Inside the Life of a Monk

Brother Paul Quenon, O.C.S.O., is a poet, photographer, and Trappist monk. To the outside world, he and his fellow monks aren’t serving any practical purpose. But they have found a deeper meaning in that “uselessness.”

“I shouldn’t have to depend on others for my self-worth,” Brother Paul said. “At the core, my value, my sense of worth comes from knowing that I am loved by God.”

Video Transcript

New Haven, Kentucky: Abbey of Gethesemani, home of cloistered monks known as Trappists.

Brother Paul Quenon, OCSO: I think people feel they have to be productive because they get self-esteem from being able to show something — to show that they’re worth something. So people are looking for their sense of worth in doing something, and in producing something, or making an impression on others. But I shouldn’t have to depend on others for my self-worth. I mean, of course I get some of that, but at the core, my value, my sense of worth comes from knowing that I am loved by God. 

I had to write a poem to explain that. This is called “Mad Monk’s Life Ambition”:

Sorry monk that I am, 

I never amounted to nothing. 

Did someone lay a jinx on me and say, 

“You’ll never amount to nothing?” 

How sad. 

Since I took nothing 

as the goal of my monastic life.

The monks pray together eight times a day; they rarely leave the abbey.

We’re focused on one thing: God alone, as you might say. We’re not serving any practical purpose. Well, we produce fudge, and we produce fruitcakes, but so what? There’s no external justification for our life, so by all appearances, we’re useless. 

Brother Paul is a photographer and writer. His memoir is titled, In Praise of the Useless Life.

Sometimes a photograph will just surprise you. And I was looking out at the rising sun, and I turned around, and I saw my shadow on the wall. And the shadow turns this way, and the pipe goes that way. I thought that was kind of curious. 

Is there a reason for the arts? Is there a reason to dance? Really, the purpose of singing is to sing. The purpose of to play is to play. So you live for the sake of life. The daily routine of the monastery eventually levels you to the plateau of your ordinariness. Ambition and striving fade into the background, and life lived in God is sufficient.

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