Friends, I am heartbroken to report that my dear friend and mentor, Trappist monk and author Elias (Paul) Marechal, passed away last night at the age of 86. He had been suffering from a variety of health conditions in recent years, and recently embraced hospice care in the infirmary of his monastery in Conyers, Georgia.
Elias was the author of two books: Dancing Madly Backwards published under his secular name of Paul Marechal in 1982 and now out of print, and Tears of An Innocent God, published in 2015. Both books are poetic, lyrical reflections on the inner dynamics of the contemplative life. An interesting story links the two books: Tears grew out of a desire that Elias had to see Dancing be reissued in a new edition. He spoke to several editors and literary agents over the years, and learned that for publishers, reissuing old books in new editions is often a money-losing prospect. They encouraged him at first to write some new material so it could be an expanded new book; but a little bit of new material evolved into the point where the second book consists of almost entirely new writing. As good as Dancing Madly Backwards is, Tears of an Innocent God shines with the wisdom of an additional thirty years of living, much of it in monastic settings.
I read Dancing Madly Backwards shortly after it first came out — I think I was drawn to it because the foreword was by an author I liked, Morton Kelsey. But the poetic, non-linear meditations that danced (pardon the pun) throughout the book grabbed me, and it became for me an example of meaningful and beautiful Christian mystical spirituality written by a living author. I’m the kind of person who is always getting new books so I’m also always selling or giving away old books I no longer need or want — but in almost 40 years, I never let go of my copy of Dancing Madly Backwards, which remains a treasure in my personal library.
I met Elias in 2005, when I began working for the monastery. Attending daily Mass, I was impressed by the lovely voice of this particular monk, who often would be tasked with reading one of the lessons. Then, at the Christmas party the monks hosted for their employees and volunteers, I had a chance to chat with Brother Elias. We found out we both were writers — at the time, most of my published books concerned pagan spirituality, so I was a little hesitant to admit this to him; but like so many monks I’ve met over the years, he responded to that fact not with judgment but with open-minded curiosity. Still, I wanted to steer the conversation in a different direction, so I asked him about his work.
“Well, I only have written one little book,” he replied modestly (Elias was one of the most humble and modest persons I have ever known); it came out many years ago and is now out of print; I’m sure you’ve never heard of it, it’s called Dancing Madly Backwards.”
Of course, I had heard of it, and effusively began to praise the book like a star-struck teenager. I don’t know who was more nonplussed: me, at meeting the author of I book I had loved for many years, or Elias, thrilled to discover that some random person at this party had actually read the book!
And thus began a wonderful friendship. Over the years Elias and I would go on to lead retreats together (our “Wisdom of the Christian Mystics” retreat was an annual event, interrupted only by the COVID-19 pandemic), share new writing with each other (last fall he sent me five new pieces he was developing for a hoped-for follow-up to Tears), but most of all, we were simply friends. It was always a joy to see him and spend time with him, and I am so incredibly thankful that we got to see each other several times even during the pandemic, after vaccinations made it less frightening for medically vulnerable people like him to be around others.
I’d like to write a paragraph or two about Elias’s life, but like so many Trappist monks, he wasn’t one to spend a lot of time talking about himself, so I only have bits and pieces to share with you. Still, I hope I can offer a few details to give you a sense of what a lovely and remarkable man he was. Paul Marechal was born in New Orleans, Louisiana on July 11, 1936; his father was a diplomat from Belgium so even from a young age he had a cosmopolitan sensibility — what nowadays we might call being a “third culture” kid. He had a near death experience as a boy when he almost drowned, and remained fascinated by research into NDEs his entire life. But it was as a freshman at Notre Dame University in the early 1950s that his spiritual life really kicked into gear. At the advice of one of his professors he visited the Grotto on the Notre Dame campus, where he spontaneously fell into a period of contemplative abandonment — what monks classically called excessus mentis; when he came back to ordinary consciousness, some 45 minutes or so had seemed to pass by in just a moment — he had to rush to get to his supper before the dining hall closed. Sharing his experience with a priest, he learned that it probably was an incidence of infused contemplation: a graced, entirely outside-our-control experience of nondual union with the mystery we call God. From then on, Elias was a mystic.
Like so many contemplatives of our age, he was nurtured not only by the Catholic faith he grew up in; for a number of years he was active in the Transcendental Meditation movement, attending a number of lengthy retreats and eventually reaching the point where he was training others to be T.M. teachers. Still, the beckoning call of mystical Christianity remained in his heart, and after working for some time as a high school teacher and testing his vocation at Gethsemani Abbey and Holy Cross Trappist Monastery in Berryville, Virginia, he found his way to Conyers, where the Monastery of the Holy Spirit became his home.
Elias had a very subtle (and at times wicked) sense of humor. As I mentioned before, he was truly a humble and modest person, but very warm and someone who valued friendship dearly. It was a joy working with him as a retreat leader and I learned so much from him. I’ll miss him dearly.
I also want to acknowledge that when Rhiannon died in 2014, two monks attended her funeral (it is customary for two, and only two, monks to attend the funeral of a friend of the monastery). The two who attended were Fr. Tom Francis Smith (who concelebrated the funeral mass) and Brother Elias. I have made many friends at the monastery, but it meant so very much to me that those two brothers were the ones who joined with us when we were saying good-bye to our daughter.
Here is an interview I conducted with Elias for the Encountering Silence podcast in 2018. This was before Elias became familiar with Zoom, so we conducted the interview at the monastery where I met with him at the guesthouse (this is why my co-hosts Cassidy and Kevin were not part of this particular episode).
Here’s Brother Elias’s obituary on the Monastery website: The Passing of Brother Elias. Also, check out this review of Tears of an Innocent God published by the Catholic newspaper of the Atlanta Archdiocese: Conyers’ Brother Elias pens a Contemplative Marvel.
And finally, a few pictures…
Rest in peace, Elias Marechal. Enjoy the unending light you are now immersed in.