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. ...
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."