow revelation of who I am...I am what I live. Don't tell me who I am yet. It is still being spelled out."

"It is really something to wake up in the middle of the night and open one's eyes on the long banner of the galaxy, on that sheer abundance and distance. I wish more people could do this. It puts everything in perspective."

Quenon comparing faith to developing photographs in a darkroom: "The process still seems mysterious to me—sort of like the life of faith, developing the image of Christ within. You work mostly in the dark, by faith, and don't know what is going to appear on the page until the image slowly emerges. With attention, some agitation, and careful timing, the unseen emerges."

"My part is to remain open and abandoned to what God brings for me to live out. For this, simplicity is essential, and the simplest thing of all is to accept to be. That is the most elemental thing about my life, and to practice being is what meditation is. It is more than a practice: it is life at its core—to rest fully in being. And to be fully is the rest of life. To live and breathe every day is intrinsically a gift, one that spells itself out in action. Or misspells at times. When every step in the dance is taken and completed, it is the whole that holds the meaning, no one part only."

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