In Praise of the Useless Life: A Monk’s Memoir
Paul Quenon, O.C.S.O.
If one is looking for a guide to explain contemporary monasticism, Br. Paul Quenon offers the strongest of résumés. He is, for example, the embodiment of Trappist stability, having been a monk at Kentucky’s Abbey of Gethesemani for 60 years. As a novice he studied under none other than Thomas Merton. Br. Paul is also well published, receiving such accolades as “Best Spiritual Book of the Year” for his work. Beyond these facts, he is adept at painting a verbal picture. In the pages of this book, for example, we see the darkened Gethsemani church as the monastic choir prays Vigils at 3:15 am, an Office that the community has honored every day since its founding in 1848. Moreover, he portrays a modern Cistercian community respecting its centuries-old practice of “Ora et Labora” (prayer and work).
And yet Br. Paul offers far more than a conventional depiction of monastic tradition. If, for instance, one’s principal interest centers on classic monastic conventions (e.g., the cowls, chants, and cells), Charles Cummings’ Monastic Practices may be the book one is looking for. Or, if one is searching for a deep-dive into monastic theology and the Cistercian charism,Andre Louf’s The Cistercian Way may be the best bet. In this volume Br. Paul is up to something different, and the reader should remember that “genre matters.” Where Louf and Cummings speak to the reader in their respective books, in this memoir we’re invited to eavesdrop a bit on Br. Paul’s inner dialogue. The reader is less an auditor and more an invited companion. We enter with Br. Paul, therefore, into solitude and walk with him as he searches to find—and to be found by—God.
Here is a sketch of monasticism rendered more by the soul of an artist than the mind of a university-trained theologian. Consider, for example, Br. Paul’s description of meditating while on retreat at Merton’s hermitage. “The place is alive. A gray lizard crawls with short stops along the sunlit edge of the porch. His serious angular head bears notions of impenetrable, ancestral memories of dinosaur days. . . . Living with such wee creatures invites the mind to enjoy an intimate sense of belonging. You have to set your mind to this intimacy with other wild and living things” (57).
Our stylized version of a monk might conjure a solemn figure standing in choir vested in a black scapular, and to be sure Br. Paul writes of the well-established monastic rites of reading scripture and praying the Psalms. But beyond those observable forms, his memoir reveals the personal side of monastic life where discernment also comes from Emily Dickinson’s poetry, ad lib haikus, Anton Bruckner’s concerti, the life and death of trees, and an occasionally annoying mockingbird. Here is a monk engaged in liturgy—sometimes like a child at play and sometimes like a wrestler in a vigorous competition with the divine. Br. Paul confesses that he also contemplates by dancing in the rain, by sleeping outside year-round (irrespective of weather conditions), and by conversing with Nobel laureates. In other words, this memoir gives voice to what is imperceptible from a guest’s place in the back of the monastery’s church.
Br. Paul also expands our appreciation of monasticism by re-presenting traditional practices. Here, for instance, is a life ordered by the routine of Benedict’s Rule, and the pace of The Hours. Yet this is a life that liberates, and stretches the individual. Here is a life of persistent and unremitting solitude. Yet this is a solitude that builds and sustains community rather than imposing loneliness. Here is a life of deprivation where ascetic disciplines require, among other things, voluntary poverty, obedience that limits self-direction and autonomy, the sacrificing of family life, and relinquishing power and control over events and others. Yet this is a deprivation that opens new possibilities for life, satiating rather than impoverishing. If Br. Paul’s memoir creates some cognitive dissonance about what one imagined monasticism to be, one is likely getting the point.
Inasmuch as the memoir is about Br. Paul’s life and thought, it is also about his wonderfully eclectic community. Thus, throughout the pages Br. Paul names several valued Trappist colleagues from his decades at Gethsemani (e.g., abbots, mentors, confessors, and friends). On the one hand, he takes us to the most secluded places on the monastery grounds as monks experiment with a variety of hermitages. On the other hand, he recounts two world-class organists, Fr. Chrysogonus Waddell and Fr. Francis Kline, who practice for weeks only to perform recitals for no one in particular. “Theirs was an engagement in pure art!” Br. Paul explains. “They were playing for the sheer joy of playing, or doing something beautiful in the presence of God [and] the Blessed Sacrament” (18). And he tells of Fr. Matthew Kelty, who like Fr. Merton and Br. Paul, drives home one of the most scandalous attributes of the monastic life. The outside world may relentlessly interrogate monks about the relevance of their vocation, but such a line of questioning is, Kelty, Merton, and Quenon contend, irrelevant (or at least misses the point). Monks need prove neither the worth, utility, nor purpose of their vocation. In fact, the lack of a persuasive justification (i.e., the rejoinder that will answer the prosecutor’s query) is, ironically, part of the answer. “It’s bad enough that we make cheese and fruitcake for the Kingdom of God,” Fr. Matthew once counseled. “We do worse than that, we sing. We sing songs for the Kingdom—seven times a day—for ourselves and for the world. How practical?” Br. Paul likewise learned the apparent nonsense of monasticism early in his formation, for as Merton reminded him on the day Br. Paul took solemn vows, “vows are useless.” The peculiarities of the monastic life “serve no apparent purpose, other than the hidden marvel of being in God” (5). This truth has sustained his vocation for six decades, and Br. Paul concludes the volume with the plea that his memoir be “another form of prayer,” which, like “liturgy and labor” (ora et labora), may be “useless in the same way as choir, and as prayer and meditation” (132). Would that more lived, loved, danced, prayed, and contemplated their way into such uselessness.
Richard Goode is Professor of History at Lipscomb University. He also coordinates the Lipscomb Initiative for Education (LIFE) programs, which offers Lipscomb courses at Nashville area prisons and at Room in the Inn. He also enjoys research and writing, and has published three books with Will D. Campbell.