Maclean's Interview: Br. Gaston Deschamps

Martin Patriquin talks to Br. Gaston Deschamps about silence, modern life’s ‘follies,’ and seven decades inside a monastery

Maclean's Interview: Br. Gaston DeschampsIn February, Quebec’s Trappist monks left their monastery in Oka, Que., just outside of Montreal, where they had been based for 127 years. Long associated with the Oka cheese they once produced, the order made the move to a comparatively smaller monastery about 120 km northeast of the city, largely because modern life, and its associated noise, had encroached on them. Gaston Deschamps, 86, joined the order in 1941, and has left the monastery only a few times in his life, for medical treatment. The most recent move, he knows, will be his last.

Q: Your headphones are to help you hear?

A: Yes. I’m sorry about the headphones. I’m as deaf as a jug.

Q: Not to worry. Why did you become a monk?

A: My three older brothers were monks as well. I was hit early by my calling, you might say. I was nine when I first went to the monastery. I wanted so badly to be part of it, to the point of dressing like my brother and gluing potato peels to my head to imitate the monks’ curls. They had to turn me away at the door. I had it in the blood.

Q: How did your family feel about you following your brothers?

A: My father felt very deeply about the monastery. We were a very religious family. I never knew my mother. She died in 1925 when I was three.

Q: Do you have any family left?

A: Yes. My brother’s still alive. He’s 90 years old in August. He’s not really with us any longer, though, because he got Alzheimer’s.

Q: How much do you keep up on what’s going on in the world?

A: We vote, but I don’t usually know who I’m voting for. I don’t like politicians, because they always seem to be looking out for themselves. That’s what they do. They do it to have a big salary. I’m not saying they’re all the same, there have been some prime ministers who were good, but there are others who are good at filling up their pockets.

Q: And world events?

A: I’d say that I’m interested. Whenever there’s something important going on we can watch the television. We also have newspapers here. I think we even have Maclean’s.

Q: You’re in good company then. What do you know about Canada’s Prime Minister?

A: I know his name, but not much else. I’m Canadian, but I’m not his confessor.

Q: What event has most affected you recently?

A: It was terrible. I didn’t read it in the paper, but my superior spoke to us about it. That child who was raped by her father [Elisabeth Fritzl, who was confined for 24 years by her father, Josef Fritzl]. It’s sad, but the world is full of that kind of thing. It’s why I’m happy to be here. If I had to leave the monastery I would come back running. The little bit that I go out in the world I realize how . . . sad it can be. I think a big part of the problem is that the world isn’t religious anymore. People seem too concerned about what is happening now than what is going to happen later. They don’t realize that one day everybody dies and you have to go to the other side, and that you have to prepare.

Q: Has the world always been a sad place? Is it worse now than before?

A: I find it worse now. Look at Israel and the Palestinians. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s always about wrestling a little piece of land from the other person. They can’t stay peaceful with one another, and people get killed for stupid, inconsequential things.

Q: You and your fellow brethren left Oka because the modern world was infringing on you.

A: Yes. It was the noise. The airplanes were the worst. I’m human like everyone else, and I like seeing airplanes in the sky, even though I’ve never been in one, so I don’t know what it’s like at all. Airplanes and trucks, motorcycles and women and their little children. I mean, I love little kids and all, but we lost our peace. Here, we are in peace. We don’t even hear airplanes passing over. It allows us to live inside ourselves.

Q: What do you think about the modern world?

A: There are too many new things. For a long time I didn’t know anything about television or the radio. It’s rare that we hear or listen to either. To be honest, a lot of it doesn’t interest me.

Q: You were born in Montreal in 1922. What do you remember of the city?

A: All I can say is that when I left I was still a child, barely 19 years old. I was already involved with the Church, singing at the Notre-Dame cathedral. I lived at 3659 Jeanne Mance, near Prince Arthur. It was quite quiet then. The city was kind of pitiful, to be honest. These were the days before Mayor Jean Drapeau, who I thought was an honest man. He often came to the monastery in Oka. Since I joined the order I’ve only been to Montreal to go to the hospital. When I first came to the monastery, I stayed 15 years before ever leaving for the first time.

Q: What were the early days in the monastery like?

A: When I got to the monastery it was very noisy because we were 179 brothers, and now we are 26. I took care of the cows and worked in the laundry room for 12 years. The laundry room wasn’t a great job, but I had heart because I was young. I even made my own soap from the cows we killed. I was in the boiler room for 57 years. I was the last person to close down the boiler room before we came here. The boiler room was home to me. I loved it, but the blowers made me deaf.

Q: Tell me about your daily routine.

A: We start at about 3:45 a.m. We have what is called the night vigil, about 45 minutes. After breakfast, we have lauds, the morning prayer. Then we sit and read, mostly spiritual books. Then we have mass at 8:15 in the morning, and then we go to our rooms again to pray. At 12:15 we have our sixth hour prayer. After lunch we have ninth hour prayers, and then we work. We are fairly strict here. We aren’t allowed to eat meat during the week, though I am allowed because I have anemia. After dinner we have vespers, an evening prayer, at six o’clock. At 7:30 we have another short prayer. I usually go to sleep at nine o’clock. It’s easier now, because when I came to the monastery our services were all in Latin. Now they are in French, and it lets you think the same thing that you say. It’s beautiful. Apart from our prayers we are free to devote ourselves to whatever we want. I’m reading a book about St. Thérèse de Lisieux. She died at 24 of tuberculosis and gave her life to God. She suffered for the poor people. It’s quite beautiful. It’s what we do here.

Q: It’s really about repetition, isn’t it? Why is this routine so important?

A: Our routine here keeps us close to God.

Q: Silence is also quite important. Why is that?

A: Spend a week here and you’ll see. We have rooms here where you can stay. No TV, no radio, no cigarettes, you’ll see how it will change you. It’s in silence where you find the solution.

Q: We know that fewer people go to church now, that fewer people are closer to God.

A: Yes, it’s very, very sad.

Q: Why do you think people have lost faith?

A: There are too many modernities, too much “new” in society. There’s TV, there’s racy dances. I’m open enough, but if I was in the modern world I’d be lost. The way young girls carry themselves, the way young men cut their hair like the Mohawk Indians. I wouldn’t be comfortable speaking with them, I don’t think.

Q: What does it say about society that we go to church less?

A: We’ve lost what little good we used to have. I find it sad. We’ve removed God from every aspect of life. When you lose faith in God, you lose faith in life. We have people who call here to tell us that they want to commit suicide. These are young people who steal, who get into trouble, who can’t meet a girl without sleeping with them. We’ve become too preoccupied with what is on the outside. I can’t say it any other way. You have to live on the inside. It’s good for the spirit. I’ll give you an example. I had a man from the city who came here for a week because he was stressed beyond belief. He worked for Montreal’s transit authority. He said that after the first day here he wasn’t comfortable with all the silence, but by the end of the week he didn’t want to leave. Being here rejuvenates you. It’s good for the spirit.

Q: At one point there were nearly 200 monks living in the monastery. Now there are 26. What does that tell you about the long-term survival of the monastery?

A: It brings me a lot of pain to think about this. I worry about the Church. We pray a lot for our survival. Faith is so incredibly important, and I get the feeling that there’s less of this today, which is sad. You need religious people in the world, to pray for everyone. We saw the need when we left Oka. People were coming up to us, asking us to pray for them, their children. We even have people from Oka coming here for our Sunday mass.

Q: Do you have any regrets?

A: Regrets? Oh, no. None at all. The only thing I wish for is that I could have done better or more than I did. As you become further and further involved in spiritual life, you realize that there is a limit to how far you can go, and I wish I could have gone further. Look at the saints. I’m reading about Sister Marie Faustine, who John Paul II canonized in 1993. She died at 33 years of age. God talked to her the same way I’m speaking to you right now. Even religious people thought she was crazy. But what she achieved was amazing, a true miracle.

Q: What do you wish for the most for the world?

A: I wish people would pay less attention to life’s follies.

Q: Speaking of which, there’s a financial crisis in the world today.

A: Yeah, I heard about it. I don’t really follow it, though. Money doesn’t matter to me. I used to fix watches and clocks for people, and charge a certain amount. But what am I supposed to do with money?

Q: So the economic crisis doesn’t affect you?

A: Nope. I don’t understand the idea of it.

Q: In English, we call it greed.

A: That’s just it. The person who makes money always wants to make more.

Q: Have you accomplished what you want in life?

A: Yes. Otherwise I wouldn’t have stayed here. I stayed here because I love the way I live. I’m at peace.

Q: You certainly seem like it.

A: Oh, yes. Next Sunday I’m going to receive the Sacrament of the Sick, which is what is given to the gravely ill and the dying. I’ve been condemned to death. I had a heart attack in 1998, and I’ve had bouts of angina since then. The veins to my heart are almost completely blocked. I’ve had treatment, but the doctors have said they can’t do it anymore because more treatment would kill me. So I’m just waiting quietly for death to take me. And I’m happy, because I know where I’m going.

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