I want to follow up an inspirational reflection I wrote a few days ago with one more look at the PBS interview of my friend, Brother Paul, of the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. He may be an old monk, but he brings a refreshing wisdom to me and, hopefully, to all of us “living in the world.” The Trappist monastery, of which he is a member, is a contemplative monastery, but that does not mean one has to be a monk to be a contemplative. Let’s explore this a bit.
I know Br. Paul has slept outside for a couple decades. The interviewer, Judy Valente, begins her interview with this fact. She opens with these sentences. “The lumber shed at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Northern Kentucky. It’s late February. Each night at 8:00 Brother Paul Quenon walks to the shed, as he has every night for 20 years. He goes around back, where he finds his mattress. This is where he will sleep---outdoors, no matter the weather.” Is he crazy, might be the response most of us would have! Of course, many would think he is crazy even to become a monk.
I must admit that I have both an admiration and fascination with the monastic life and with Br. Paul’s approach. I like his response to sleeping outside in the Kentucky night. He says, “I can’t be a full-time hermit, but I can be a night-time hermit, and there’s something about waking up in the middle of the night, and there’s nobody around. There’s a kind of an edge of solitude that you can’t experience in any other way.”
I am drawn to and slightly wary of that phrase, “edge of solitude.” I am introverted enough to enjoy being alone. But being alone is not necessarily the same as solitude. I like being alone, but I know at any moment I can go find people and not be alone. I think solitude is another order of “aloneness.” In solitude there is just me---naked, vulnerable, and much more. I think you have to be spiritual to manage solitude. Or at least, you have to want to be spiritual.
Solitude is an ingredient in becoming spiritual. And it clearly is a part of the process of becoming a contemplative---that is, one who contemplates. That was the quest that led Br. Paul to the monastery. And he chose the one where Thomas Merton was living. Merton was an encourager of Br. Paul’s. “Merton said monks and poets are people who live on the margins of society.” For some reason that appealed to Br. Paul, so he “decided to be both.” As he said, “monks and poets remind us to pay attention to the world around us, to focus on what’s essential.”
This is a good insight to me, since I am neither a monk nor a poet. But I also know that you don’t have to be either to pay attention to the world around us. I can join monks and poets in focusing on what’s essential. That sounds so simple---and probably it is. But it is not easy. In the first place, I am not sure I know “what’s essential.” I know much of what I think and do is clearly not essential. Some of my life is too frivolous. Too much of what I deem important obviously is not essential. I know I can live without it. I know I have much to learn.
So I turn to wise people like Br. Paul. He has much to teach, but he won’t drag me into a classroom. Instead we are more likely to go for a walk or to sit near his mattress next to the lumber shed. In lieu of a lecture, more likely he will share some poetry. He says that “poetry is the language of the heart, and it’s the language of the imagination, and so the mind abides in silence.” There I come up short. He has brought us through poetry into the heart and the imagination and straight into silence. Silence is coupled with solitude.
He continues. “Contemplation is an abiding in silence, and what comes out of silence are words of the heart, words of love.” Typing these words leaves me nearly spiritually breathless. To be a contemplative is to be able to abide in silence. This enables us to pay attention. Out of the silence come words of the heart. Ugh, I wonder, how many words of the heart have I uttered today? Not many, I suspect. My words are more like babble!
I want to learn how to speak words of love. Oh, not the Hollywood version of love words---not movie-versions. I want to speak words of love born deep in the heart, crafted at the altar of the Spirit. Br. Paul’s final words to me help immensely. He tells me “when the heart is really full, the mouth goes silent.”