Thursday 6 June 2019

In Praise of the Useless Life - Paul Quenon - A Monk’s Memoir

In Praise of the Useless Life
A Monk’s Memoir
Paul Quenon
Pico Iyer (Foreword)
Ave Maria Press
ISBN 9781594717598
eISBN 9781594717604

This book was not what I expected. But it was non the less a great read. The book begins with 8 ‘praises’ or plugs for this volume. Of the eight I have only read books by one of them and had not even heard of most. Most have written books about Thomas Merton, or monasticism in general. Quenon recounts many encounters with Merton in this book, but it is not a book about Merton. It is about the author and his own life as a monk. Paul recalls that:

“A day after our encounter, he told me I was narcissistic. That was a heck of a big word for me, and he proceeded to recount the myth of Narcissus—a young man who resisted relationships with others but fell in love with his own image in a pond. He said I was always looking at myself; I wanted to be spiritually beautiful. I was looking at myself in choir, in prayer, and that accounted for the “chafing sensation” that I complained about. I was too turned inward on myself and consequently felt sour and cramped within. He said that was narcissism and added that most young men are narcissistic. His general remedy was to live the life here at the monastery, stop looking at myself, and forget myself. T hat counsel remains until today a code of my monastic life.”

The stories in this volume span decades. Some told reflecting back with fondness. Some looking back and realizing that the events remembered are not always the same as the events experienced.

There was a time when I idolized Merton, Gethsemani, and monasticism in general. If that had not passed, this book would have helped it do so. Paul does a wonderful job of presenting a realistic look in the window at life in the monastery. The book is humbly written. It has stories that are poignant, penetrating, and at time passionate. It is a book that can be consumed in a long afternoon in a deck chair or savoured over many days.

I read this book over a week on my lunch breaks. I had the privileged of meeting Paul many years ago when I was an undergraduate university student. The book was an interesting read. After reading this volume I have a keen interest to track down other volumes by Paul. I can say I enjoyed this book more than some of the Merton’s works I have read. And I believe the writing is better. But Paul does not have the cult of personality that Merton, his former director of novices, had. And as such his work sit more to the outside. But those of us who discover them find a little gem we will treasure and share with those we know. I think this book would make for an excellent book club read.

An intriguing life, for a monk who left the world, only to find himself back in it and engaged in many new ways. And I believe the book will help us look at our own past, our encounters, or lives in a new and fresh way.

Note: This book is part of a series of reviews: 2019 Catholic Reading Plan!

Books by Paul Quenon:
Afternoons with Emily
Amounting to Nothing: Poems
Bells of the Hours
In Praise of the Useless Life
Laughter: My Purgatory
Smaller Than God: Words of Spiritual Longing
Terrors Of Paradise
Unquiet Vigil: New and Selected Poems

Contributed to:
Monkscript Two: Surprising Saints with Michael Bever
The Art of Pausing with Judith Valente and Michael Bever

No comments: