As many news sources and blogs, including this one, have already reported, Dom Francis Kline, abbot of Mepkin Abbey, died after a long illness on August 27. The Monastic Interreligious Dialogue has posted a memorial by Timothy Kelly, fellow Trappist and the eight abbot of Gethsemani, now serving at the Generalate in Rome.
In the current Commonweal, while reviewing a book on the Carthusians, Lawrence Cunningham writes, “Too many lay writers on monastic life invoke romantic visions of silent men in cowls padding about cloisters while Gregorian chant plays in the background.” Dom Kelly, of course, does not fall prey to the spectator’s romanticism. His account of the late Francis Kline’s life has the much deeper beauty of realism.
Here are some excerpts:
It was one of those bleak late winter evenings when I first met Father Francis. He was Joseph Kline and was at Gethsemani seeking discernment of a monastic vocation. He sat in a corner of a poorly lighted room, too big for such an interview, and answered monosyllabically.
I had been novice master for four years. It was the early seventies. There had been candidate interviews with young men who were high on marijuana which of course I never noticed; there had been persons who talked for hours about their mystical experiences from LSD; there were candidates who wanted to share their writings which were inspired by Thomas Merton. These experiences made me a little wary of candidate interviews. Then too there was the reality that if the candidate enters, it is the novice master who will have to be with him in all the ups and downs of the beginnings of a spiritual journey. “Do I really want to do that again”, was the lens through which candidate interviews were focused?
Joseph Kline was very uncommunicative. It was Friday evening; he had to be back in Long Island to play the Sunday liturgies at the parish where he had been involved for most of his student years. I pulled and pushed trying to understand why Joe would want to come to monastic life. He mentioned the interviewer from the Christian Science Monitor after his performance of the complete organ works of J.S. Bach asking him, “What next?” The question had brought to light the unease he had been living. What next?
He had thought of a priestly vocation before; thought of the Jesuits who were responsible for training that keen intellect during high school; recently he had read one of the most uninspiring books about Thomas Merton’s monastic life, Ed Rice’s A Man in the Sycamore Tree. That had touched him and he wanted to surrender all to the Lord; yes, even, and in particular, his music! What novice master hasn’t heard such absolute surrender from an aspirant and heard it often enough to be a little cynical or rather realistic about the interpretation of what is being said.
With the two other monks who interviewed Joseph Kline we shared impressions, to piece together the life story. There wasn’t a strong sense that this is the way for such an exceptionally intelligent and talented person. Yet he was obviously being called to something; he needed to make some career choices; the discernment of a monastic vocation or not could clear his way forward. With that somewhat pragmatic decision, Joseph was informed that he was welcome to Gethsemani as a postulant.
There was the renunciation – music. Various combinations were tried, the practical problem of finding practice time in a highly structured monastic schedule that regularly prayed in the Church where the instrument was; in a Community which at that time was blessed with a very accomplished musician. In addition there were two or three others who played and who did need practice. Brother Francis as Joseph Kline had practiced eight to ten to twelve hours a day! But it was not the confusion of schedules nor just time that he needed, Francis was sure that God wanted him to surrender his music totally. The novice master had doubts. The practical reality was this meant a monk to work and not work time to practice organ.
This went on for weeks but there were rumors of the organ being played in the middle of the night; there was novice Francis sleeping over his reading. In one of the weekly session the topic of midnight organ recitals was brought-up. It wasn’t easy to convince him – radicalness of his commitment; his life as a monk depended on leaving everything. We reflected together on communication and how we communicate with God, how we say in all truth who we are. For Francis obviously music was his way of communication. There was an agreement to respond to the Lord by music and we would discern it again.
At a Monastic Interreligious Dialogue gathering Abbot Francis commented on “Discipline and Spontaneity” a chapter of the book Benedict’s Dharma. A point that he made comes from art. His point is interesting. That in great art one never has a total surprise or something that is totally spontaneous. “You do have it, but the one who is surprised … (is) the one who is creating the work. The discipline itself prepares for surprise. The Rule (of Saint Benedict) itself gives rise to something greater than itself, if we are being honest and true to the practice”.
One is hard pressed to say what one force was the core of Abbot Francis’ spiritual response; certainly Jesus from the Scriptures. He was acquainted with modern biblical scholarship, but not impressed. His inspiration was the patristic literature. But perhaps even more it was his personal lectio – that monastic discipline of daily meditating on the scriptures. The Rule of Benedict was another source. He knew the Rule and used it constantly in showing others the monastic way. His priesthood was something of an identity for him, something to which he was always faithful and never hesitated to give witness. His love of the Church was central and above all the persons who are the Church. The list is without end. Whenever a person, a cause or an intellectual concern touched him, Francis was unstinting in his pursuit. If he was not interested, it was obvious. This was the case at most general chapters of the order and other such meetings. His very close friend Abbot Peter McCarthy described it perfectly in the funeral homily. “I have never before or since ever experienced anyone who could register near cosmic boredom in every facial feature no matter how sensitive the occasion might be.”
A former novice of Gethsemani who remained a friend of Francis tells of experiencing him playing an extremely complicated organ piece and acknowledging to Francis that he could hardly keep track of the notes on the page much less play them. Francis’ response, “Playing the notes is the easy part, but making music – that’s a very different thing.” And Joe McHugh comments. “Francis could make music because his technique was so disciplined that he could lose himself in the music and let it both touch and carry him, creating something new and beautiful in the process.”
It was this same principle in his monastic discipline. It was something that he had let enter so deeply into his spiritual being in those dark and forlorn days in the knobs of Kentucky that he could respond with a freedom and joy to whatever he was asked. During those days he entered into the “love of learning and the desire for God” which is the wisdom of the monastic culture. His abilities allowed him to do it with a creativity and freshness that wanted to share the riches with others. But always at the center was the discipline – technique – that limited but also created something new and beautiful in the process.
The technique, the discipline, the vows, the Rule of Benedict, the Gospel all were Brother Francis’ way to find beauty. Beauty is a transcendental, an attribute of God. There was beauty in the life we knew Francis to live; his way of accepting others; his generosity to one and all. But there was always that other dimension; a place, a relation, a musical line that was his alone. Perhaps it could be called his vocation.