For some Trappist brothers, sexual identity is not a stumbling block.
By Brad Gooch
Brother Lavrans Nielsen was tall, fair, balding and large boned, with a goatee-style moustache and beard, an intense, blue-eyed gaze, and spare, big hands. Born in Brooklyn of Scandinavian background and baptized as Donald Anthony, he’d entered the community in 1957, at age twenty. A self-taught artist, his haunting icons, executed in Greek and Russian styles, now dot the walls of the new guest rooms in small reproductions, so any visitor’s memory of Gethsemani is colored by Lavrans’s art.
During his time at the monastery he made grand liturgical banners in felt that hung over the abbey altar on feast days; linoleum block prints for community Christmas and Easter cards; woodcuts, engraving, and calligraphy for the new English liturgy texts; and abstract oil paintings in light colors, often multilayered and three-dimensional. In 1970, he exhibited his paintings at the J.B Speed Museum, and in 1975, at the Swearingen-Byck Gallery, both in Louisville. In 1976 Brother Lavrans left the monastery and moved to Atlanta, where he continued to paint in the abstract expressionist style. He died of AIDS in 1991, at age forty.
In a homily entitled “Remembering Lavrans,” delivered on August 30, 1991, Father Matthew Kelty recalled Lavrans as following [Thomas] Merton’s lead in folding art, contemplation, and a hermit’s solitude into the Cistercian vocation: “His assignment one season was to operate the vacuum machine that drew the air from plastic sacks of quartered cheese rounds and sealed them. It was, of course, a monotonous routine that would drive a man like Lavrans into a high state of exasperation.
This went on, for the work had to be done, until he began to break out in large, ugly boils. So a halt was called, and the brother in charge made a bold move and offered a deal to Lavrans. If he would milk cows each morning-—no favorite among city monks-—and do the chores that went with it, he could have his afternoons for his art. Lavrans seized the opportunity. This was the first time any monk had been given official work time for something like art.” To work on his paintings, he moved first to a gristmill with the cloister and then to his hermitage outside the cloister built for him by a friend. …
Lavrans’s career as a monk was not only emblematic of various attempts to reinvent the Benedictine life after Vatican II, but also of the challenge of monastic life to the sexual revolution, which was moving full speed ahead in the culture at large. The vow of chastity had always presented challenges as far back as those Desert Fathers tempted by hallucinations of beautiful women visiting their isolated caves. (Chastity is a virtue in the Christian tradition. There is the example of Jesus remaining unmarried and celibate Saint Paul, who, in 1 Corinthians 7:8, urges, “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain single as I do.”)
But the 1970s in America are remembered in part for the growth of the women’s and gay liberation movements. Certainly, for any gay monks who’d chosen a life of closeted solitude during a time of repression, this option of openness might well have caused new doubts. I remembered Brother Lavrans telling me somewhat nostalgically of the Greenwich Village he’d left twenty years earlier, and I’d sensed in his telling the conflicts he was experiencing and the lure of living on the outside.
As I’d heard the story at the time, later in that year he put on a pair of Wellington boots and blue jeans and took a plane back to New York City, where he went directly to Ty’s and other gay bars on Christopher Street, undoubtedly a culture shock given the dramatic changes from the far gentler, bohemian period he’d known there in 1957. Either on the plane or at a bar, he met someone from Atlanta with whom he then lived unsuccessfully for a period of time. Whatever the details, Abbot Timothy confirmed that sexual liberation played a part in Lavrans’s decisions. “With Brother Lavrans that was very much involved with some of this choices,” the abbot told me.
“Because we’ve just been through an age of sexual liberation, it’s most un-American to be celibate,” the Benedictine monk Remy Rougeau wrote to me shortly after the publication in the summer of 2001 of his novel, “All We Know of Heaven,” about life in a Trappist monastery much like the Canadian Abbey of Notre Dame des Prairies, where he spent six years in his early twenties. “Sexual expression is the ultimate freedom. And celibacy is construed as a form of repression. One may as well live in China as join a Cistercian abbey. But, of course, popular perception isn’t necessarily welded to truth. Sexual expression doesn’t always liberate people. Celibacy is not inevitably repressive. In fact, if people understood how celibacy, freely chosen, is superbly liberating, we’d have no shortage of monks and nuns.”
The monk currently most involved with the touchy subject of monasticism and homosexuality is Matthew Kelty, whom I visited later [at Gethsemani] in his guest chaplain’s office. Kelty’s own story is quite unusual. Born in a suburb of Boston in 1915, his reputation in the monastery was that of being “eighty-two going on thirty-nine.” Spry, tough-talking, and sassy, Kelty still flavored his talk with an Irish accent, especially in his popular meditations for guests each evening, in which he quoted Ezra Pound and Gerard Manley Hopkins, among dozens of other poets.
Kelty led an earlier life as a priest of the more evangelistic Divine Word Society, including missionary work in New Guinea, until he entered Gethsemani at the age of forty-five in 1960. “I remember the day he arrived,” Father Alan told me. “I was in charge of the guest refectory at that time. He was the only customer here for Friday lunch, and it was fish. He was sitting there with his legs folded, shaking one foot, reading a newspaper. I’ve never seen anyone do that before or since.” In spite of his age, Kelty became a novice under Thomas Merton and in later years became Merton’s confessor. Father Matthew still took a walk through the woods every morning, wearing an orange coat, a big black hat, and cowboy boots, and carrying a shepherd’s crook.
Adding to his eccentricity is Father Matthew’s position as the only openly gay monk at Gethsemani—-he’s not only open, but he keeps a rainbow-colored mug at his place in the refectory. He accepts his homosexuality without engaging in sexual acts, a nuance that allows him to survive publicly as a priest of the Roman Catholic Church. His published essay on the subject is titled “Celibacy and the Gift of Gay” and is theological rather than autobiographical, though it is derived, he writes, “not just from what was read, but from what was lived.” When I spoke with Father Matthew he explained his nearly original position on gays as prime candidates for sustaining and renewing monasteries. “Gays make the best monks, in my opinion, because they’re already on the road to a life integrating the masculine and the feminine sides,” he said to me in his brogue-inflected voice. He was sitting behind his desk, which was piled high with poetry anthologies. “They don’t need a woman to awaken and arouse their feminine side. They already have it. All they need is guidance, direction, companions, and a reason. The reason would be God. The companions would be your brothers under a rule and an abbot. And you’ve got a beautiful life of peace and work and prayer. There have always been monks and nuns in every society because there have always been men and women to whom the route to integrated personhood is not necessarily marriage.”
In an essay in Harper’s magazine in September 1998 titled “Beyond Belief: A Skeptic Searches for an American Faith,” the author Fenton Johnson, who’d been raised near Gethsemani, let slip another amusing bit of the monastery’s gay history. As a child, Johnson’s father, who delivered the monastery’s bourbon for the production of fruitcake, used to invite some of the brothers home on special occasions for a meal.
“One brother was fond of a grass skirt someone had sent my mother from Hawaii,” Johnson wrote. “When the moon was right and the whiskey flowed, he donned the skirt and some hot pink plastic leis, then hoisted my mother to the table top and climbed up after her. There she sang ‘Hard Hearted Hannah’ (‘the vamp of Savannah, G.A.!) while her partner swayed his hips and waved his hands in mock hula. Later he launched into Broadway show tunes, warbling in falsetto with his arms thrown around one or more of his brethren. …Brother Fintan, my namesake, was a baker who made elaborate cakes for each of my birthdays until I was five. Then he left the monastery and disappeared from our lives, for reasons I would not learn for many years.” The ex-brother returned to dinner at the Johnson’s several years later with his male lover.
Less frivolous and amusing was a memory of Robert Imperato’s of an incident that today might be classified under the category of sexual harassment. “I did blow the whistle on one gay man who came on to me while I was there who was in a position of authority,” revealed Imperato. “It scared the hell out of me. I have nothing against gays, but not in a situation where the claim is to be celibate. He was active sexually. They stepped in and had him go to counseling, and he finally left the monastery. That was not at all common, though. Basically, I’d have to say that there really is this God think going on at Gethsemani. I feel that God is alive and well in some monasteries, and that’s one of them. I was certainly getting a lot of love and support from God there.” Indeed, contrary to fantasies of gay men, the incidence of gay sex in Trappist monasteries seems, as Imperato said, “not at all common.” The total gay population, as with some other ethnic and socioeconomic indicators (not racial, however, since most American monks are Caucasian), seems finally to be a reflection of the cross-section nationally-between 5 and 10 percent. “[Being gay] is taken in about the same light as my being color-blind,” Matthew Kelty wrote to me. “Even that is too much. For I sometimes talk about my vision. No one seems interested in my orientation.”