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Spiritual biographer of Henri Nouwen & Mychal Judge
The Rev'd Dr Michael Ford has an ecumenical ministry of writing, teaching and spiritual guidance inspired by Father Henri J. M. Nouwen
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LIFE & SOUL 2: FATHER GERARD GARRIGAN, OSB - MONK-POET & LOVER OF JAZZ
'When I reflect on the role of the monk as a contemplative in the world, I am reminded of the American poet, Robert Frost, who said: ‘In three words I can sum up all I know about life. It goes on.’ The monk is a living testament to this joyous fact. The monk’s life reminds all in society that life does, in fact, go on, beyond this life, beyond even death. We travel through this earthly life as pilgrims. Our redemption is won. A place has been lovingly prepared for us by our Saviour, Jesus Christ, who not only shows us the way to love but will also love in us and through us, if we just allow him. Our life with him in heaven will never end: ‘It goes on.’ We came from our loving God. We will return to our loving God. As T.S. Eliot wrote so succinctly and so powerfully in Four Quartets: ‘In my beginning is my end. In my end is my beginning.’
I was born in 1952 in St. Louis, Missouri, which was, in fact, the home town of T.S. Eliot. It was also the subject of one of the most important blues songs, The St Louis Blues, by W.C. Handy. Other natives of the St Louis area were Scott Joplin, the influential ragtime composer; Ike Turner whose Rocket 88 is often acclaimed as the first rock and roll song; Chuck Berry, sometimes called the father of rock and roll; and Miles Davis, the brilliant jazz innovator. Our African American musical tradition in St Louis runs very deep indeed.
In the early 19th century, Trappists established a monastery in our area, a community that would eventually settle in Kentucky as Gethsemani Abbey, the monastery of Thomas Merton. Perhaps all this has something to do with the person I became. My father, a postman, was a simple, quiet and very pious man. He would rise very early, pray his rosary and do spiritual reading from the works of such writers as G.K. Chesterton, Etienne Gilson, Jacques Maritain, Ronald Knox and Hilaire Belloc. I remember he had a copy of Louis Bouyer’s The Meaning of the Monastic Life. I would think my father was the only one in our working class neighbourhood who owned such a work. He would meditate on his spiritual reading as he walked his mail route. He was a contemplative living in the world. After he retired, he attended daily Mass. My mother, a Catholic convert from High Church Episcopalianism and a fervent Anglophile, was a school teacher but more importantly a fine musician. She was a classically trained pianist who preferred to play ragtime, the blues and other American popular music. My mother could play the piano before she went to kindergarten. She said that, when we were babies, she would carry my three brothers and me, and sing to us. My mother would come alive when she played the piano. She could swing and had soul before they ever came up with those terms. Her love of music influenced me greatly.
Without music, life would be unbearable for me. As to why I, as a monk, have been drawn to jazz and blues, I would say that the exposure by my mother at a young age to these musical genres, coming out of the African American experience, has been largely responsible. I also have a good elementary school friend, Mike Sissin, who is a fine jazz pianist and who has introduced me to much fine jazz music. Additionally, I think one of the reasons has something to do with liminality. Monks are liminal people. We live a life on the edge of society, different from the norm, a life that is truly a subculture in the broader mainstream culture.
Historically, African American culture that produced jazz and blues has also been a subculture, a liminal culture on the edges of a larger, predominant white majority culture in the United States. Monks spend much time praying and meditating on the psalms from the Hebrew Scriptures which are full of the suffering of the Jewish people, this liminal group, this people who were oppressed for so long by larger, more powerful cultures. Jazz and blues, coming out of the pain of the African American subculture, resonates for me as a monk who spends so much time praying and meditating on the pain of the Jewish people in their psalms. I also feel that the emotional power of the blues is truly universal. I cannot imagine how the blues would not profoundly touch any human being. I strongly believe in the dictum: ‘If you don’t like the blues, you have a hole in your soul.’
Looking back on my younger years, I was not a disciplined student. After studying English at university, I left before taking a degree and went to work as a composition roofer with a friend and his father. Eventually I completed a two-year degree in Library Services, worked in a public library and at a civil service job before entering Saint Louis Priory, now Saint Louis Abbey, at Creve Coeur, Missouri. It is, in fact, a 1950s’ foundation of Ampleforth Abbey, North Yorkshire, England. The Englishness of the monks intrigued me from the outset and I felt drawn to the contemplative life of this Benedictine monastery. The example of my contemplative father and the temperament I inherited from him were undoubtedly crucial in my finding a monastic vocation.
After working in our monastic school, I was sent to Chorley College in Lancashire to study Italian, then went on to the Pontifical Beda College in Rome to study for the priesthood while residing at Sant’Anselmo, the International Benedictine College. I also gained some pastoral experience in one of Ampleforth’s Lancashire parishes. I felt quite at home in Lancashire and came to love its people, perhaps because of my Lancastrian stock on my mother’s side of our family. In 1988 I had the great honour of being ordained deacon by Cardinal Hume who was the abbot of Ampleforth when our monastery was granted its independence.
Perhaps my love of writing poetry has something to do with my Irish heritage. I know that the tradition of reverence for poetry in Irish culture, reverence for the word, is so ingrained in that country’s culture that perhaps it was passed down through the generations to me from my Irish ancestors who emigrated to the United States after the Great Famine. I also remember my mother reciting poetry from memory. That, no doubt, influenced me as well. In high school we had an idiosyncratic English teacher from Ireland who would declaim Yeats to us. I would think he had something to do with putting the poetry bug in me.
‘The world is charged with the grandeur of God.’ Those words of the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins make the point that the things of this world, the profane, are actually sacred because all creation bears the imprint of the Creator. God’s presence, glory and wonder can all be found, not only in the Eucharist but also in the profane, in a jazz piece by Miles Davis, in the game of basketball, on a lonely road in Ireland, in flawed and improbable creatures as ourselves. Realising that the author of creation was present in the things of this world, St Benedict insisted in his Rule that even the tools of the monastery should be treated with as great a care and respect as one would touch the sacred vessels of the altar. My poems manifest the hand of God not only in what we would deem sacred but also in the profane, the mundane. As the French author, Georges Bernanos, noted: ‘Grace is everywhere.’
As monks, we are afforded the great gift of wasting long periods of time with God in prayer, both in common liturgical prayer and in private prayer. We spend so much of our day meditating on God’s word. And, of course, we believe our Lord to be the eternal Word. I think the monastic milieu of silence, of meditating on the word, on meditating on the Word, is conducive to the writing of poetry.
Thomas Merton is a prime example of a monk whose contemplative life bore much fruit in his output of poetry. If poetry is, as Wordsworth claimed, ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’, it does not seem surprising to me that a monk of an artistic disposition, who is afforded the gift of tranquillity in the contemplative life, would aspire to be a poet.'
MY FATHER by Gerard Garrigan
Your sweat drenched shirt
At 6 o’clock meant
Just another day
Had I thought
To thank you
You would have wondered
And in the morning
Long before the world awoke
You’d pray your beads
God loved you more
Than you could bear
Collections of Fr Gerard’s poetry may be obtained by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org
‘'When the imitation of Christ does not mean to live a life like Christ, but to live your life as authentically as Christ lived his, there are many ways and forms in which a man can be a Christian' (Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer).