A Trappist monk, through his humility and quiet example, had a profound impact on one person’s life.
By John Knutsen, Coordinator, Adult Faith Formation
Years ago, I discerned a religious vocation at a Trappist monastery near Atlanta. It was a period known as an Observership, during which a candidate lives and works with the monks for two months to experience their way of life from the inside. Among other things, it left me with a deep love for monastic spirituality and a lasting attraction to silence, but one of the highlights was meeting Fr. Lawrence. We probably said fewer than 50 words to each other, but he left an impression that I have never forgotten.
When I met Fr. Lawrence he was 93 and approaching his 75th anniversary as a monk. He came from a Polish family in Texas and entered Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky in 1926, when he was 19. He served as Sub-Master of Novices and in that role had come to know Thomas Merton. In 1945, Fr. Lawrence was sent to their new monastery in Georgia.
He was tall and had clearly been powerfully built as a younger man, now stooped a bit with the burdens of old age. He had enormous hands, well-acquainted with manual labor. He shuffled when he walked, moving along in great, ill-fitting shoes. In the cloister walk, at the door to the church, there stood a statue of Mary and the infant Jesus, and every time Fr. Lawrence would approach the door he would pause to say a silent prayer. Trappist life is centered around several common liturgical hours and two daily work periods, none of which Fr. Lawrence missed. He was always on time for work and left as soon as the bell rang so he could be in the church early, never lingering a few more minutes to finish whatever he’d been working on. I would see him in the greenhouse, pushing his wheelbarrow or potting plants.
I was powerfully drawn by Fr. Lawrence’s example. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is often described as the still point in a world swirling with activity and confusion and brokenness, drawing everyone to Himself. Fr. Lawrence’s presence was something like that for me, though ultimately he was not drawing attention to himself at all.
Toward the end of my Observership, I was doing the dishes after supper one evening when Fr. Lawrence shuffled through the kitchen and stopped in front of me. I immediately dropped what I was doing and said hello, hoping finally to have a real conversation with him. He knew that I would be leaving the monastery soon in order to continue my discernment out in the world. He looked at me, smiled, pointed a great finger toward me and said with a sparkle in his eye, “I’m going to pray you back in!” Then he moved on. I was invited back to the monastery as a Postulant, but ultimately I discerned that I was not called to priesthood or religious life.
Fr. Lawrence died peacefully in the Lord at the age of 98. He’d been a priest for 71 years and a monk for 79, the longest Trappist life in the United States at that time and perhaps still. When my wife and I traveled to the monastery for the ordination of another monk I knew, I made a point of visiting his grave. His quiet, faithful presence filled the days of that retreat despite his empty seat in the choir stalls and the absence of the sound of his shuffling feet in the big church.
I once asked him how he felt about his approaching 75th anniversary of monastic life. He shrugged, quietly said “I’m still learning how to be a monk,” and moved on. I later learned that this was a typical reply when asked about his monastic longevity, something that happened fairly often. Once, while working in the monastery’s garden shop, he was asked by two visitors how long he had been a monk. “One day,” he answered.
So many people find commitment to be an elusive and even frightening thing. Many bounce from place to place, trying this or that career, dating this person and then that one, often restless and hesitant to put down roots. So many desperately seek happiness but have no idea what it is, nor where to look for it. I struggled with that for much of my life too. I went to the monastery in my late 20s, which is very young to be discerning a Trappist vocation these days. I came late to marriage and parenthood as well.
Perhaps my fascination with Fr. Lawrence had something to do with this fear of planting roots, a fear mingled with a deep love for, and attraction to, monastic stability. Perhaps it was partly a deep sense of longing for the simple happiness that his vocation had provided for the vast majority of his long life. I think, though, that it was mostly an attraction to his quiet holiness, his single-minded devotion to God. No doubt he had his flaws, as all the saints did, but the simplicity of his life – the uncomplicated grandeur of it – was powerfully appealing to a restless soul such as mine. I had lengthy conversations with other monks in those two months and became friends with a few of them, but the one who has remained most firmly in my memory is the one who hardly said anything to me at all.
I still think of Fr. Lawrence from time to time, especially when I’m feeling sorry for myself or when the demands of my vocation to marriage and family life feel particularly heavy and joyless. At those times I remember his quiet, unglamorous fidelity to the path God had chosen for him and I say a prayer asking for his help.