For several years, journalist Judith Valente and Trappist monk Paul Quenon exchanged letters on essential topics. Here is one exchange.
Dear Brother Paul,
There are many things about myself of which I am not proud. One thing in which I take pride, however, is being a good friend. I try to make my home a place of hospitality. But these past weeks have made me question whether I am a good and hospitable friend at all. And I am ashamed.
For the past three weeks, I have been entertaining a friend of mine from Paris and her husband. It is their first time visiting my home, and I wanted to make the visit a grand one. It ended up being a more complex and bittersweet experience than I could have imagined, however, full of nostalgia, sentiment, sadness, and regret.
I met A. when I was nineteen and studying at the Sorbonne during my junior year abroad. I arrived in Paris having lived a fairly sheltered life, ruled by strict, old-fashioned Italian-American parents. A. was two years older than I, already working, and, to my mind, far more sophisticated about fashion, the broader world, and the opposite sex. I was an aspiring writer even then and looked upon A. as a mentor. I think she also admired me for pursuing the kind of education she felt was closed to her under the rigid French university system.
Our friendship was intense, as friendships can be at that age. I imagined we were a feminine version of Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited—two people from different worlds whose lives intersect as university students and whose fates intertwine. When we saw the film Julia, the story of an aspiring novelist who takes life-threatening risks to save her friend—we walked out of the film saying: “That’s us.” It was not unusual back then for me to see the narrative of my life in all sorts of books and films. Such is the hubris of youth!
A.’s parents considered me a second daughter. Her father was a natural-born storyteller from Marseille—loud, gregarious, and often the center of attention, the antithesis of my own taciturn, unassuming father. Her mother was soft-hearted and gentle, in many ways the opposite of my own strong-willed, high-strung mother. I called them Papa and Maman and enjoyed many sumptuous meals around their table. Their apartment was in an elegant stone building near the Eiffel Tower, where guests were always welcomed with the warmest cordiality. In fact, I have always considered this family my gold standard for hospitality.
It was inevitable, I suppose, that A.’s life and mine would take different trajectories. She married in her twenties and had two children in quick succession. Even after her daughter and son were born, she continued to work at a bank. I went on to a career in journalism at the Washington Post and then the Wall Street Journal. I married much later in life and never had children. When I was still single, I got the impression that A. perceived my life as a free-flowing party, unfettered by commitments to a husband and children. I never expressed the loneliness I felt or the pressure I was under to perform at my peak at a large national newspaper.
I don’t know what I was expecting from our reunion. I have many friends that I don’t see on a regular basis, but I seem able to pick up with them as if no time at all has passed. You, Brother Paul, are one of them. I wanted to think that my decades-long friendship with A. would prove the same. But it quickly became obvious that we shared little in common anymore except the memories of our experiences from decades ago. In the ensuing years, we had become very different people, formed by the diverse paths each of us took. I wonder if memories from a distant past can prove sufficient to nurture an enduring friendship. I just don’t know.
You once told me something that both fascinated and baffled me. You said you don’t really know the other monks at the abbey. I found that astounding, since you have lived with some of them for more than sixty years! Perhaps friendship has a different meaning in a monastic context. Friends of mine who have been in religious life for a long time remember the days when superiors cautioned them against developing “particular friendships”—a warning, I suppose, against developing romantic or sexual feelings. I wonder if that mindset still exists and shadows relationships within religious communities even today.
You have often spoken with genuine affection of Thomas Merton, your spiritual adviser when you were a novice. But nothing of what you’ve ever told me or written suggests that you were friends with the man, that you actually knew or understood him in any deep way. Am I offbase on this?
You’ve gotten to know many of the regular guests at the monastery over the years, and many come to visit with you in particular. Do you consider them friends, or guests? My own sense is that friendship involves a deep and abiding devotion that can transcend frequent separations, geographic distance, and diverse life experiences. I would like to have that kind of friendship with A. Perhaps we must come to know each other as we are now, in midlife, and form new ties and new memories. Perhaps that’s what the wise fox tries to teach the Little Prince in St. Exupery’s story—that the meaning of friendship is “to create ties.”
I look forward to hearing your thoughts on all this.
After A. and her husband left, I flew to Santa Barbara for a speaking engagement with an interfaith group that had selected my book How to Live for its “Word & Life” reading series. We had to leave for the airport at 3:00 AM for both the flight out to California and the flight back to Illinois. I kept thinking of you and the other Gethsemani monks, awake at that hour for Vigil prayers. The thought of the monks in the candlelit abbey church praying for our fragile world in the predawn hours filled me with comfort.
I thought too of what Merton wrote after one of his first visits to Gethsemani. “Now I know what has been holding the world together and keeping it from cracking into pieces. It is the prayers of this monastery.”
In grateful friendship,
I was intrigued by your Merton quote. I’m of the opinion that monks who pray for the crazy world are exhibiting perhaps their own way of being crazy. When a woman asked a saintly Romanian monk what the first requirement was for becoming a monk, he answered: “You have to be crazy.” I like my 3:00 AM way of being crazy.
Merton might subsequently have been embarrassed by his assessment of Gethsemani’s prayers as “holding the world together.” He made it in a youthful moment of exuberance. French Cistercian Charles Dumont has candidly pointed out that Merton can be “excessive” at times. One day when I was having spiritual direction with him, I held up “the golden mean”—the balancing point between extremes—as an ideal. He replied: “I believe in extremes.”
I cannot claim that I ever had a close friendship with Merton, or ever might have had. True, he knew me intimately as my spiritual director, but our relationship was not really a mutual friendship, any more than it was with his other novices. There were special moments, of course, like when his Undermaster left one can of beer on his desk for the Feast of St. Louis the King, his patron saint. Merton invited me into the office to share the can with him. We spent the time drawing sketches with felt-tip pens. I was impressed with his sketch of a lion’s face and also his face of King David. (Both his parents were artists, as you know). I drew King David, but a slip of the pen gave him a drippy nose. Father Louis posted our creations on the bulletin board with a note saying that they were drawn by two Russian artists who had passed through the abbey that evening.
I think the capacity for friendship is elemental to spiritual development, as well as to human maturity. That does not mean that you have to claim a lot of friends; it means that the ability to handle intimacy is essential. I have a lot of friends; each one is different and each friendship involves different degrees of intimacy. Every relationship has its own perimeters and depths. You don’t have to know everything about another person, or they about you. The right measure of friendship is whatever serves the Spirit and nourishes both people. In fact, friendship can be ruined by too much need for intimacy. That is where asceticism and the development of “skillful relationships” comes in. I am still in the process of learning about this and will remain so.
I have had my failures and my successes. When I make a friend, I do so intending to keep that person as a friend, but it does not always turn out that way. One of the hardest lessons to learn is that a relocation can carry a friend away forever. It is never forever, of course, since we will all meet again in eternity. But circumstances can be more determinative than I like to think. I now realize that this is part of being human. Circumstances determine when a friendship is formed, and circumstances can end it for all practical purposes.
All friendship is good while it lasts, but to cling to a relationship readily spoils it. Whether we like it or not, everyone has a life of their own to unfold, with duties and social obligations that take priority. I treasure what I have received from the many men and women I have known and, in the broader order of things, those relationships have their own fruitfulness and their own seasons, and are each pleasing to God. Perhaps your friend A. must count as one of these.
Friendships take on a different nature in a monastery. The monks are together day after day, and we come to know a lot about each other, despite our propensity for silence. Much of our communication takes place through gestures, expressions, and body movements. As for facts and details about the lives of other monks, I do not probe; and I am rarely questioned about my own life. The solitary atmosphere prevails. Much of our common understanding comes from having the same experiences and sharing the same history, the same training, and the same formation. Consequently, there is a lot that does not need to be explained.
One priest has shared monastic life with me since our early years. With him, I sometimes communicate about personal things, and vice-versa. This mutual confidence derives from our history and destiny. It does not thrive on chemistry so much as on a mutual love of our common life and the monastery. Having a common vocation facilitates personal bonding, as well as bonding that is not particularly personal. By and large, that is the way it is or me with the other monks.
When I share no common vocation—as with my married and single friends—chemistry can get the relationship started. But those instinctual motivators fizzle out unless some mutual intellectual and spiritual interests prevail. In some cases, the very difference in our vocations creates interest. Mine is so unusual and unique that it attracts a strong interest from people outside of the monastery—not to mention that Gethsemani Abbey itself has its own unique mystique.
I find it helpful, however, to relate to people who are not surrounded by a mystique, who seem pretty ordinary. It keeps me normal and it awakens me to expressions of faith other than my own. As time goes by, I find deeper dimensions in each one of these outside friends, and a shared gratitude that we have remained in touch so long. That said, I also have several friends who are accomplished writers, poets, and musicians—friends who do come with a mystique of their own. You are one of them.
There is so much more that can be said about friendship. One of the best teachers is St. Aelred of Rievaulx, a Cistercian abbot of the 12th century. You could say there are different degrees of friendship. Some are based on mutual pleasure and some on mutual interests and concerns, where both parties are turned to the same object—a love shared together. But friendship in the strict sense, as I see it, is a face-to-face relationship, one in which I am interested in you for your own sake and you are interested in me for my own sake. Without this mutuality, there is no friendship in the fullest sense. Ultimate friendship is not about what others have or how they look. It’s not about how others can please me. It is a pure, disinterested desire that others be who they are meant to be, and an abiding love even if they fail.
In effect, that is the kind of love that God has for me. The more I can experience that divine love, the more capable I become of loving others in the same way. A really human love is sustainable through all the stresses a friendship may face—even in the face of death, departure, or separation. Thus prayer proves to be the matrix of friendship that carries me beyond my own capacities.
To that extent, friendship is more than my love for others. It is love loving in me. To modify St. Paul’s words: “I love, now not I, but Love loves in me.” I often feel deficient in love, and sometimes pray that I may become loving. But that is already love prodding me on to be more of what it is in me—more of what I am meant to be in the fullest sense.
For this I have not lost hope.
May your hope be the same in this one love,
Br. Paul ◆
Adapted, and reprinted with permission from Hampton Roads Publishing. How to Be by Judith Valente and Paul Quenon, OSCO is available wherever books and ebooks are sold or directly from the publisher at www.redwheelweiser.com or 800-423-7087.