Kevin Hunt – he introduces himself as Kevin – is a Trappist monk, and he wears the robes well. They suit him; he has the right build. He looks the part; he looks at ease in it. 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 choice. In Ireland, the Trappists had been the order to which boys who were thought unlikely to be able to make it through the seminary were sent. Kevin’s father died still suspecting that his son was selling himself short. 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 came around.
If it wasn’t bad enough that he was a Trappist, he is also a Zen practitioner and teacher. “I have a twin brother, and he’s a golfer. One day he goes looking for a threesome that wants to fill out to a foursome. One of the men there is a retired Methodist minister, and my brother mentions that he has a brother who’s a priest. And the guy says to him, ‘There’s another man here in who’s got a brother . . .’ Gives my brother his name. My brother calls him. They meet and have a game of golf; they’re talking. This other guy says, ‘Well, you know, my brother’s not only a priest, but he’s a funny kind of priest. He’s a Jesuit.’ My brother says, ‘Well, if you think that’s bad, I’ve got a brother who’s a Trappist.’ ‘Well, my brother the Jesuit is even weirder because he’s all involved in Zen Buddhism!’ And my brother says to him, ‘Well, my brother’s as weird as that because he’s also involved . . .’” The other man was the brother of Robert Kennedy from whom Kevin received Dharma transmission.
Kevin’s monastery is Saint Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts, but I met him at the nearby St. Mary’s Abbey for Trappistines in Wrentham where he was serving as chaplain. At the time of my visit, this convent has about 45 women ranging in age 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.
Kevin first encountered Zen while helping to establish a Trappist abbey in Argentina. He was given a Spanish translation of Eugen Herrigel’s 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 blanket. The superior didn’t want him sitting like that in the main chapel, but, at the time, Kevin was 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 didn’t seem to be getting anywhere with it. So one day, as he was seated on the blanket, 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 from South America, the abbot was Thomas Keating, who helped develop the idea of Centering Prayer as a contemplative practice for Christian lay people. Keating was open to the idea of the Japanese teacher, Joshu Sasaki, leading Zen sesshin at the abbey, something Sasaki did for several years in the ’70s. Kevin also participated in several 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 Robert Kennedy, from whom he received transmission 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 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. Teresa 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: 134, 303, 308, 310-320
Catholicism and Zen: 15-16, 168-80
The Story of Zen: 288