Father Kevin Hunt believes that perhaps the reason people of Catholic and Jewish heritageare drawn to Zen practice in disproportionate numbers is that both of these have strong contemplative traditions associated with them. Catholicism, of course, also has a long monastic tradition as well.
Kevin—as he introduces himself—is a Trappist, and he wears the robes well. They suit him; he has the right build. He looks the part, and he looks at ease in it. And so he should. “I’ve known since I was 13 what I wanted to do,” he tells me. His parents—New York City Irish Catholics—weren’t thrilled with his life choice. Their memories of Ireland were that Trappists were the order to which they sent the kids who couldn’t do anything else. Unfortunately, Kevin’s father died still suspecting that was the case. His mother, on the other hand, attended a mission preached by a Franciscan and afterwards went to talk to the friar, lamenting that her son would soon be taking his final vows as a Trappist. The Franciscan embraced her and said, “Madam, your salvation is assured!” She finally came around.
And if it wasn’t bad enough that he was a Trappist, he is also a transmitted Zen teacher.
Kevin’s home monastery is Saint Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts, but currently he is serving as chaplain at the nearby St. Mary’s Abbey for Trappistines in Wrentham. This convent has about 45 women whose ages range from 25 to 93. There are still young people applying for admission both at Saint Joseph’s and St. Mary’s. The numbers aren’t large, but, then, the monastic calling has always been a minority one. The Trappists are at least as vital as Blue Cliff.
Kevin first encountered Zen while helping to establish a Trappist abbey in Argentina. He was given a Spanish translation of the German book by Eugen Herrigel, Zen in the Art of Archery. He suggests that it wasn’t a very good translation, but it talked about seated meditation. “At that time,” he says, “we didn’t sit in chapel. When we were in chapel, we either stood or knelt.” The idea of seated meditation, however, called to him, and, for the next seven years in addition to the regular periods of prayer, he took time every day to sit cross-legged on a folded up blanket. The superior didn’t want him sitting cross-legged in the main chapel, but Kevin was then in charge of the infirmary and was able to set up its tiny chapel as he pleased.
Herrigel included a koan in his book: What is your face before your parents’ birth? The question stuck with Kevin for those seven years, but eventually he had to admit he did not seem to be getting anywhere. So one day, as he was seated in meditation, he decided to give it up, and he stood up. “In that act of standing up,” he says, “I suddenly knew what my face before my parents’ birth was.”
The order was not wholly opposed to Kevin’s Zen practice, but he was considered “singular” which—he points out—is not a good thing in a monastic community. “However great liberty of spirit is given for us to follow our own natural mode of prayer.”
When Kevin returned to St. Joseph’s, the abbot was Thomas Keating, who helped develop the idea of Centering Prayer as a contemplative practice for Christian. Keating was open to the idea of Joshu Sasaki Roshi leading Zen sesshin at the abbey, something Sasaki did for several years in the 70s. Kevin also participated in three three-month work periods at Mount Baldy in California with Sasaki. But with the installation of a new abbot, the sesshins at St. Joseph’s came to an end.
Finally, Kevin met the Jesuit Zen teacher, Robert Kennedy. He began working with him in earnest and received transmission from Kennedy in 2004. I first heard of Kevin from a short article in the National Catholic Reporter which reported the event. He was asked in the article what a Trappist Zen Master did, and—as I remembered his answer—he said, “I’m not sure, but I guess I’ll find out.”
“Have you?” I asked. “Found out?”
“I’m finding out,” he laughs. “It’s a work in progress.”
He remains singular in the order; there are no other Trappists practicing with him. But he leads two small groups, one in Connecticut—The Transfiguration Zendo—and another which meets at St. Mary’s retreat house in Wrentham. This is the Daystar Zendo largely made up of Catholics from Worcester who are also drawn to Zen.
When I ask what Zen has to offer Catholicism, he tells me a story about St. Theresa of Avila. When she was a little girl, someone asked her what she wanted in life. She told them, “I want to see God.” “That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do,” Kevin tells me, “and Zen has provided the best way for me to do it.”
Cypress Trees in the Garden:
Cypress Trees in the Garden:
Hunt, Father Kevin – 134, 303, 308, 310-320