Book Excerpts

“Don’t Tell Me Who I Am Yet. It Is Still Being Spelled Out”

‘For all its obligations and demands, its idealism and elaborations, monastic life is a way of entering into the cosmic dance,’ Trappist monk Paul Quenon writes in his memoir, In Praise of the Useless Life. The monk’s life being counterintuitively ‘useless’ in this way – something his mentor Thomas Merton taught him – is Quenon’s starting point for crafting a memoir that pays attention to the simple minutiae of the contemplative’s daily life. The passage below is taken from the chapter ‘Nature, My Guru’, in which he details his relationship with nature and how nature has taught him the great lesson of change and impermanence. 

Instructed by Change

With all this immersion in sense objects, what about “the dark night of the senses”—what the Spanish mystics designate an essential stage of spiritual progress? Specifically, such progress brings detachment from the senses in order to free the heart for what is inward and beyond sense. No doubt, this is required to become centered and reoriented. There are times when closing the eyes and dwelling in the heart is sufficient, true, and necessary. But often, after a stretch of meditation, I find the voice of a bird or the sweep of the wind invites me and reminds me that bliss in life is not all mine. Detachment from sense and from particular objects, paradoxically, frees my mind to become acutely aware of what nature and the senses have to tell me; I become attuned to my body in a deeper way. 

Nature itself cultivates detachment by its very destructibility. Change is intrinsic to matter; I can simply slow down and witness change as a lesson in life. There is small chance of attachment where nothing long endures. The face of the most idyllic mornings fades. Even the sheer paradise of a Kentucky spring leaves me dissatisfied. The heart instinctively knows this is not sufficient. It chafes for something more. 

To call it “desolation” may be too dramatic. Wonders of the world declare, “We are not enough.” The best I can do is to take things as they are and leave them at that. The changing day and the daily community schedule reinforce this natural training. Being ordinary is a way to be true. To get up at the call of the bell to choir means I release one thing and prepare myself for another. Such change comes as a relief as much as a demand, and again, to leave choir and go to work is a relief. 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; even ideas of my spiritual progress fall by the wayside in behalf of the matter at hand. Could it be as simple as this, what Jesus meant when he said, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand”? 

Living at the Natural Pace

 A friend once said, “l 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. That does not usually prove very interesting to me, let alone to other people. Yet it is of irreducible value. I like the lines of Emily Dickinson: 

Growth of Man — like Growth of Nature,
Gravitates within.

Atmosphere, and sun endorse it—
But it stir— alone.

Each its difficult Ideal
Must achieve — Itself—
Through the solitary prowess

Of a silent life. 

That is about as fine an expression of good old Trappist spirituality as I can imagine. It has the tone and grit of how Dom James Fox preached in his chapter talks on perseverance. He sometimes used the same word my mother used: “stick-to-it-iveness.” I was lucky to learn that word early in life. Dom James was the abbot for my first ten years in the monastery. He certainly practiced what he preached, and perhaps overdid it at times. Today we could use more of the virtue of this vice. 

At least it is a vice if taken for raw willpower. As a virtue, it is a natural instinct bequeathed by nature itself. It is a yielding to life, to the Spirit operating in a hidden, undramatic way, and to the operation of grace. Even though nothing appears to be happening, something is. It means long, patient abiding in the poverty of the present moment, without making great claims concerning it. Something much bigger, indeed, is at work all the time. To take stock and measure it is to diminish it. To define it yields a fiction—it cannot be objectified. At best, I may name it, rather than define it, since a name comes closer to mystery, for who knows what is in a name? 

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. Don’t tell me who I am yet. It is still being spelled out. 

Paul Quenon
From: In Praise of the Useless Life, A Monk’s Memoir

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