Work and play: The life of a Trappist monk

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Br. Paul Quenon
Brother Paul Quenon is a Trappist monk. Courtesy photo

For every monk or nun, life in the monastery is different. In my own experience, I could say it is a combination of work and play. First of all it is the work of God, which is the Divine Office in the Church. But that is also the play of God, which is the music, poetry and psalms sung every day. Then there is the work of manual labor — a way of praying with hands and skill. That, too, is play, for it is healthy exercise and collaboration with others. The whole burden of work in the monastery does not rest on my own shoulders; our shared endeavor makes for light work and happy hearts.

There is also the interior work of prayer and contemplation. St. Gregory the Great called it “a great effort of the mind when it lifts itself up to heavenly things.” But he also called it “a wrestle, where it now comes uppermost when by intellect and feeling one tastes somewhat of the unencompassed light, by stealth and scantily.” Straightway one falls underneath when “by that very tasting one faints away.” As wrestling is a form of sport, there is an inner contest with God. There is also an inner dance when joy and wonder open up the heart.

Life brings upper moments and downers, but for a stable, mature monastic life, there is mostly perseverance on a level road that verges on boredom but is the simple route to God’s own simplicity. As I said in my memoir, “In Praise of the Useless Life”: “The daily routine of the monastery eventually levels you to the plateau of your ordinariness. There the Word become flesh meets me, precisely where I feel the ache of being human.”

The Word of God spoken and read is present throughout the day as a constant rhythm. That can be work at times, as in study, sometimes play, as in poetry, literature and fine spiritual writing. Lectio divina is exploration and adventure, yes, but it is also a digging and a deepening. Local newspapers are available to us, as wells as national magazines of many fields of interest for expanding the mind. For focus there is a large library of serious reading in Scripture, theology, patristics and philosophy, to name a few.

How one uses this depends on one’s personal resources, but formal guidance and formation is provided by the novice master and the superiors to bring one to use one’s own resources. The primary formation is the example of other monks and the conferences and sermons where priests and brothers share something of their own realizations of truth and freedom in the Gospel.

In my vocation and all walks of life, friendship is expressed by listening. Listening to others — whether in formal settings in church or in informal settings in the workroom, classroom or dialogue — is a fundamental way of being present to others. What we can give one another is attention. It is an implicit form of friendship, one that is not intrusive yet is inclusive. It respects the solitude of others, and this respect is one of the best gifts we can give to one another.

Friendships work best in the monastery when they are low key and implicit. We live in the same space and follow the same schedule day after day. That life in community is in itself a bond of understanding, a commonality that obviates much need to explain myself to others under the same roof. When friendship is real, it happens on its own, and one need not go seeking it. If one is rooted in oneself and in God, it can happen in the right measure. Solitude makes friendship possible, and friendship guards against isolation and self-preoccupation. Most exchanges take place at the workplace where the same people are together. Shared interests can bring people together, like history, sports, literature, music, whatever. But the rule of thumb in the monastery is that silence is to be preferred.

Solitude figures large in our kind of life. It is part of what we come seeking. But isolation is not true solitude, and the daily contacts balance out solitude. Private cells, the quiet church, the stretches of field and forest — these places provide a refuge. Our goal is to pray constantly, in the many ways that can happen within a day. In the background one may develop a sense that somehow God is playing with us.

Brother Paul Quenon is a Trappist monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky.