This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Merton.
Merton (1915-1968) was a writer, contemplative, mystic, social activist, artist, photographer, and Trappist monk at The Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani not far from Louisville, Kentucky.
Despite living in a cloistered monastery – eventually living by himself in a small building called The Hermitage about a mile form the monastery – his influence extended around the world…and continues to this day.
We were going to wait until the exact day of Merton’s birth [January 31] to post this interview; however, what Brother Paul Quenon, a former student of Merton’s, had to say couldn’t wait any longer.
NOTE: This interview with Br. Paul [BPQ] was conducted by The Only Love Project’s Bill Murphy [BM] on October 28, 2014, at the Abbey. All photographs (except for the Merton book cover, the Casey book cover, and the photo of Father Louis) were taken by Bill.
BM: Please tell us your background. What would you like others to know about you?
BPQ: Oh, well, I am a monk, and I have been here [at the Abbey] most of my life. I love singing, and I do pretty well at that — get a lot of energy out of choir — and I like to read and read pretty broadly, and do a little bit of writing. I don’t write whole lot, but I have published six books of poetry, yeah, then produced a few anthologies, so I think some influence from Father Louis could be seen there. I refer to Thomas Merton as Father Louis because that was his name here in the monastery, so you will just have to bear with my habits.
BM: That’s great.
BPQ: And I cook and love being outdoors, and if I can’t be outdoors I will just open the window and let all the air come in and take the screen off.
BM: What brought you here to begin with?
BPQ: Well, I came here when I was 17 years old. I went to a Catholic school and that was preparation to some extent, although I had no interest in a vocation until the last year in high school. I read some of The Seven Storey Mountain and began to pray at that time. You are expected to go to church when you go to a Catholic school. It’s just part of the package, but at that time it became personal. Prayer became personal when I started reading The Imitation of Christ which is a spiritual classic of the 14th, 15th century. Then I read Thomas Merton, and I thought, whoa, monastic life, that’s where I can really live close to God.
BPQ: So that’s what got me started towards the monastery. I had no expectation in advance of having Father Louis as my novice master but that’s what happened.
BM: So you have been here 55 years – I think I read a little bio of you on the back of something, a DVD or something of the sort.
BM: Says you were born in 1940?
BM: Says you are the cook here.
BPQ: Uh-huh. I have been cooking about 35 years now.
BM: (Laughs) How do you know if you are good at it or not? Is there a way to tell?
BM: How many people live here?
BPQ: Well, right now the dining room has 38. Of course, we cook for the guests, too, so that might be another 65 or 70 if you include the workers.
BM: (Laughs) So this next question that I would normally ask people from all walks of life –
BPQ: I am not normal.
BM: Would you consider yourself a spiritual person?
BPQ: Oh, God help me. (Laughs) If I go around telling people I am spiritual, this is a disaster. (Both laugh.) No, please. What do you mean by spiritual anyhow?
BM: That’s a good question.
BPQ: Yeah. Well, I guess it’s like my mother after I was, you know – I was already in my habit, and she came to visit and she said, “Do you have faith?” And I thought; would I even be here if I didn’t have faith? Or would I not be spiritual – would I be here if I wasn’t spiritual? So I suppose if you like tags like that, which I don’t like, you can say that’s more or less true.
BPQ: I am also carnal.
BM: Most religious traditions speak of the power and value of love, for example, the Dhammapada tells us: “Only love dispels hate.” The Bible tells us, “A new commandment I give to you that you love one another.” What, if anything, do those words mean to you?
BPQ: Well, they mean everything. These big statements always defeat me. I want to crawl under the bench when I hear somebody say something big like that. I say it’s too much to answer. (Both laugh.) But I mean that’s the God life that we live in. We live, move, and have our being in everything, and it’s a dynamic that is working on us whether we are reflecting on it or not. I think it’s true. If you love you are not going to want to hate. It’s just not going to be compatible. It’s not always easy, but, you know, we are not doing it solely by ourselves. It’s Love that loves us, and so in the process of Love loving me I am given all the help in time and eternity to get there — to get to love.
BM: What role can love play in the world today?
BPQ: Well, what role? I don’t think in terms of roles. A role is just a part, whereas love is the totality. Now supposing you can break it down to a this or a that or the other thing. I think what we need now is a – if you want to get kind of academic about it – we need a politics of forgiveness. I don’t know if anybody has suggested that– there must be somebody somewhere at a university writing a book on the politics of forgiveness, but if not, it’s high time for that. So that would be one aspect of love. We are trying to become one world. You know, not everybody is interested in becoming one world, and not everybody is interested even in Christian unity. My sister-in-law said why do that? She was quite happy to be Episcopalian and for me to be Catholic, but there is something in the universe that wants it. I grant that nature likes diversity, and recognize you can’t really have unity without also accommodating diversity. But somehow there is continual process of evolution towards unity that is going on – that’s going on in us.
BM: What would it look like, the politics of forgiveness? Explain that term. I like it.
BPQ: I like it too, but I haven’t thought it through very carefully. It seems to me like a necessary thing. The politics of forgiveness, I suppose you could take an example, South Africa after they had their – what did they call that program after –
BM: It wasn’t Apartheid, was it?
BPQ: After Apartheid, you know, then they had the Truth and Reconciliation program – but to me it seems reconciliation would have to start from the interior. It’s similar to Merton’s final talk in Bangkok [December 10, 1968]. He said we change the world by changing ourselves first. He was comparing monasticism with Marxism which initiates change on the external level. Change has to start with people, so what is required is a strong leadership of people who are forgiving. Plato said that the Republic can only be properly guided by philosophers, and the philosophers, as he imagined them, were very much like monks. They received long years of training in spiritual detachment, living ascetically, going through a training, and only then they were put in a position to be guardians of the Republic.
Well, I think you can change the world a lot if you have people who are spiritual guardians and have the inner resources. Someone like Dag Hammarskjöld is a prime example. Nobody hears about Dag Hammarskjöld anymore. The kids don’t know the name, but although he was Secretary General of the United Nations he was an amazing mystic. I mean, he read people like Ruysbroeck, The Imitation of Christ was always by his bedside, and a biography just came out recently by Roger Lipsy called Hammarskjöld: a Life. He’s a good example of somebody who could be a model of a new kind of a world, new kind of approach to leadership.
Of course, I don’t think we should start a theocracy, but on the other hand change needs to start from people, from the ground up, and alongside that it needs the right kind of leader. Some inspiration, someone who is not necessarily going to be holding a particular office, but possibly somebody like the peace activist Fr. John Dear who was just here last weekend. John Dear and the Catholic Worker writer Jim Forest were here together. They were giving a talk on Merton in Louisville and they would both say we just have to renounce war – period. John Dear is very radical. I mean, to him there is to be no war making whatsoever. There is no justification whatsoever. However I don’t know what exact nuances Jim Forest would put on that. Jim was a Catholic worker in the ‘60s and knew Merton, so he is very much in the spirit of Merton. Did you get to go the Louisville talks? [“Pursuing the Spiritual Roots of Protest – 1964-2014”]
BM: No. That was happening just the week before I arrived, I believe, or the weekend before, even.
BPQ: That was the weekend, yeah. It was last Saturday and they came down here on Sunday to visit the monastery.
BM: Were you there?
BPQ: No. I didn’t go into Louisville, but they came out here.
BM: They came to you. (Both laugh.)
BPQ: Yeah. Well, no, they came to the monastery and to Mass, and to see Br. Patrick [Hart]. I got to have lunch with them. Then Jim Forest stayed on and he talked with our Thomas Merton group of neighbors that meets here once a month. It was just a happy chance that he was here, and it was a wonderful session.
BM: So what stops people from being more loving and compassionate?
BPQ: Oh, fear. We were talking about precisely that with Jim Forest and he said, as in Merton’s amazing essay, “The Root of War is Fear.” People have to overcome fear, but then we must answer the question what causes fear? There can be a whole slew of answers to that one. People are afraid they are going to lose their possessions. You know, as St. James said in the Letter of James, you have wars because you have greed. You are afraid of losing — that is one answer. Merton’s essay was originally published in Seeds of Contemplation. An expanded version appeared in The Catholic Worker, Dorothy Day’s magazine, and there he talks a bit about projection; how we thrust upon another person the darkness that is inside ourselves; and we are not willing to face what’s wrong with ourselves and we put it all out there on somebody else. You can get as well a collective psychology, a mentality, with the whole country operating that way and the media will tend to incite that.
BM: Oh, yeah.
BPQ: That is what Jim Forest was saying here emphatically. He’s been living in Holland, and compared the media in Holland to the United States. He was horrified. He said just all this flush, flood of sewage that is coming out from – I mean, he got really quite choleric about the whole thing.
BM: It’s true.
BPQ: Yeah. Well, fortunately I am protected from that here. I mean, we get a newspaper, the Courier Journal of Louisville, and journals are put out. Likewise you can find stuff on the web to look at, but I don’t have to endure too much of that.
BM: You are lucky. You are fortunate.
BPQ: But I can easily believe that is what is going on from the little bit I see.
BM: Do you have recommendations regarding how someone might cultivate a spirit of love over the long term but also put love into action right now so that he or she can make a positive difference right away?
BPQ: Well, the second part answers the first part — by putting things into practice right now you prepare a long time effect.
BPQ: Well, so how can you do that? How do you develop that capacity? Well, I think prayer. I think prayer is the starting point. You know, the fact of the matter is you don’t really have much a capacity for any of this. Maybe you don’t have any capacity. You might have some capacity. We might have learned to love if we had a decent family — and not everybody has had a decent family for that matter. It always amazes me how some friends I know and you hear them talking about their parents and you wonder how did they ever survive? They are really good guys, nevertheless. They got faith in spite of it all. (Both laugh.) Whereas, another family like my own — we had very good parents and my three brothers and two sisters just lost their faith and walked out on the church. So it’s a very strange thing. But I think what’s at the crux of it all is prayer. If you can’t hack it, pray. And that is probably the last thing a lot of people want to do is pray, but you are not going to get anywhere without that.
BM: What about people who –
BPQ: I think you have to pray that you can pray.
BM: What if people are atheist or agnostics or whatever? What do you recommend they pray about then?
BPQ: Right, yeah. How can you ask them to? I think of my oldest brother, he – well, he goes to the Unitarian church, but he kind of went into it with a social agenda rather than a spiritual agenda as far as I know. He wants to be open minded. He is very open minded, but I have never tried to – you can’t really talk religion with your own relatives. (Both laugh.) It’s a mistake to do that unless they want to do that.
BPQ: Otherwise, I can’t answer you. How would you tell a – I think most atheists, they are good people.
BPQ: And they don’t see any point in prayer, any distinction. They’ll say they don’t need religion. I can be a good person without God.
BPQ: Why bring God into it? As my niece once said: “Why bring God into it”, and I could have said why leave God out? Mine is a whole different perspective on the God issue: a fish might talk to another fish and say I keep hearing about the ocean but where is this ocean?
BPQ: He will say I can’t see the ocean. Of course, you can’t see the ocean. You are totally surrounded by it, but you don’t see it. Well, that is the way God is. God is with us all the time. I have been reading lots of Ibn Arabi lately. He’s a 12th – 13th century Muslim Sufi mystic, and he says: “I wish I knew who is ignorant, since there is nothing there but God. Each knows what he does not know, then comes to know it.” In a sense we already know God. Like he said, everywhere you turn you see God.
BM: I do and you do but somehow other people don’t.
BPQ: No, so they must probe their own consciousness, not just their conscience but their consciousness, and conscience is a part of that. People know what they don’t reflectively know. Many people don’t realize what they already implicitly know, and they never turn to reflect on that deeper level of consciousness which is precognitive, implicit and constant. St. Augustine makes his distinction between cognitio and cogitatio. Cognitio is knowledge, and cogitatio is reflection. You always know God because God is truth, being, but you have to reflect on what you know — to can have thoughts about that, and some people never take time to get around to those thoughts.
BM: No, and some people intentionally keep those thoughts at bay.
BPQ: Maybe they just don’t want to come to terms with their own conscience.
BPQ: Well, why not because there fear is there, too.
BM: Yeah. That is an excellent answer. Who do you look up to most when you think of the power of love?
BPQ: Well, Christ. That’s the nice thing about being in the monastery. You have constant exposure. I mean, there is Mass every day. You have the gospel being read. There is stuff you read in scripture. It’s just a kind of a stream. It all easily becomes over – familiar until you get to the point where it starts coming back in a fresh way. After all these years it’s like – it’s always surprising to me. I had gotten so familiar it stopped being surprising, and then all of a sudden I start finding out there is an awful lot that is surprising about it, things I just didn’t think about, things I wasn’t looking at yet. I began to look around the corners and read between the lines and ask the questions that are maybe a little bit impish to ask, and then began thinking what these particular words meant to me today.
So all of this is a big part of my, what you might call, contemplative life — maybe in the sense of meditation and reflection. For instance, this morning we have the gospel about Jesus choosing the apostles. He spends the night on the mountain and then the Gospel goes through the list of names of the apostles he picked. So what is significant about that? Well, you know, the apostleship is about persons. The foundation of the church is not about offices, it’s about persons, and Jesus had this direct one-on-one relationship with these persons. That’s where the mission all comes from, and that is what it goes back to. Such was my little meditation this morning.
BM: That reminds me of one of the things that I read from Father Louis. It was from his last speech in Bangkok that you mentioned earlier. He said, “the whole purpose of the monastic life is to teach men to live by love.” Is that a fair statement?
BPQ: Uh-huh. There you are. That’s just what you were looking for.
BM: Would you agree with that?
BPQ: Oh, absolutely. The Cistercian Fathers called the monastic life “The School of Charity”.
BM: How does it get then – let’s say that’s true, and I am not going to disagree with it – how does it get outside the monastery if that’s what this is?
BPQ: Well, I think what everybody wants is to live by love, but they don’t understand what love is. I mean, they identify it with this or that, you know, I love my wife or – my experience of love has been with this or that person, maybe my parents, maybe not my parents. So they are too much restricted by their own individual experience of love at some particular high points in their life. Indeed, everybody has to have those. But then you also have to expand beyond that. Don’t keep trying to go back to experiences of love you have had but generate love and expand love and find more of it. If you don’t find – you know, St. John of the Cross says if you don’t find love, love and then you will find love.
BPQ: A lot of people are trying to find love, but they are not going to the source and that brings me back to prayer. I think you have to – that’s what prayer is. You are going back to the source. I remember telling myself that when I discovered prayer, I said, love is always there. You don’t have to depend on anybody. Love is – the source of it, love is always imminent. It’s present and just I should stay close to that . . . and that’s why I came to the monastery.
BM: Because you could always be present and have it imminent?
BM: Let’s say that Father Louis is correct and the whole purpose of the monastery is to teach men to love. How do you guys get it outside of this place?
BPQ: Well, there is any number of ways it happens. Now and then maybe you get some bright guy that can write books like Thomas Merton. (Both laugh.) And then you got this milieu itself. You got a matrix where this love is generated and it’s there. It shines. I mean, it somehow takes care of itself. It’s going to radiate one way or the other. I like to use this saying, “what you whisper in the chamber gets preached from the housetop.” Whether you are the one doing the preaching or not, it still gets preached from the housetop. You know, and I know that from experience. All the dirty little secrets that go on in the church get preached to the housetop. There is a lot of that lately. But likewise all the good things, the really beautiful things, that also gets preached from the housetop, and it may be in several ways– it may get transferred from one mouth to another as a private process. Or we have bright guys that come along and articulate like St. Bernard, Thomas Keating, Basil Pennington, Michael Casey – he’s the man of the hour.
BM: Oh, really?
BPQ: Australian, Cistercian writer. He’s the real thing. He’s the real deal for our times.
BM: Australian and Cistercian, and I am not familiar with Michael Casey.
BPQ: He’s becoming a better writer all the time. He’s probably up in his late 70s by now I think.
BM: Which one of his writings would you recommend I read to get a grasp of what he is?
BM: I will. Thank you.
BPQ: Another thing I tell people is that our monastery is like the city built on the hill. You don’t have to have somebody coming out and telling you there is a light on the hill. You can see it from a distance. People come here. They join in our prayer. They stay here for a few days. We have the big retreat house. They pick up a sense of the place. I mean, sometimes they will pick it up when they hit the edge of the property. It’s a funny thing, but, you know, there is something about the atmosphere of prayer that is contagious. It communicates itself whether anybody says anything or not about it. I have had so many people come here and say: when I get here I feel I’m at home. I keep hearing that.
BM: Well, I am really enjoying it. I can tell you that. It looks like the kind of place I would like to hang out.
BPQ: Well, come back. Sign up for a retreat and spend a few days.
BM: Tell me about your relationship with Father Louis. What was he like as a novice master?
BPQ: Oh, well, he was great. He was very energetic and witty and open, and I found him as somebody I could confide in – somebody that I had confidence in. He wasn’t like being “Father Master.” He was the novice master, but did not make a big deal out of being a “father figure,” even though I was young. He related to me as an equal, and that was very reassuring, actually. He was always interesting and he gave conferences two or three times a week, and would also go out to the forest to work with us. He was a pretty good worker. I mean, he had a lot of – actually, for all his bad health he seemed to have a lot of strength, more strength than some of the young guys did.
BM: I wasn’t aware that he had bad health, in general. There was something with his back, though, I think.
BPQ: Back. Back was bad. But it got worse as he got older and then he had digestive problems. He had to be on a special diet.
BM: Oh, really. I didn’t know that.
BM: So he overcame all of those things and was still outgoing and happy and energetic?
BPQ: Yeah, I’d say, but then he was also protective of his time. Here he was trying to write — and then also protective of his prayer time. I mean, he would go out once a week and spend time in the woods and – well, you just didn’t try to interfere with that, you know. Kept your distance from that.
BM: Do you have anything to add that I haven’t asked?
BPQ: Oh, well, I think I probably added too much already.
A special thank you to Brother Paul Quenon for his time and patience, and to Saij for her wonderful transcription of our conversation.