In Praise of the Useless Life: A Monk’s Memoir
By Paul Quenon
Ave Maria Press, April 2018, 142 pp.
Reviewed by Charles Halton
The day Trappist brother Paul Quenon took his solemn vows, Thomas Merton told him: “Vows are useless.” Quenon was not surprised because for months Merton had taught the novices that the entire monastic life is useless.
A life centered around prayer and baking fruitcakes (one of the main sources of revenue for the Abbey of Gethsemani) might seem, well, rather odd. Possibly it sounds frivolous, too. In a world of space travel and artificial intelligence, not to mention environmental degradation and extreme poverty, why would someone pledge their lives to a community of celibate confectioners who repeatedly interrupt their work to petition the divine eight times a day? Shouldn’t these able-bodied men be out in the world doing something?
The monks are doing something, though. They spend their lives in the hills of central Kentucky turning the world upside down. Day after day, year by year, they empty themselves of things that could impede their embrace of the divine. Quenon says that the monastic life is a permanent vacation. It is a vacating, a process of getting rid of clutter to make room for God. A life of poverty hopefully helps one let go of greed. A life of stability, of attachment to a particular place, dispenses with frenetic movement and restlessness. A life of solitude puts aside distraction and enables a person to come to know themselves. All of this removing, this radical act of vacating, creates space for spiritual life that is human at its core.
Merton understood that even though monastic life is filled with rituals and obligations, it is primarily a way of entering what he termed the cosmic dance. That requires freedom. Freedom from structures that makes sense to the global economy. A monk must embrace a pattern of existence that seems absurd and without value to those on the outside.
Shortly after coming to the abbey, Quenon heard that Thomas Merton gave Rorschach tests to some of the monks. Quenon asked Merton to show him the inkblots. Merton reluctantly agreed and at the end of the test Merton diagnosed Quenon as a man who held himself back and repressed things. Merton went on to explain that the problem with people today was not, as Freud said, that they repressed their sexual instincts, rather that folks repress their spiritual selves and stifle their instinct for the divine. One of the keys to unlocking our spirits, Merton thought, was fully embracing our humanness and being attentive to ourselves and our surroundings.
One of the ways Quenon cultivates this attention is by sleeping outdoors. He lays on the lumber shed’s porch or drags a mattress out into the lawn and listens to the birds sing, the crickets chirp, and the coyotes howl as he falls asleep. When the weather is bad, Brother Paul summons his courage for what he knows will be a difficult night. When the weather is good, he sees a sky full of stars when he first opens his eyes. Both of these situations, nights of cold, slanting rain and crisp, clear nocturnes, have their benefits. The nights of endurance cultivate discipline and heighten his appreciation for the moments of temperate beauty that provoke praise of the Creator.
Sleeping outside is not a curiosity for Quenon, nor is it an eccentric quirk. It is a way he cultivates attention and communion with the natural world. Over the twenty-five years he has spent near the lumber shed, he has come to an intimate knowledge of the life that surrounds the monastery. He recognizes individual birds by their calls and has given each of them names. He meditates outside, too. Part of this is practical. Quenon has a tendency of falling asleep if he sits in a warm and comfortable church. The other part is that, if one is attentive, the trees can be spiritual teachers. Surrounded by them, Quenon cannot help but detaching from himself and marveling at their patience and vulnerability. Any day someone could come along and chop them down. In spite of this, the trees silently grow.
Not all the monks share Quenon’s regard for nature. When Brother Paul first arrived at the abbey, the guestmaster told him the contemplative life was not a matter of sitting under a shade tree. More than half a century later, Quenon thinks back to this encounter and observes: “The good priest had a point, no doubt, but eventually he left the community and I am still here sitting under shade trees.”
However, life for Brother Paul extends beyond sleeping outdoors and meditating under trees. He composes poetry, has cooked the community meals, takes pictures, and for a while was Merton’s underground publisher. During his temporary vows, Quenon operated the mimeograph machine. He made stencils of the materials Merton used for classes as well as his famous Cold War Letters. Quenon saw Merton’s thoughts develop in the copies he made, and Quenon continued to make them even when Merton wrote about topics the abbot general had forbidden for wider publication. Quenon still keeps Merton’s memory alive as the keeper of the key to Merton’s hermitage. He leads politicians, writers, and buddhist monks on short pilgrimages to the place Merton petitioned and cajoled the abbot to allow. The Cistercian order did not always allow monks to live apart from the rest of the community. It was because of Merton’s insistence that it became an accepted practice.
It is common for fans of Merton to speculate about what Merton’s life would have been like had he not died prematurely. Would he have become a buddhist or left Kentucky and settled somewhere in Asia? As I read Quenon’s memoir, I thought Brother Paul is a good possible model of how Merton might have been in later life. This is not entirely fair to Quenon. He is his own person, a man with his own thoughts and concerns. Yet, Quenon says:
At this point in my life, it is hard to untangle which strands of spirituality are [Thomas Merton’s] and which are my own. On every side he inspired an attitude of openness, inclusiveness, and integration. He taught from a mind that was open to God and that accepts every person, with a heart willing to penetrate other minds and hearts and to identify with something he found there. This disposition happily brings about an enhancement of one’s own experience of life, and that increased experience of life increases empathy for other people.
As I imagine it, had Merton not died at the age of 53 he would have remained in the hermitage that he built with his own hands, hosting reading groups on its porch, writing letters to people far and wide, traveling now and then, and joining his brothers for prayer.
In fact, I think Merton is still there among the Kentucky knobs. I can see him sitting beneath a shade tree, shoulder to shoulder with Brother Paul. The two of them silent but together. Occasionally, Merton points to a bird in the distance. He asks Quenon to remind him of its name. Brother Paul tells him, Merton nods, and they go back to their meditations. They go back to vacating themselves of the things that would keep them from God. They are open and accessible, always waiting for the divine to find them, always attentive to the world and praying for its peace.
A life like that is hardly worthless. It is worth everything. And thanks to Quenon’s new memoir, we get a taste of it.