Brother Paul


JUDY VALENTE, correspondent: The lumber shed at the Abbey of Gethsemani in northern Kentucky. It’s late February. Each night at 8:00 Brother Paul Quenon walks to the shed, as he has every night for 20 years. He goes around back, where he finds his mattress. This is where he will sleep—outdoors, no matter the weather.

BROTHER PAUL QUENON (The Abbey of Gethsemani): I can’t be a full-time hermit, but I can be a night-time hermit, and there’s something about waking up in the middle of the night, and there’s nobody around. There’s a kind of an edge of solitude that you cannot experience in any other way.

VALENTE: Here, a monk seeks to live every moment in the presence of God, in unity with God. Brother Paul came to Gethsemani 52 years ago. He was 17, inspired by reading the autobiography of the famous Trappist monk Thomas Merton, who introduced many Americans to the contemplative life. Merton would eventually become his spiritual director and would encourage Brother Paul to write. Thomas Merton said monks and poets are people who live on the margins of society. Brother Paul decided to become both. He says monks and poets remind us to pay attention to the world around us, to focus on what’s essential.

post01-brotherpaulBROTHER PAUL: Poetry is the language of the heart, and it’s the language of the imagination, and so the mind abides in silence. Contemplation is an abiding in silence, and what comes out of silence are words of the heart, words of love. When the heart is really full, the mouth goes silent.

VALENTE: Indeed, many contemplatives say the transcendent is beyond words. Brother Paul has published three books of his poetry and is working on a fourth.

BROTHER PAUL: “The Hood”: —a hiding place / for the head / a portable anonymity / a refuge from / artificial light / a cover to make / dimness dimmer / to make time slow down

VALENTE: Ideas for his poems usually come to him on long, solitary walks across the monastery’s vast stretches of woods and fields. During each walk he writes a haiku—a Japanese form of poetry usually three lines, seventeen syllables and set in nature.

BROTHER PAUL: The monastery is a poetic context to begin with, and we live in a beautiful environment, and nature is so present day in and day out. I discovered the haiku, and the haiku is such a short form I started combining it with my meditation practice:

“Above dim snow fields / lone light of Venus, lone wail of goose / pleading for spring”

post02-brotherpaulYou’re in God’s beauty, and it’s physical. It’s almost like a symphony flowing by me as I walk along, relaxed, and it’s a beautiful experience.

VALENTE: Occasionally over the years, he would climb to the top of this water tower until finally the abbot closed it off. Brother Paul quips, “This used to be a fun place.”

It was this little cottage, The Hermitage, where Thomas Merton spent years in isolation, praying and writing. Retreatants visit the abbey year round, seeking to slow down at a place where prayer is the main form of activity.

BROTHER PAUL: I think they come here seeking for quiet and, you know, an atmosphere of prayer, and maybe some seeds of wisdom, and just to see what it is to live this kind of life.

VALENTE: What purpose do you see in living the Trappist’s life in the modern world?

BROTHER PAUL: Well, I think the purpose of the monastic life in the modern world is to show that we don’t need a purpose. The purpose of life is life, and you are to be just to be. Everybody measures their importance by how useful they are, so you need to shatter that. You know, somebody has to come along now and then just say listen, you know, that’s not it. That’s not what life is.

post04-brotherpaulVALENTE: Forty-eight monks now live at the abbey. Once, there were more than 200. Brother Paul says many people are still attracted to the regular prayer and quiet rhythms of monastic life, but few are willing to stay.

BROTHER PAUL: I wish they would perceive the genuineness of the life. A man has to have, you know, a home and a career, and these are ways of achieving identity. Well, what we do is in a sense forsake our identity. We give up our identity to get a new identity, which really God formulates for us.

VALENTE: And yet Brother Paul says you don’t have to live in a monastery to seek what is important.

BROTHER PAUL: If you just sort of rest with what you have, be grateful for it, there again the chemistry of gratitude can transform what you have. Contemplation is simply maybe a big fat word for gratitude. To sense the presence of God in life and around me and in other people gives me a very deep gratitude.

VALENTE: Today the average age of the monks here is 70. Funerals are a regular part of life.

BROTHER PAUL: A monk lives in the presence of death, and you come here to die. You’re going to give up your whole life. If you decide to give up your whole life to Christ, well, it’s in Christ’s hand.

post03-brotherpaul“Curved Walkway”: The burial ground fills with practical sounds from Tierce bell, drenching the dumb unheeding crosses. Alone I skirt around this rim of destiny, stirred by the bell… ‘til someday I’m left un-busied in this ground’s silent keep.

VALENTE: Brother Paul says that to be a monk is to live at the heart of a mystery, to live in a perpetual state of becoming. To him, that is both the power and poetry of monastic life.

BROTHER PAUL: We never get there. As Merton said, you know, if you think you have arrived you’re lost. People in the world come, you know, they come here on retreat. They ask me, “How long have you been here?” I answer as, what, another elsewhere, 52 years. But it is a fiction. How long have I been here? Excuse me, I haven’t gotten here yet.

For Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, this is Judy Valente at the Abbey of Gethsemani.

  • Dianne Robbins

    Brother Quenon’s wonderful statement ,” The purpose of life is life , and you are to be , just to be ” reminds me of another quote I love , Rabbi Abraham Heschel, “Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.” their “chemistry of gratitude” does transform what I have.

  • Bonnie Glynn

    I am interested in making a retreat at Gethsemani and wonder what is required.

    Is it possible to receive spiritual direction from Gethsemani, through correspondence or email?

    Thank you,
    Bonnie Glynn

  • Ruth Elsbernd

    Thank you for your fine programs. I found the discussion of the ethics regarding Bin Laden very pertinent. You might have mentioned the attitudes of several outspoken bishops.

    This video on Brother Paul inspires me.

  • pamphylla mccarron

    I really love this glimpse into Brother Paul and his way of life.. I am reading his poems. Thank you. Pamphylla

  • Joseph Gentilini

    Hi Brother Paul – your interview – profound! Joe

  • anthony joseph lucchese

    How do the monks support themselves? i have bought some monks bread from N.Y. and the monks there have there own bakery in which they sell thier bread.and other items.
    I found them on the computer under “monks bread”.

  • Jim


    Look up and check ” Retreats.”

  • Rabbi Chava Bahle

    For the past several years, I have been a regular retreatant at Gethsemani. It is my spsiritual home away from home; as a rabbi, I can tell you the monks are most welcoming to everyone.
    The monks support themselves by making and selling primarily cheese and yummy fudge
    To visit, plan well ahead as the guest house fills very quickly
    Best blessings.

  • Randy Cox

    Knowing Br. Paul for several years has had a profound influence on my spiritual and personal life. His devotion,
    hard work, poetry and photography has challenged my commitment and creativity in many, many ways.
    I have been most fortunate to set some of his poetry to music and look forward to those pieces being published
    this year for children’s choirs.
    His home, the Abbey of Gethsemani is a holy place; his life represents his great faith and vows to God.

  • Steve Eckman

    I have been on retreats at Gethsemani with my wife many times and find each to be unique to itself. Merton speaks of contemplation as does Bro. Paul as a state of total denial that once achieved cannot be described but leaves the contemplative longing for more. It is in this state you feel the total presence of God and the poetry of Bro. Paul is one good avenue to take on this contemplative journey.
    God bless all.

  • Julie

    Amen. Alleluia.

  • Jan

    What a lovely surprise and delight; sorry I missed the original airing, as I do watch frequently.

    Another job well done, Brother Paul!

    Gethsemani, thanks for the inspiration, peace and love over the years.

  • Mary Guilbert

    Thanks for being you!
    And thank you for your friendship in Christ.
    This was a truly wonderful experience.

  • bob knab

    greetings *

    so this ——————

    to the still*

    to the quiet*

    By a
    unknown thought*

    To a
    unknown place*

    By a
    unknown heart*

    To a
    unknown mystery*

    *** blessings ************

  • John Howish

    The ability to acheive quiet in this world of immense insecurity and fear. To be capable of being alone together in the mystery of God . Immensely divine. Life does hold so much, if only we could slow down and truly see it’s beauty. What a wonderful find in this piece. > I, too am hoping to visit

  • Tray

    It was a true blessing to be part of the taping of this special video with Br. Paul and Judy at Fr. Louis’ hermitage. Br. Paul has become more than a brother to me over the past few years- he is a true blessing to all of us who encounter him in prayer, in merton meetings, in conversation and meals on special occasions. Thank you Br. Paul for continuing to inspire us and teach us the beauty and grace of your vocation. Your daily sacrifices and example of love and faith are amazing.

  • Tray

    It was a beautiful day being with Brother Paul and Judith at Fr. Louis’ hermitage fofr the filming of this interview. Br. Paul has been a true beacon of light in my life during these past few years, through his leadership of our Merton study group, his singing, poetry and the hospitality he always extends. Merci Paul and to all the brothers, for the true unconditional love and never ending daily sacrifices, as well as showing me the way closer to living a life rooted in God and faith. I am forever full of gratitude. Everytime I enter for compline, all the hours, mass or just to sit still in the balcony, I know I am home.

  • Jason

    I have admire brother Paul and all the monks I have meet. I am coming into the church easter of 2012 and Gethsemani has been a major part of my journey. I find great comfort in the monks view of Gods love and life. Brother Paul and others have a way of explaining things the non theologian can understand. Thank God for all the brothers and sisters of the order.

  • maurice vuignier

    A Very Thought Provoking Piece Indeed .
    Thanks and God Bless .

  • Maureen

    I knew Brother Paul (Richard Quenon) when he was a young student at St. Peter’s. I am
    so happy to read of his complete happiness and for the inspiration he is able to give to others.
    God bless him and cover him at night with the blanket of your love.

  • VoiceInDesert

    Back between 1961-67, had made several retreats at the Abbey. They were one of the means I found spiritual refreshment. Have never known Brother Paul personally, but am blessed by for his outdoor contemplative life style in all the weather elements.

    Today, I am 70, and have learned (and still learning) to walk with Jesus everywhere I go — whether the places are convenient or inconvenient, whether the places are quiet or full of noise and distractions, or whether on the mountain top of refreshment or in the valley of trials. In the tranquility of my spirit, I can still hear Jesus say to me, “Peace, be still!” or “Be still, and know that I am God.”

    The purpose of my being in the “public arena” is so that others who need Jesus will hear the Gospel, and that I may be a example of what God has done in my life. The purpose in the “prayer closet” is so that I can receive strength, and pray for others who have special needs.