Book notes: Monastic life up close and personal

Book notes: Monastic life up close and personal

IN PRAISE OF THE USELESS LIFE is the memoir of Father Paul Quenon O.C.S.O., a Cistercian monk of Gethsemane Abbey, Kentucky. Since a memoir is a personal reflection of one’s life, not the whole of it but a look at important things, before I ever opened the pages of this book, I decided it deserved to be read with respect and attentiveness, with a deeply compassionate heart. 

It must take a great deal of courage to write one’s memoirs and to decide what must be included and what can easily be left out. Quenon has certainly given us a taste of what it is like to live one’s life fully present to God, to be held in love, and to live for love, during the whole of life.

As I opened the book the first words I read were “I AM on permanent vacation.” I thought immediately of the I AM of God in Exodus and Jesus’ sevenfold names for himself in the gospels, which reveal to us that Jesus is the Son of God. When Quenon writes “I AM,” he is revealing something of himself, who and what he essentially is. He explains that the monastic life is essentially a “vacating,” an emptying out of clutter to make room for God. Throughout this book one certainly senses that here is a man who loves his vocation and has found peace within himself.  

The monastic life is a quirky life, a “bit odd,” but if God calls one to live it, it’s a privileged life because the essential element of “vacating” as Quenon calls it, is the emptying of one’s hands in order to more fully receive. Quenon shares with readers something of his humanity, through his humor, his community, and the people he has had the good fortune to have met and been formed by. Through this memoir he allows the door of his heart to be opened, just a fraction, so that we can see and experience a creator who is so generous in love and mercy, that God wishes to shower us with every good gift. 

As we begin this holiday with Quenon, however, we learn that the monastic life requires teamwork, and the three essential elements of this are prayer, work, and reading. The paradox of being on a monastic “vacation” is that it requires a clear structure, boundaries, and an obedient heart! With a touch of humor Quenon compares monastic life to a ball game. Not unlike St. Paul in his analogy to the body, Quenon says all the players have to work in harmony with one another in order to reach the goal. He tantalizingly says if monastics are too wild or too rigid, the game can be spoiled, but “if you flow with the rules,” you can have a great game. 

It was here, I think, that I had hoped for an unpacking of the complexities of human nature, but I was frustratingly left at the top of a precipice. How instructive it could have been if Quenon had shared with us the way he learned to become a team player in the monastery, the rules of the game, or, better still, how he learned to tame his “wild card” and how he became more flexible with the rules. We each desire tools in order to “throw oneself into the freedom and play” of the game in order to reach that place of “inner poverty and emptiness” from which flows forth “wisdom and great joy.”

One’s life can become a psalm

The book continues with some very perceptive one liners about the monastic life, exploring why one should pray, wrestling or dancing with God, and through that experience, discovering one’s identity in God. Tasko help us understand what has sustained him on his journey, Quenon gives us the insights of Thomas Merton, his onetime novice master, and the beautiful poetry of Emily Dickinson. However readers never quite feel they have reached a depth of experience or been privy to completely honest wrestling within. As we read, we wonder if what echoes in our own hearts is anything but an ache for something unattainable.

Carrying my own inner expectations, I moved forward and was comforted by the fact that this holy monk could, whilst praying the psalms, have the experience of “an entire psalm might slip by ignored” or that “I take them for granted and sometimes fail to hear them.” It was here I felt that I had begun to meet a more vulnerable person, through his honesty, struggle, and also delight in praying the psalms. How purifying to experience the annihilation of oneself so that one’s life can become a psalm, that, one with the community, the voice of humanity can echo through time and eternity to become a praise of God. It is here that Quenon brings together childhood memories, into the present suffering of humanity, which are all taken up into eternity, where coming full circle one is faced again with one’s humanity. Through his love of music Quenon reveals the sensitivity of a man who experiences God through many different mediums for the sheer “joy of doing something beautiful in the presence of God.”  

It is clear that Thomas Merton was an important person in Quenon’s life, and the chapter about his initial formation is dominated by this larger than life figure. How interesting it would have been to read more about Quenon’s initial formation, having been influenced by Merton, rather than more information about Merton himself. However, from his junior master, Father John Eudes, O.C.S.O. we learn that “nothing can be authentic unless it comes from openness to the moment” and that what Quenon knows of freedom comes from “living in the spirit with confidence in God’s largeness of heart and mercy.” Frustratingly, though, Quenon doesn’t give us his ABC of how to do that. When he writes about his family, especially his sister, Carolyn, readers feel he touches on a deep human love and a spiritual awakening that is beautifully placed just before he takes vows. He can then with confidence say that his life has “gradually emerged from the hand of God.”  How challenging for readers to ask that same question—of themselves!

Patience as the mystery unfolds

We learn from the chapter on nature that life must be a “choice made,” using nouns such as submission, confidence, resolution, and a taste for joy. He elucidates beautifully on how we can seek the face of God through the nature that surrounds us. Year on year, the seasons come and go, and nature reveals the patterns of life and death, as the monastic rhythm does the same. It appears nothing is happening at all, and yet in the “ordinariness” of each day, if we have the patience to believe it, a much greater mystery unfolds. The underlying message is: be patient and wait as the who and what you are is still in the making!

In another chapter we spend a week with Quenon in Thomas Merton’s hermitage, wanting nothing but to be stayed interiorly within what stays you. He seeks an alternative rhythm in order to experience God in new and dynamic ways, be that through walking, dancing, sitting still in nature or writing poetry. What becomes clear is that Quenon is an uninhibited seeker who uses all of his sensory powers to experience a union with God that is liberating. He describes it as a “dwelling quietly on the horizon of the absolute”, so that nourished by the solitude he can more readily take up again the rigors of community living. Several of his brothers enjoyed times of living as hermits, and it was a delight to meet some of the characters of the community and how the spaces they inhabited reflected something of their personalities.

Quenon is a poet, and he uses this gift to articulate, understand, and make present his own prayer life. He shares with us some of his Haiku poetry, which enables him to have “a precise, open moment of awareness” as he calls it. This is a sacred chapter because he shares of his own prayer, and one can feel the energy and intensity of the experience. Through different ways of praying —contemplative prayer, community prayer, poetic writing, or prayer experienced through nature: “within every moment present there is a Presence.” How simply Quenon puts it, and yet how challenging it is to be fully present to each moment.

My favorite chapter is the one about a battle of wills between Quenon and the birds! It reminded me of St. Francis preaching to the birds and his taming of the wolf of Gubbio. Interesting how what one perceives as one’s “enemy” can become a friend, and we not only can learn to co-habit and tolerate each other but, further still, enter into a relationship with our furred and feathered friends and call them brothers and sisters. Another hobby of Quenon’s is taking pictures, and he uses the camera lens, as a way to look with eyes of faith in order to “gaze” at God in creation. He looks with “simplicity and sees beauty” because his mind and heart are attuned to being attentive to the moment. What a description of prayer! 

Later we read about the impact of Merton’s death on Quenon and the gap left behind by someone who was obviously a big character in the community. Every monk or nun is marked, for good or ill, by their initial formators, and Merton has certainly left his mark on Quenon’s life. The danger, as I see it, is that we can live in the shadow of great masters and never fully inhabit our own giftedness until much later in life. 

Near the end of the book we are introduced to some of Quenon’s friends. The poetry of Emily Dickinson has left a lasting mark upon his soul, as it would upon anyone who has immersed themselves in her works; she was a mystic and seeker of the face of God. Quenon, too, has had the good fortune to meet several famous people who have visited the monastery, and I hope that they in turn were moved by their encounter with him and not just the memory or the visit to the hermitage of Merton.

Finally we come to the end, and yet it seems we are back at the beginning, as we come full circle and read once more about the essentials of a life handed over to God. I am pleased to have read this memoir which evoked not a few emotions, posed some challenges, and instilled in me a deep desire to continue on my own journey. It is a book that leaves you hungry for more, hungry to understand more deeply the spiritual journey or, better still, to be more fervent in your own spiritual life. I finished just a little disappointed that I hadn’t read more about the process of Quenon’s own inner journey, or even something of the pain and suffering that inevitably purify us as we seek holiness and communion with God. I was hooked for most of the book, though I lost my way a little toward the end.  

Anyone in vocations ministry would do well to read this book, as a sample of the monastic life, as an aid to understanding the life better. However nothing beats experience, so if Quenon’s book encourages anyone to visit a monastery, all well and good. However if it does nothing more than tempt readers to explore the spiritual life in their own circumstances, it will be worth the read.   

Sister Gabriel Davison, O.S.C. entered the Poor Clares in 1994 and is currently serving as novice mistress for her community in Arundel, UK. She is also a councillor for the Federation of Poor Clares in Great Britain. Additionally Sister Gabriel works in vocation discernment and spiritual accompaniment and enjoys cooking and gardening in her community.

Related reading

“The must-knows about discerning enclosed life,” by Sister Gabriel Davison, O.S.C., HORIZON Spring 2014.

“Community life in the monastic tradition: a call to conversion,” by Sister Anita Louise Lowe, O.S.B., HORIZON Spring 2003.

The must-knows about discerning enclosed life

By Sister Gabriel Davison O.S.C.

The Poor Clare Sisters of Arundel in the UK pray together.

This article is from a talk given to vocations personnel at the invitation of the National Office of Vocations for England and Wales. The talk was delivered in October, 2013 at Birmingham University Catholic Chaplaincy in the UK.

THANK YOU FOR ALLOWING me the opportunity to share with you something from my own experience as a Poor Clare of accompanying people and helping them to discern the will of God for their lives. I can only speak about what I know, what I have lived, so inevitably it is limited. I also speak from living in a particular place called Arundel, in the United Kingdom, where I live and breathe the spirit of St. Clare. I’d like to look at two questions, which perhaps are really only one question, just written slightly differently. First: What will help someone discern, if he or she is called to the enclosed life? And secondly: How might someone accompanying a discerner help that person to discern if the call is to enclosed life? So you can see that the two questions are very close to each other.

Bishop Kieran Conry of Arundel and Brighton in a recent pastoral letter said,

Hearing and seeing are very important parts of how we know anything or anyone. We know God by what we have seen and what we hear. We see God in the created world, we see God in the community of the church, and we see God in the person of Jesus Christ. We hear God in the words of Scripture, and the teaching of the church.

Get to know contemplative communities

So for all of us who are working in vocation discernment and may be guiding people who are discerning a contemplative vocation: what is it that we need to be hearing and seeing for ourselves firstly, and then, secondly, what does the discerner need to hear and see? It helps to think about these questions for a moment before you continue to read on:

  • What personal feelings are generated in you when you think about the contemplative life, just now, just for a few seconds?
  • What have you seen, heard and experienced personally about the contemplative life?
  • What personal experience have you had in the last year with an enclosed community?

I think it is very important, if you are going to help someone discern a contemplative vocation, that you have a personal experience of this way of life for yourself. What it is to pray in a Carmelite, Cistercian, Benedictine or a Poor Clare house? It is important to know and to feel the difference of each charism—through the atmosphere of the guesthouse, the guest mistress, the liturgy, perhaps through meeting a member of the community. I do believe in some mysterious way an interior call to a contemplative way of life is also often accompanied by a call to a particular community. So it is important that you know, have seen, heard, and experienced the presence of God in a contemplative community. Why? Because the question then to ask oneself is: With what you know, have heard, seen, and experienced—could you advise someone to go to this place for a retreat, or a live-in experience—is there life in this place? Will a discerner be enriched by having an experience in this place? Is it a place of beauty? Could you stay one week in this monastery without losing your faith? (I remember once staying in a monastery where the singing was so bad I thought it would destroy my soul if I had to stay much longer!) It is important that you know good places to send people.

Father Peter Funk, O.S.B., of the Monastery of the Holy Cross in Chicago, reads Scripture and prays.

We can’t discern the will of God in the abstract. We can’t help someone else discern the will of God in the abstract. When someone comes to us, we need to feel where they are; we need to have all our sensory powers alert and we need to listen deeply to what is not said. Often they are looking for something they cannot describe until they see it and experience it. It is our job as vocation ministers to be as knowledgeable about good and life-giving communities as possible and to help those who come to us discern and discover the place where they can best seek God. In my own story I had a live-in experience in a Poor Clare community, and I knew deep in my soul this was the place God wanted me to be. It wasn’t rational, it was quite intangible, and I couldn’t say to you what it was that drew me. Then I went to a Carmelite community, and I knew that it definitely wasn’t the place for me (no offense to any Carmelites reading this!).

When you accompany someone who has this question of the contemplative life, four points are worth considering. It will be important to explore them with the person who is discerning.

1. Enclosure: poverty of space

The first point, and it is the only thing we cannot find at all in the apostolic life, is enclosure. All of us in religious life have mission; we all have contemplative prayer, community life, the vows, etc. But what is particular to the contemplative life is enclosure: “the poverty of the space.” So, this person, this discerner who is before you, can he or she live the whole of their vocation in one particular place? That place may not be very big. Does this person have the psychological balance to live in a small space, where he or she can potentially find freedom and build a new life in Christ? As a novice mistress a frustrated and tearful postulant once cried to me, “All I want is to do something ‘normal’—buy a newspaper or go shopping in a supermarket!” Imagine, that seemed like an exciting option from what she was living each day in the monastery.

2. Life commitment to a group of people

The second point is that the community a person enters will be the same community for all of his or her life. Can this person before you build something with this particular group of men or women? Can he or she grow with this same group of religious? Can this person be him or herself with this group of people? The idea of a lifelong commitment to a particular place is not one that will be familiar to many discerners. They may not know very many marriages that have lasted a lifetime. One postulant said to me she couldn’t wait for the group that was coming to visit at the weekend, just so that she could see a new face and talk to someone who wasn’t a nun!

On her knees, Sister Miryam Anastasia, O.P. takes simple vows to join the Queen of Peace Monastery in British Columbia.

3. Regular, simple, scheduled life

The third point to explore with a discerner leaning toward the enclosed life is this. The contemplative vocation sustains a very regular life and timetable. It works its magic by the medium of regularity. There is no opportunity to have a teaching, nursing, or pastoral career. Our life is very simple; one learns how to give oneself quietly to an unexciting and perhaps repetitive task. One learns how to be patient with the inefficient contemplative way of getting things done. Does the person you are accompanying have the psychological and spiritual strength to live this? Can this person deny what he or she could have become in a career? As one postulant I accompanied said, “I was a great teacher before I entered, and now all I do is clean toilets!” Our life is not usually a wise option for the fainthearted and delicate!

4. Adherence to an old tradition

The fourth point is that one enters into a spiritual tradition, and most of the time it is a very old tradition. Is this person ready to become a disciple and not a reformer? An imperfect human being is progressively transformed by the spiritual tradition, and by God’s grace, to become holy. Humble perseverance in submitting to a way of life is a spiritual tradition that has stood the test of time. It is difficult to be a disciple, to have to learn a new way of living and being.

In my experience a new person entering can always find something that he or she is better at than anyone else in the community. That may be true, but it is not the point. First the new member has something to learn. When I was a junior, a postulant entered who was very strong and robust, and she was put with me to work in the garden shifting wheelbarrows full of manure ... a lovely job. Along she came at breakneck speed, and I did all I could to keep up with her, but to no avail. She wasn’t entering into a tradition of manual labor as a way to seek God; she was showing us what she could do, how quickly, and without any help from me, thank you very much.

In the final analysis our life requires a deep attraction to prayer and a capacity for solitary communion with God, expressed through a particular charism with a specific group of people. So when you think of these four points, of enclosure, of living with one particular group of men or women, of the regularity of the contemplative life, and the spiritual tradition that the person hopes to embrace—could this person you are helping to discern be happy and in peace with God and that particular community?

Discernment in the Poor Clare tradition

Having addressed in general terms the contemplative life, I would now like to share something about discernment from my own Poor Clare tradition. When St. Clare speaks about our life, she begins, “If, by divine inspiration, anyone should come to us with the desire to embrace this life....” Thus, the discernment from the person and the novice mistress is to recognize this “divine inspiration” ... is it a dream or is it from God? Is this person in a personal relationship with God, and is this call from God or is it from me? God has an idea; God sets it free in the person, and we journey together to see where it will take us.

St. Clare goes on to say, “And if she is suitable, let the words of the holy Gospel be addressed to her: that she should go and sell all that she has....” So, if it is divine inspiration, she has to go and sell all that she has—that is, this person must leave her life before. She must let go of what is familiar, come to this place to seek God, embrace something new, and follow and be a disciple.

St. Clare then says, “Thereafter, she may not go outside the monastery except for some useful, reasonable, evident, and approved purpose.” Our way to answer the call of God and to follow Christ is to live in this place with this group of people. There is nothing to look for outside, everything we need to seek the will of God is inside this space. The monastery and the community is the place where we seek God, where we struggle, where we fight our demons, and also where we build the kingdom. St. Clare continues: “The abbess shall carefully provide a Mistress from among the more prudent sisters of the monastery....” The person who enters has to become a disciple. It is a time to learn, to be taught, to listen with humility and docility. There is the whole question of discipline, of obedience, here.

Finally, in the process of canonizing St. Clare, Sister Benvenuta, who lived with her for 29 years, reported that St. Clare taught her three things: to love God above all— so it is a love story; to have an open heart—that means to open yourself to another, to walk with someone; and to meditate on the passion of the Lord—you take up your cross and follow Christ.

Doing our best in the face of mystery

After we have done all of the above, ticked all of the boxes, given people all the tools they need to make a good discernment, all we can say to the person is: “There is still a massive risk, and I can’t be sure you will be happy because it is for you to discover for yourself.” I have seen people who have a great desire to live our life. They are generous and give up a lot to come and enter. They love the community, the place, the liturgy, and they feel loved and respected as persons, but they are not happy, a deep happiness I mean. It is a real mystery, this discernment of vocation ... to listen to one’s heart and be guided by it into mystery, toward God. The discerner has his or her part to do, and we have ours.

One of our jobs is to become aware, as best we can, of our own unconscious prejudices, and seek to neutralize them because no one in the ministry of vocational discernment claims infallibility. We must be attentive to our own inner work, developing as persons whose hearts are open and discerning, whose faith, hope, and love are tangible. We must tend our own spiritual growth and self knowledge. Then we simply do the best we can for those whom God sends to our doors. We have a most difficult job and yet also a most blessed one because we have the privilege of walking with others and to help them to “Seek the face of God."


Sister Gabriel Davison, O.S.C., entered the Poor Clares in 1994 and is currently serving as novice mistress for her community in Arundel, UK. She is also a councillor for the Federation of Poor Clares in Great Britain. Additionally Sister Gabriel works in vocation discernment and spiritual accompaniment and enjoys cooking and gardening in her community.

Book notes: Cistercian nuns deliver insight, inspiration

By Sister Amy Taylor F.S.P.A.

THE BOOK Northern Light (Cistercian Publications/ Liturgical Press 2020), by the nuns of Tautra Mariakloster, offers a glimpse into the often mysterious and shrouded life of a traditional monastic community daring to live daily its call from Jesus. This book chronicles the story of a fledgling new Cistercian foundation in Norway, dreamed into existence by the hearts of women nestled in their motherhouse along the Mississippi River. They are the members of Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey in Iowa. What started as a trickle of an idea from the waters of the Mississippi in time grew into a spring of a new foundation on a fiord island in Norway. More precisely their “new” foundation actually re-founded a long-defunct Cistercian monastery that had once existed on Tautra Island.

In this book, four of the women who leave their home monastery to join Tautra Mariakloster reflect on their daily life. Their vows of stability were transformed and transferred to a new land, a new culture forged out of the life cycle of the Paschal Mystery. The venture called each writer to follow Jesus as each one let go, let transformation happen, and let rise within them new life.  

Their meditations are painted against a stunning backdrop of rugged mountains and the astonishing, breathtaking glow of the northern lights. This book offers soul light as each sister shares a bit of her soul as a gift to the reader. Long hours of prayer and contemplation, joy, tears, and adversity are illuminated in words paired with the Catholic liturgical year. Stories of the saints complement the reflections of each season and month. The saints are witnesses of living out the everyday yes of life lived with God.  

Reading this book I pondered the experience of these nuns. I wondered if they had questions and feelings similar to those discerning religious life. In the gospel Jesus says, “Come follow me.” There is no map to the destination, no timeline, no country stated … the invitation and the call is open ended, the road ahead uncertain, and one imagines there will be adventure, adversity, beauty, loss, joy, and surprise.

Something deep within one’s heart opens and leans forward and asks, “Do you mean me? Certainly there must be someone else ready to walk the journey you suggest, ready to encounter what was never considered an option, ready to walk alongside the determination of the human spirit, the resilience of the soul in crisis, and to witness in joy the exhilaration of new discoveries.”

Perhaps the other side of oneself politely says, “Thank you for thinking of me and offering the invitation, but I am happy with my life as it is. I am comfortable and enjoy the predictability of life in the place I live, the place I minister, and most of all don’t ask me to uproot my life. I have worked hard to finally feel settled, and to have found my place.

“You, God, after all are the one who has helped me settle here, who has called me to this place with this group and in this time in history. Why are you now inviting me into this new season of change? With this new offer, with this new whisper, I feel unsure, yet intrigued. My mind is confused but in time my heart will say yes. You are forever my yes.”

Perhaps such thoughts crossed the minds of the authors of Northern Light. Trust in God became their mantra, the needle on the compass of their lives as they willingly entered into a time of prayer and discernment as they knew God would not abandon them. The time had come for a now stable and fruitful abbey to take a risk, to begin the process of creating a new foundation, as is the tradition in the Cistercian way of life, following Jesus and beginning anew when the Spirit leads.

Why, one asks, why risk the safety and stability to create when maintenance is so much easier? Why not just add on a few more rooms? Expand the physical building to accommodate growth? Why not make do with what is, as eventually there will be space. “Why?” can easily compete with the mantra of trust.  

Radical trust and dependence on the providence of God is the cornerstone of all vocations to religious life. Stagnation is not the gospel. Comfort and routine are often disrupted in the effort to offer deeper relationships, stronger bonds, new insight and faith. Hope guides when human sight is limited.

One of the joys of human sight for the nuns who wrote this book is in the sky surrounding the new monastery. The natural phenomenon of the northern lights cannot be summoned to appear as entertainment or harnessed for gain; they are ethereal and a reminder of each human soul, which in freedom and grace dances before God, offering light and beauty without reserve.  

This is also the pathway of religious life; we are called to offer all of who we are without reserve. As vocation directors, formation team members, and members of the community who offer accompaniment, we introduce discerners and new members to the guiding lights of our religious community’s tradition. We share with them the triumphs and trials of our founders and foundresses. As relationships deepen, we, like the Cistercian Sisters of Tautra Mariakloster, reveal our hearts and love of God and the experiences of our lives that shape who we are.   

The sisters of Tautra Mariakloster invite readers to slow down and let go of the attitude that life and ministry must be done at a hectic pace. God is in all moments, not just the ones our calendars chronicle as the official tasks of ministry. We are invited to again be inspired by the gentle reflections of the seasons, and with soft eyes of love to reflect on God’s presence in everyday moments of life. The voicemails, emails, and meeting agendas will still be there, but choosing to live contemplatively, we too can pause within the day and bring refreshment to our souls. Contemplative pauses encourage suspension of the expectation of ministry as production and refocus us on our intention to be in communion with God.  

This book encourages us to enter the stillness of our hearts to listen as Jesus once again invites us to come and follow, to see the miracles of everyday life, to come and be in the stillness of prayer and the silence of contemplation. We are reminded of the deep love that awaits us each time we let go, let ourselves be transformed, and let ourselves rise anew.  

Northern Light serves as inspiration, as light for our own journeys.  May we all continue to challenge ourselves to be radiant light.

Sister Amy Taylor, F.S.P.A. is a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration. She served as membership director  for her community for more than five years and is currently in discernment about her next ministry.


Published on: 2021-01-29

Edition: 2021 HORIZON No. 1 Winter

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