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In Praise of the Useless Life
A Monk’s Memoir
Author: Paul Quenon, O.C.S.O.
Foreword by: Pico Iyer
Trim size: 5.5 x 8.5 inches
Imprint: Ave Maria Press
On-sale date: April 13, 2018
Winner of two 2019 Catholic Press Association Awards: Memoir (First Place) and Cover Design (Second Place).
Monastic life and its counter-cultural wisdom come alive in the stories and lessons of Br. Paul Quenon, O.C.S.O., during his more than five decades as a Trappist at the Abbey of Gethsemani. He served as a novice under Thomas Merton and he also welcomed some of the monastery's more well-known visitors, including Sr. Helen Prejean and Seamus Heaney, to Merton's hermitage. In Praise of the Useless Life includes Quenon's quiet reflections on what it means to live each day with careful attentiveness.
The humble peace and simplicity of the monastery and of Quenon's daily life are beautifully portrayed in this memoir. Whether it be through the daily routine of the monastery, his love of the outdoors no matter the season, or his lively and interesting conversations with visitors (reciting Emily Dickinson with Pico Iyer, discussing Merton and poetry with Czeslaw Milosz), Quenon's gentle musings display his love for the beauty in his vocation and the people he’s encountered along the way.
Inspired by his novice master Merton, the poet and photographer’s stories remind us that the beauty of life can best be seen in the "uselessness" of daily life—having a quiet chat with a friend, spending time in contemplation—in our vocations, and in the memories we make along the way.
"Simple and profound."
"This beautiful book is both simple and profound, written with humor, a grounded sense of humanness, and luminous attention to what lies at the heart of things. After turning the last page, you might, as I did, sit for a while caught by the mystery and meaning of your own life."
Sue Monk Kidd
"Valuable in a culture so terribly marred by narcissism."
"Paul Quenon may describe the monastic life as 'useless,' a life of play, and that is often how its critics describe it. But he’s written a book that strikes me as valuable in a culture so terribly marred by narcissism. The key to monastic life, as his novice master Thomas Merton advised him, is ‘to live the life here at the monastery, stop looking at myself, and forget myself.’ In an anxious age, we need to be reassured that 'the best thing is to take in one breath at a time . . . Every breath comes from God, and the air supply is unlimited.' As we wrestle with faith in a world that ignores or denounces it, we need to be reminded that 'Prayer is a breathing that purifies the air, like leaves on the tree.' Monks, as people of prayer, may be useless, but this book is evidence that they are also necessary and even indispensable."
Author of The Cloister Walk
"I have learned more sitting on the porch of Thomas Merton's hermitage with Paul Quenon than I have from many books. This delightful memoir provides a window into a monk and poet’s life at Gethsemani recounted with charming anecdotes and fascinating details. Br. Paul has become a mentor for many with his own spiritual message that is grounded in the simple and divine joys of just being alive."
Author of A Year with Thomas Merton
"His own inner journey."
"It is sometimes said that monks are ordinary people living an extraordinary life. By granting us a glimpse into the daily, common life of a Cistercian, and describing his own inner journey, Br. Paul Quenon proves that the opposite is also true: monks can be extraordinary people living what comes to be a very ordinary, even ‘useless’ life by the world’s standards."
Cyprian Consiglio, O.S.B. Cam.
Author of Prayer in the Cave of the Heart
"Paul Quenon does not romanticize the monastic life. He presents frankly its challenges and pitfalls, and we understand that life can be an unending prayer in the best and fullest sense, even with inevitable, instructive, and mundane annoyances amid the beauty. We may transform our own lives by studying Quenon's."
Author of The Man Who Loved Birds
"The depth and beauty of monastic life is one of the world's best-kept secrets. Seldom does one hear direct, personal testimony of it. And now comes In Praise of the Useless Life by Br. Paul Quenon, who has spent his life at the Abbey of Gethsemani, a place made famous by Thomas Merton, Br. Paul's novice master, whose presence pervades these pages. Br. Paul writes wonderfully, spontaneously, variously, breathlessly of life lived at maximum intensity, in silence and gratitude. You may not be a monastic, but you will recognize—like a quiet echo inside—your own life in his."
Poet and author of What Is Zen?
"Unimaginable eternal value."
Br. Paul shares his unique monastic experience with candor, humor, and self-awareness. He understands our shared human invitation to revel in God’s creation and join in the cosmic dance—a 'uselessness' that has unimaginable eternal value."
Sr. Monica Weis, S.S.J.
Author of Thomas Merton and the Celts
"Learn to live on intimate terms with heaven and earth."
"When, after a year as a novice, Paul Quenon told his novice master that he wanted to become a monk, Thomas Merton replied 'Good.' Good indeed, not only for the poet-monk himself but for all who encounter this generous account of the playful dance of his vocation. Like the lovers in the Song of Songs, Br. Paul calls us to join him outside and learn to live on intimate terms with heaven and earth."
Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies
Harvard Divinity School
"You don't have to be a monk to be inspired by his story."
"This artfully written memoir is anything but useless. It shimmers with lyrical descriptions of life in the monastery, love for nature, poetry, and music, and meaningful encounters with remarkable people, not the least being Thomas Merton. Br. Paul reveals the essence of a truly contemplative life—a life that appreciates beauty, knows how to wonder, and is dedicated to love. You don't have to be a monk to be inspired by his story."
Author of Befriending Silence