17Jun The Catholic Universe (and Catholic Times) has closed. This is Chris McDonnell’s final article

The Catholic Universe (and Catholic Times) announced its immediate closure last week. The Universe has served the Catholic community devotedly since 1860. It also means the end of Catholic Times columnist Chris McDonnell’s weekly contribution which was also carried on the ACP website. We wish to express our deepest gratitude to Chris for his writing, dedication and integrity. This week we publish his final column which he had prepared for Catholic Times.

Independent Catholic News (ICN) reported that English Cardinal Vincent Nichols has offered his thanks to the owner and staff of Universe Media for their service to the mission and witness of the Catholic Church. “This week sees the last edition of the Catholic Universe and the Catholic Times supplement. Universe Catholic Media Ltd has stopped trading with immediate effect. I receive this news with great sadness. It is an historic moment which comes as a ‘sign of the times’.

“The current publishing market is difficult and the board, management and staff of Universe Media Group have made strenuous efforts to continue their operations. I thank, with all of my heart, Clive Leach, the owner, Joe Kelly and all the staff for their unstinting service and commitment to the Catholic community in this country and beyond. For many years they have strived with every sinew to keep reporting and commenting on the Catholic Church, in full support of our mission to spread the Gospel and bear witness to our faith. I know that they have explored every avenue in trying to steer this operation through these most difficult times and circumstances. Again, on behalf of so many, I thank them for this valiant effort and commend them for their work.

“The role of communication and journalism in reporting and commenting on the life of the Catholic Church, from the perspective of our faith, is a great challenge. My hope and prayer is that professional and enthusiastic Catholics will continue in this task, exploring and developing new forms of communication and new ways of telling the story of our faith in action here in our lands.”

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Chris McDonnell’s article, intended for Catholic Times 18 June 2021.

The Monastic Mystery

Chris McDonnell 

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 world.

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-20th 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.

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,

Scapulars

 

White robe

Black stripe:

Monks

 

White fur

Black stripe:

Skunks

 

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

everything

 

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

habit!

 

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

 

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

designated

peg.

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.

 

 


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