Symbolism, Sacred Art, Metaphysics



These poems arise from and reveal the contemplative heart, a simple mystery. ‘Taste death / the spice of life,” Quenon writes, or “Doubt everything / but your own doubt”. He takes as his text the monk’s habit to produce simple, profound portraits of a life of solitude in community, community in solitude.

“Photographs complement and expand the poems, an elegant symbiosis of word and image, spirit and flesh. From these we can learn a more harmonious way of perceiving and living with ourselves, with others, and with the world – if we only take the time.

“Let those who have ears, listen; let those who have eyes, look.”

– Fenton Johnson
Author, Keeping Faith: A Skeptic’s Journey Among Christian and Buddhist Monks

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“Brother Paul Quenon, who entered the monastery when he was 17 and who was a novice under Thomas Merton, always sleeps outside with the “open sky as (his) dormitory,” where a hay-bale prevents winter snow drifts from covering him. He knows the night sky, like native peoples in all lands and times, and the birds know him! In these un-busy surroundings he is free to notice, clear to reflect.
And through his honest observations, we come to visit the stark details of the monastic life, now forever imprinted as our image of what that life must be, not at all what we though it was.

‘Every word and event a disguise of the unpronounceable.’

“Sometimes we laugh out loud, as when he describes the deep pockets of his habit- so deep he must lean over to reach his keys, dental floss, notebook or glasses, but deep enough, he notes, to conceal two bottles of wine!

“We visit the treasure of his nothingness, his emptiness and learn that even his humble ‘monkswear’ hanging on nameless numbered pegs, is not his own. And that he sometimes nearly sleeps while saying his rosary, but touch remains.

“The straw mattress, with lumps and an imprint from a previous monk must, in time, be re-imprinted with the shape of his own body…which soon too will be buried ‘without a coffin or a vault to keep out the rain and other earthly visitors’.

“But the exhilaration remains.

– Fenton Johnson
Author, Keeping Faith: A Skeptic’s Journey Among Christian and Buddhist Monks

The Monastic Mystery
Chris McDonnell CT June 18 th 2021.

There are numerous ways of living the Christian life and each of
us is called to a particular way. For many the route is not clear at
the outset, we test and try a number of options seeking a road
map for our journey encountering choices that often end in cul-
de-sacs and so we are forced to start again.

In the early days of the Church that was a problem that faced
every disciple of the Risen Nazarene, how to follow in his
footsteps, how to be faithful to his teaching. Gradually, over time,
paths became familiar and traditions were established.
Communities of Christians became settled in towns and cities,
sharing with one another what they had and coming together in
the Eucharistic gift. But still there was work to be done, a wage to
be earned and families to care for in a busy and, at times, harsh

A few chose an alternate path, they chose the solitude of the
desert where they lived in very small communities or as hermits,
devoting their time to a single-minded pursuit of faith in the Lord.
We now know them as the Desert Fathers and recognize the lives
they lived as the birth of Christian monasticism.

Over a period of a few hundred years these communities
flourished and grew as their pattern of life became established.
They lived a simple life centred on prayer. It was an ordered life,
lived according to a code of practices or rules. The most
significant of these Rules we owe to Benedict of Nursia whose
name is associated with one of the great monastic orders of the
Church, the Benedictines.

For many of us, the monastery is an historic pile of stones, the
left over ruins from the European Reformation. Yet even these
edifices have their own majesty. However a monastery is not just
a building, it is the life that is lived within it, the people who walk
its passageways and live in its rooms, whose work on a farm or in
a workshop enables them to live a life of prayer, day in, day out.
People give the stones and mortar their vitality and purpose. The
era of the great abbeys of Europe may be over but the monastic
life remains. Communities of monks and nuns are smaller now,
their homes are not in the style of bygone years, they support
themselves in different ways, through writing or iconography,
cheese making or brewing beer. But still they are centred on
prayer offered in an ordered and regular manner.

One monastery in the US has become famous through the life
and writings of one of its mid-20 th Century monks, Thomas
Merton, who entered the Abbey of Gethsemani, Kentucky, in
December 1941 and who died to the day, twenty seven years
later, in December 1968, in Asia. During his years as a monk of
Gethsemani, he taught in the Noviciate, exploring with young
men the essence of a monastic vocation in the Cistercian
tradition. One of those men who arrived in 1958 was Paul
Quenon; he still lives there, 63 years later.

Brother Paul is a creative man, a published poet and an
accomplished photographer. One of his Collections, Monkswear,
first published in 2008, offers a perceptive insight to the monastic
life, its theme centred round the aspects of the simple clothing or
habit that is worn by the monks. I would like to share with you
some of Paul’s poems for they tell us much about the life of a
monk, rooted in the past, yet alive in our own time. The
Collection is illustrated with Paul’s own photography with the
startling image that heads this article providing the cover to his

One item of clothing is the scapular, a long piece of black cloth,
worn over the shoulders and hanging down back and front. He
describes it in a few succinct words,

White robe
Black stripe:
White fur
Black stripe:
From both
Best to keep
Your distance.

A play on words that is both factual yet full of humour.
There is indeed here the expression of good natured banter within
the serious intent of a monks vocation.

In a poem ‘Possessed by a Habit’ he describes his monastic life. It
gives the title to his Collection.

Sorry, but I can’t seem to shed
this habit I’m so given over to,
this monkswear, this second skin
I’m so habituated to.
I’ve worn it till the habit has
worn me quite down
to a shadow of the man
I once was. You would
hardly recognize the boy
who at least had some promise
and risked talents, life and
opportunities for the sake
of a possessive, chronic
habit which he won’t shake off,
that holds him so hide-bound
he has all but lost
which seems to be
the way he wants it
given the merry way
he carries on with
no thought of past,
future, or of what
might become of him
once he wakes up
and finds himself without
means or ability
so sustain so religiously
his mystifying
Just you see-unless
he quits this habit it will eventually
carry him to the grave.
Amen, Alleluia!

This is a beautiful, well crafted statement of the simplicity of his
vocational life.

The collection concludes with a few lines on the Cowl

-solemn as chant
one sweep of fabric
from head to foot.
cowls hanging
on a row of pegs-
tall disembodied spirits
holding shadows
deep in the folds
waiting for light
for light to shift
waiting for a bell
for the reach of my hand
to spread out the slow
wings, release the
shadows and envelope my
prayer-hungry body
with light.
Sprinkled through these pages are many aspects of monastic life,
some trivial, others significant. One, a brief seven lines, is
entitled ‘Weird Arithmetic’
The middle cipher
in the word God is zero.
In the word good
stands zero x zero
naught times naught
equals all nothings lodged
in God’s open heart.

In a piece entitled The Laundry Number he describes the
numbered identity of each monk.
-patched inside the black collar
of each cowl and scapular is
a designated number
to sort out in the wash
whose is which and
what goes where.
Above each patch is
a loop that hangs on a peg-
a hanging cipher
for an unnamed person
who wears thin, wears
habitually the same habit
over and over
and owns not a stitch,
not a loop, not
a number, owns not
his very own body
even as he is
a God-owned body
in a God-owned garb
which hangs on a loop
in a row of pegs
a voiceless choir
answering each
to that high Ledger
where after the great
wash and agitation
the heat and pressure
that Searching Hand
will then sort out
who is who
and who belongs where

and will lift up and carefully
place each one
onto his own

Paul’s work is a deep mine of thoughtful reflection, the fruit of
many years spent living his monastic life. In this collection of fifty
poems and a number of photographic images, he offers us an
opportunity of insight to a different place beyond our immediate
experience. It is a privilege to share it with him.

Paul Quenon’s Collection ‘Monkswear’ is published by Fons Vitae
Louisville KY. ISBN 1-891785-15-X. It is well worth reading.



“Paul Quenon writes with a precise vision that engages the reader, and opens up the interior world in such a way that it can't help but blossom in the mind and heart of any reader. He is a remarkable talent!”
— Marty Gervais, Editor of Black Moss Press, Ontario
“Paul Quenon’s unique monastic voice resonates with insight and beauty. He celebrates the habitual graces and over-looked miracles of a decidedly human and sensitive monk’s daily calendar. Full of vitality and good humor, Quenon communicates to our own quotidian lives his monk’s brand of fresh air.”
- Jonathan Montaldo, the Merton Institute for Contemplative Living