In Praise of the Useless Life: A Monk’s Memoir
by Paul Quenon, OCSO
Nestled in the rolling hills of Kentucky, a group of men live “useless” lives. The Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani
was made famous by Thomas Merton. Now, in his 60th year as a monk, one of Merton’s novices shares his reflections in this unusual memoir (Ave Maria Press, 2018
Much like the rhythms of monastic life are designed to sanctify time, this work has a pitch and roll, ebb and flow as it considers the dance of life lived in the midst of the ordinary, even mundane – prayer, labour, and prayer again, cycling through the days and seasons. Quenon is a poet
, and examples of his work are strewn throughout. It is a poet’s brand of luminous attention to the tiny details that makes up this monk’s life: the particular qualities of birdsong, the growth of beloved trees. It reminds me of the words of another poet, Mary Oliver
“Instructions for living a life.
Tell about it.”
Fans of Thomas Merton will enjoy Quenon’s memories of the Abbey’s most famous resident. He was even the caretaker of Merton’s famous hermitage for a time. But in a world fraught with noise and nonsense, the most life-giving aspect of this work may be its ability to draw the reader into their own state of contemplation. As Quenon writes about the unfolding of his life as a process of becoming the man God dreamed him up to be from the beginning, we learn about our ourselves in the process. What we find there may surprise us; perhaps things we once thought of as “useless” are really the most essential of all.
“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. It is a name that cannot be pronounced until the end of life. That pronunciation, I suggest, is what is meant by ‘the judgment’. Judgment is the clarification and truth of each person. I am.
“I am what I live out. Don’t tell me who I am yet. It is still being spelled out” (p. 52).