Towards a more contemplative way of living





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Following in the footsteps of Henri J. M. Nouwen and Brother Roger of Taize







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'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

Full unaware

God loved you more

Than you could bear



Collections of Fr Gerard’s poetry may be obtained by emailing him at frgerard@priory.org

Life & Soul:

Past Editions

‘'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).




'I have been here at Stanbrook Abbey in England just over 58 years. I came in the

autumn of 1947. It’s very hard to say why I came really. I think for most monks

and nuns the reason you come is not the same as the reason you stay.

People come for all sorts of strange reasons really, attracted by something or

other, but you soon find out that whatever that something or other was is

not going to see you through a lifetime. So you have to re-think your motives

a good deal. So we have to do that and, in a very broad way. I suppose one can

say it’s a response to the love of God that one has known in one’s life somehow.

God makes himself known in every person’s life, every person somehow or

other. Some of us follow that love that calls in this monastic way. It’s only one

way among a myriad of others of living out the response to God in Christ,

living out our baptism. This is just one way but it’s a way that has been classic in

Christianity from the beginning and still does call many men and women today.


I’m quite sure of that the experience of God is woven into the fabric of everyday

life.  I think perhaps we don’t recognise of it when it comes. I think it’s in all sorts

of ways – in beauty, in human relationships, in suffering, in moments of surprise

and all kinds of ways I think, the unexpected generosity of people sometimes,

all manner of things. They’re like touches of God in our life. I am quite sure of that.


Contemplative life is not confined to monasteries. People think it’s some peculiar thing that monks and nuns get up to.

It’s a normal fulfilment of Christian life when you live in Christ, pondering mysteries and a life of faith and prayer.

It’s everybody’s business not just monks and nuns. We are living in a kind of life which does facilitate it or should.

In the sense that it’s institutionalised in monasteries it is marginal, I think, and that’s okay because marginality has a function in any human set up I think. The prophets of Israel were a bit like that, like Jeremiah, standing a bit outside the ordinary run of human life at the time. But that was important. It was a sign intended by God to point to what he wanted to point to. That’s important and we perhaps have that role but at the same time we are at the heart of the mystical body. I certainly believe that. I think we’re all called by God in Christ and are much, much more closely related to one other, organically related as St Paul says. Equivalent he says. Much more closely than anything we can imagine - this closeness to Christ and to one another in Christ. Therefore there is a real sense that this life – the contemplative life – is right in the heart of the business. I couldn’t be here without it.


Contemplation is not floating around on Cloud Nine. Not at all. It’s hard slog much of the time. It’s the desert. But the desert is also something deep in the story of God’s people. The aloneness with God. The struggle. The barrenness. The poverty of all human means. Having nothing but God’s mercy and God’s will. That’s a very, very hard slog. It’s just slogging on in faith, in darkness, in the desert for much or even most of the time, But that’s classic. The desert is a definite part of the chosen people’s life and it’s always been in the Church as Jesus himself chose to go into the desert for a key period in his life.


There’s a real call or duty if you like to integrate spirituality and intellectual life. I keep thinking of that bit in the Gospel: ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, thy whole soul and thy own mind and thy whole strength. The whole person including the mind. I think one might at a very stage be a bit schizophrenic about this, how to reconcile the scientific approach to theological matters or the scriptures with the traditional wisdom, the fathers, the church, the mystics, the mystical tradition. But that’s a stage. I think one has to grapple with that and find the way to integrate it in oneself. I believe in this very strongly because I think it’s part of the job of anyone who’s seriously living a life of prayer and who also has intellectual formation to make a unity in himself or herself. If occasion requires, they can help others to do the same. There’s an old monastic tag – contemplata traduea – to hand on the results or fruits of contemplation and that can mean many thing. One of the things it means to me is that if one can integrate these things in one self and meaningfully help others, speak to others about it, if required, that could be a modern form of this contemplata traduea ideal. That’s just a notion I have.


Searching and finding are all of a piece. God is supposed to have said to Pascal:’ You would not be seeking me unless you had already found me.’ I think this is very, very true for all of us. The idea of seeking God is a classic of course. St Benedict says it in the Rule about a newcomer is to be examined to see if he is really seeking God or seeking something else, some sort of other end. Basil Hume’s book which is much liked is called ‘Seeking God.’ It’s a lifelong search but at the same time you could not seeking unless you had in some way already found. God is infinitely beyond us, infinitely beyond us. We’ll never come to the end of God or think we’ve got him sorted out and taped. It’s not like that. Even in heaven, presumably, when we see Him face to face, I suppose we go on seeking. I don’t know. St Augustine ventures to say he thinks possibly we do so I’m in good company. But you seek and you find, and you find and you seek. And you never come to the end of God.


Easter has underpinned everything. I was clothed – received the habit – in Easter week 1948, made my first vows in Easter week 1949 and made my life vows in Easter week 1952. I have always felt this was like a gift from God that everything about my vocation has been obviously tied up into the paschal mystery of the Lord’s death and resurrection. But it’s not just me. This is the main thing of the church’s life of every Christian’s life. I just feel it’s been stamped on mine in a special way.


The liturgy, the whole cycle, the repetitive celebration of Christ’s mysteries of redemption, from his birth, through to his public life, suffering, death, resurrection, glorification, sending of the Spirit. This unfolds in a sequence through the year. Because this mostly developed in the northern hemisphere it sings along with our natural cycles. The darkness of Advent and Christmas because it’s the darkest time when the birth of the light, the sun is reborn, and the days just begin to get longer after Christmas though you don’t notice it at first but you do by about the middle of January, and then of course Lent and Easter are in the spring when nature’s bursting out again in new life, life coming out of what seemed like death, and then into Pentecost and the fullness of summer, and harvest. It makes one appreciate the natural things that are following this, chiming in with it, keeping in tune with it in a special way. But I have also found that living this life for me is much more able to enjoy simple things. I have terrific pleasure out of the changing colours of the trees in autumn or the appearance of certain buds in the spring or looking at the first snowdrops which gets earlier and earlier. It used to February, now it’s January and even back in December because we get warmer and warmer which I don’t like. I love animals and they give me immense joy if I get in touch with them in any way, birds or whatever. This becomes more intense or fresh somehow as I get older and live life longer.


One makes mistakes the whole time, not only at the beginning either as a novice. You fall flat on your face over and over and over again. This is quite normal. One of things about community life is that we kind of carry each other in some kind of way. St Benedict talks near the end of the Rule about bearing one another’s weaknesses and there is a real sense that there is room to make mistakes and fail. That’s all right within the community. It’s the context in which one can. That’s great. This is not peculiar to monastics, of course, it’s everywhere, in families and all sorts of things. A loving environment is an environment in which you can make mistakes and learn from them.


Everything in our culture, the way it’s developed the last couple of hundred years, is so much geared to success, success in business, success in marriage, success in all sorts of enterprises. Failure is being written off. You’ve failed and that’s it. If you haven’t made it to the top by the time you’re 43 or whatever, then you’re a failure. This is so sad. There is room in Christian life for failing. The reason for that is, of course, that Jesus himself in a certain sense – in a certain sense I repeat that – did fail. If he was looking for a marvellous career of preaching and healing and teaching and more and more people coming to know the good news, it was cut very short. It was in the flower of youth more or less or early manhood. He failed and all his little band that he was gathering so carefully and preparing so carefully for their jobs all took to their heels and went. He was left alone. He had fallen apart in a terrible way. We tend to read the story backwards because we know about Easter and we think that’s all right because he was going to rise again on Easter Sunday But from his end as man it can’t have looked like that. In his human mind he must have felt that he failed. It was a terrible disaster at one sense at one level but the whole point of the story is that disaster, failure, was in God’s infinite plan the way in which he was going to redeem our failed world and did, of course, has, does. So failure can be used very constructively and creatively in human life if we unite it with the Cross.


There’s a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins about the mess we make of the world and how we smear it, spoil it and make it dirty. There’s always this freshness, deep down thing, the Holy Spirit. Certainly we’re promised a new heaven and a new earth whatever that may mean. Scripture says so but we don’t know what it means. But we can think about it this way I think: Christ’s risen body, Christ’s risen human body and human mind are like the explosive, radioactive nucleus of the new world, the new creation, that all creation is already being redeemed in Him and will in the end be glorious in Him. All creation.  Paul talks about it all groaning in travail and giving birth. We haven’t seen that new birth as yet but we see little bits of it I think. Teilhard de Chardin was like a prophet in some sort of way. I think he saw a great deal and did understand a lot about this creation of the new world and not only as some unimaginable distant thing but something we can contribute to now by our lives and our work and the way we honour beauty and so on.

The scriptures have been almost entirely my main spiritual influence. I’ve read other things but nothing comes anywhere near the scriptures for me. I’ve loved them and lived on them all these years and still do.


I think Stanbrook Abbey has meant for me generosity of spirit. There is a kind of breadth, kindness and generosity and outlook on people, acceptance of people, giving them space to be themselves, a lot of humour, and a kind of zest for life which is very marked, a kind of burst of creative energy all over the place which is very delightful.'



Dame Maria died in 2009. Her books include 'The Coming of God', 'The Gateway of Hope' and 'Gateway to Resurrection'.

Dame Maria Boulding OSB

LIFE & SOUL 3: DR RICHARD HOOPER - CHRISTIAN SCULPTOR                              













Although I have never had a particularly strong sense of vocation, I have sought to develop the talents I believe God has given me – those of creativity, imagination and a certain skill – but I also value the gifts he gives us in the world, such as amazing materials, shapes and colours, and even incredible technologies to work with.

If God is the creator of all gifts, as I believe he is, our mere practising them is always to his glory; and if, by practising them, we can give pleasure and or illumination to others, I am confident God is happy with our efforts as would any father, of any child, who worked diligently to bring richness to this world.

I’m influenced by words from the Book of Exodus: “I have filled him with the Spirit of God in wisdom, in understanding, in knowledge and in all kinds of craftsmanship” and by Pope John Paul the Second’s Letter to Artists: “None can sense more deeply than you artists, ingenious creators of beauty that you are, something of the pathos with which God at the dawn of creation looked upon the work of his hands.”

It has to be said, however, that flowing monastic habits or too much of a contemplative mind don't go well with rotating machinery! I'd hope to follow St Paul's admonition to be “in” the world but not too much “of” it.


I was born in 1958 at Liss in Hampshire, England, and moved around Britain in my early life as my father was an Anglican clergyman and a theological college lecturer. It was through him that I developed a love for ecclesiastical architecture: when I was growing up, each village with a church was a must-see car stop! My artistic interest comes from my mother who was an amateur watercolour painter. My great grandfather worked with Brunel in Cornwall - a beam engine he helped develop is exhibited at the Science Museum in London.


When I was young, I tended to create drawings of a somewhat fantastical, if naïve, nature; nonetheless, a parishioner of my parents’ acquaintance, with some credible artistic knowledge, saw them and remarked that “the boy has some artistic ability which should be nurtured”. While much of my education, at least in primary school, was spent “looking out of the window”, according to an ex-teacher, the lessons I really remember were the rarer ones involving creativity or, rarer still, invention (certainly not the bulk of one's Western education!)


These days I am Associate Professor in Fine Art and Design at Liverpool Hope University, England. I also have my own studio practice on the outskirts of the city. Initially I made my sculptural work using conventional machine tools such as lathes and milling machines. The sculpture beneath, employing such techniques, was a commission for a domestic meditative cross. The simple theme was Christ suffering by emptying himself on the Cross: a void set in a discus-shaped form, mounted on two supports on a slate stand.















Although a sculptural form may start out as a drawing on the back of the envelope or napkin, I most frequently develop the design with Computer Aided Design (CAD). Over the last ten years, I have sought to amalgamate the creative and productive aspects of designing, creating and making, using digital techniques. In fact, I purchased a somewhat large (4m x 4m x 4m) and heavy (11- ton) computer-aided milling machine so I could directly translate the digitally rendered concept into three dimensional reality. For some people this methodology is too far from the human hand; for me, though, it is infinitely closer to the purity of the mathematical - and sometimes theological - abstraction I am aiming for.













The second piece, Trinity (2009), shown beneath, was a conceptualisation of the triune God: three elements but one entity. The green translucent cast-acrylic sought to convey the divine immanence - God becoming man, spirit and matter. Sometimes the conceptual or theological meaning of a piece springs to mind after the essential form has been conceived, as in the case of this sculpture which was simply a study in geometry which I later decided could be a visual metaphor for the tripartite God.













At other times, the concept or theological theme is the starting point and I then develop a sculptural form to express my thoughts. This happened in 2013 with He is With You (below): here, I had wanted to do something with boats because the piece was going to be a ‘thank you’ present from his former parish for my Anglican priest brother who is a keen sailor. The piece could stand for Jesus' presence with us in life's trials. This, again, is a simple concept of Christ, asleep in the Galilean boat, before he calms the storm. All figures, Christ included, are omitted to focus on the idea of life's difficulties and that, ultimately, Christ is in control.














As a sculptor, my work is a function of my combined interests in geometric form, engineering methodologies (tools 'n stuff) and materiality (a love of the properties of materials) in a Minimalist (visually simple) vein. It often involves forms derived not only from Euclidean concepts (that is, based on “simple” spheres, cubes, cylinders, cones or dodecahedrons, the classical Platonic solids) but also non-regular forms derived from mathematically complex Non-Euclidean Geometry such as Topology and Calculus (a kidney or doughnut  shape, for example).


My work is represented by Contemporary Applied Art in London and del Mano Gallery, Los Angeles. You can find my sculptures in the permanent collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Mint Museum of Craft and Design in Charlotte, North Carolina, as well as in many private collections, mainly in the United States. I have exhibited at the applied art exhibition ‘Collect 2005’ exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and at SOFA (Sculpture, Objects and Functional Art) in New York.


I wouldn't hold up my prayer life as a model to aspire to, far from it. Like many people, I find prayer hard at any prolonged duration. Nonetheless, I do read Bible notes (UCB), and pray briefly each morning (or, at least, each morning I mean to!) and before bed at night. I also pray with two others in a “prayer triplet” fortnightly; and on Sunday afternoons I pray with two others for the life of our church. Often I also pray during the day for guidance, forgiveness, protection, wisdom, and to offer thanks and praise when events prompt me.


Perhaps I’m a bit of a jack-of-all-trades, having devoted myself in my early life to other activities such as javelin, rugby, cricket and squash as well as playing the guitar in a worship group and, more recently, writing contemporary Christian songs. The first I wrote when I was 57 came simply from a chord progression I found myself playing which led to some lyrics which seemed to fit - as simple as that. I wrote another because I couldn't think of many settings of the Lord's Prayer to contemporary music so I resolved to attempt one. A further one was trying to set the Christmas story to music - that got a bit out of hand, encapsulating the whole sweep of Jesus' life and ending up 12 minutes’ long.


Christ was himself a carpenter so I can certainly relate to him at the level of splinters! I often ask myself how much of a perfectionist would he have been, did he make mistakes in his work (as I do so often) and yes, what would have come out of his mouth when he struck himself with a hammer (assuming he did). In my more elevated moments, I do marvel, like many, at the wealth of imagination which God's universe demonstrates. I can also say that, when a piece of work is completed, one does get a sense of God's love of creativity and the joy he gets from seeing our best efforts. I sometimes imagine Jesus standing, smiling approvingly and sharing the moment, with his hands folded, saying “not bad for an amateur, son”.

Richard Hooper Title image