Sunday, January 26, 2014

On a Cold Day at the Abbey of Gethsemani

I arrive at 8:45.  I wanted to arrive earlier, but I slept through the alarm and didn't leave Louisville until close to 8:00.

As I turn into the driveway, I look up to the statue of St Joseph that has been there for I don't know how long. I've brought my camera to take a few pictures, though I'm not a good photographer. Merton took a picture of St Joseph almost fifty years ago, and I'm conscious of this when I press the shutter. A helicopter carrying the Dalai Lama landed near St Joseph in 1997 on his visit to the Abbey.

Fr. Michael, one of the monks at the Abbey with whom I regularly visit, has arranged a room for me in which I can read and write.  I pick up the key from Br. Christian and go to the third floor of the retreat house.  I brought Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography by Richard Rodriguez and read it for a couple of hours.  It's an unconventional, but beautifully written, spiritual autobiography, and I feel like I'm melting into the words while reading.

I take a break from reading to snap a photo of Merton's grave.  His grave is the only one with decorations left by pilgrims.  Often there are rosaries, letters written to Merton, Tibetan prayer flags.  Today there is a little green bouquet.

The bells ring for Sext at 12:15; I join the monks for prayer.  The Abbey church is spartan and plain.  Very Cistercian.  

Br. Paul Quenon meets me outside the church after the office, and we go the retreatants' refectory for lunch.  I met Br. Paul four years ago when I asked him to lead a retreat for some of my graduate students.  He entered the monastery when he was 17 and was a novice under Merton.  It was Merton who encouraged Paul to write poetry.  Paul tells me that he once got up the nerve to give Merton a poem he wrote; Merton liked it enough to tack it onto the bulletin board (a very monastic seal of approval).  Paul now has four books of poetry out with another on the way. He's also an acclaimed photographer.

Paul is an excentric guy, which is why I like him.  Almost twenty years ago he took to sleeping outside year-round.  He monastic cell is the front porch of the Abbey's woodshed.  

I once took a couple of friends out to meet Paul, and together we hiked out to Merton's hermitage.  "Wanna climb some trees?" Paul asked when we all arrived at the hermitage.  I thought he was joking.  Nope.  He found a tree near Merton's hermitage he liked and climbed about fifty feet up, ascending like a squirrel.  I found it terrifying; ever the pessimist, I had visions of a headline in the Louisville Courier-Journal - "Poet-Monk Dies While Climbing Trees with Bellarmine Professor".

Paul and I eat and chat until None at 2:15, and we afterwards go for a hike.  It's cold: -2 degrees Celsius (I still can't figure out how Fahrenheit works), but we go anyhow.  I want to take pictures of Merton's hermitage in the snow.

We hike up to the hermitage, and Paul tells me that the light is brilliant for photography.  I take his word for it and shoot a few pictures.  Paul brings his camera as well; he carries around a little point-and-shoot wherever he goes and manages to create incredible art with it.  I take a picture of the hermitage.  Paul takes a picture of the hermitage from the same spot.  His picture looks much better than mine.  I ask him to take a picture with my camera, and he, of course, turns my camera into the tool of a true artist.

Photo by Br. Paul Quenon

I do, however, manage to take a few shots I like.

We move on from the hermitage to hike through some of the Abbey's woods.  It's been cold enough in Kentucky that Paul thinks Dom Frederic's Lake might be frozen, which happens only once every few years.  The lake is named after Dom Frederic Dunne, Merton's first abbot.  Sure enough, it's frozen.  And the patterns on the ice are stunning, particularly near the dam.  Paul starts to walk out onto the ice, and I once again start seeing headlines in my head.  I tell him that I don't think the ice is thick enough, and, perhaps because I'm Canadian and he thinks I know about ice, he doesn't go any further.

Br. Paul on Dom Frederic's dam

We walk on the dam and both sit to take pictures of the patterns in the ice.  Paul took these pictures

Photo by Br. Paul Quenon (taken during our hike)
When we return to the Abbey, Paul suggests we get something warm to drink before I head home.  He gets some coffee, I make some hot chocolate.  And we chat for a little more.  Paul gives me a book he's recently published with a couple of his friends called The Art of Pausing: Meditations for the Overworked and Overwhelmed.  It contains some of his photographs, as well as haikus written by himself and his co-writers.  In addition to his other poetry, Paul regularly writes haiku.  In the book he explains why:
In meditation, I aim for a simple awareness of the present moment.  My haiku is an articulation of the gift of that moment, a brief conclusion to the time spent in silence.  Being short, the haiku will not become another distraction (9).
Paul often includes a haiku in emails he sends to me.  Earlier in the day he gave me a nine-page booklet he printed of the haiku he wrote in 2013.

It's time to go.  I ask Paul to sign the book he's given me.  It reads:
For Greg,
who reads the ice.
Paul Quenon

Books mentioned in this post:

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