A priest I know, reflecting on roads not taken as he neared retirement, wondered if his life might have been better had he become a monk.
Indulging his curiosity, he secured permission to spend a season at a monastery out of state. The prospect of so much quiet and reflection seemed like a dream come true.
His expectations were quickly adjusted on his first day within the cloister, when he was awakened before dawn to go feed the chickens. Within days, he was back home, convinced that the life of a monk was not for him.
What he had learned is that a monk’s days aren’t only or even usually about sitting still and thinking great thoughts. A monastery, like the wider world beyond it, requires a lot of work to sustain it. It is surely true at St. Joseph Abbey in Covington, where, among other things, monks build beautiful caskets to support their ministry.
All of this came to mind the other day when a new book crossed my desk, Brother Paul Quenon’s “In Praise of the Useless Life.” Quenon is a monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, where the great spiritual thinker Thomas Merton once lived, and “Useless Life” is an account of Quenon’s days there.
Quenon is being playful in suggesting that a “useless life” is worthy of praise. He doesn’t mean that he or anyone else should avoid doing anything constructive. As readers learn, Quenon’s time at Gethsemani has been active — full of manual labor, office work, a music ministry, hosting visitors, writing and taking pictures.
His point, I think, is that a lot of the things society often considers useless, such as looking at trees, birds and sky, are what reminds us we’re human. It’s why a life of work also should be balanced by awareness of wonder.
Quenon’s message resonated with me because I’ve been writing lately about trying to bring a few pauses to my own life, which involves the usual challenges of career and family. In a column a couple of weeks ago, I touched on a resolution to appreciate the outdoors this spring — and not simply ignore it in the rush of errands and assignments. Last week’s column, in which I explored whether our online lives are numbing our sense of wonder, sounded a similar theme.
Maybe the biggest lesson of Quenon’s book is that we can’t simply wait for some quiet minutes of reflection and witness to work their way into our routine. Even in a monk’s life, such opportunities have to be actively sought out.
“The place is alive,” Quenon writes of his home at Gethsemani. “A gray lizard crawls with short stops along the sunlit edge of the porch. … You have to set your mind to this intimacy with other wild and living things.”
Would life be better if we all took time for such moments? Undoubtedly, it would be.