Henry Quinson On Trading Wall Street For Life In A Monastery Henry Quinson was a very successful currency trader when, at the age of 27, he walked away from his comfortable life and joined a rural monastery in France. He shares his story and explains how he became an adviser for the 2010 French film Of Gods and Men.
NPR logo

Trading Wall Street For Life In A Monastery

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/133372394/134371151" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Trading Wall Street For Life In A Monastery

Trading Wall Street For Life In A Monastery

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/133372394/134371151" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. Im Terry Gross.

The new French film "Of Gods and Men" is based on a true story of seven French Trappist - or Cistercian - monks who were living in a rural monastery in Algeria in 1996 when they were kidnapped by Islamic extremists. The monks in the film practiced silence most of the day, and spent several hours each day singing together.

My guest, Henry Quinson, was the film's adviser on monastic life. He knew several of the monks depicted in the film. He lived in the Tamie monastery in rural France for six years, practicing silence and singing, like the monks in the film. What a contrast from the life he came from. He had been a manager at the international markets trading department of a large investment bank. He got his financial training in London and on Wall Street. He now lives in Marseilles, teaching in an inner-city school and working with poor, immigrant families.

Henry Quinson, welcome to FRESH AIR. So you lived in the order - in the monastic order thats depicted in the film. Before we talk about that life, let's talk about why you chose it. You'd been a very successful currency trader. You handled a $15 billion portfolio. Just briefly describe what that life was like.

Mr. HENRY QUINSON (Teacher): Very hectic.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. QUINSON: It was a very busy life. Very interesting because in the '80s, all these new financial products were very new in Europe. So it was not just, you know, trading money. It was also explaining how these things worked to customers, and so it was also very challenging intellectually.

GROSS: Wait. Wait. Wait. When you say "these things," are you talking about all the things that created the housing bubble?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Like the securitization of mortgages and...

Mr. QUINSON: Well, youre right. You know, looking back on what has come out of all this financial innovation, I'm very critical. That was one of my problems when I was trading currency options. I had questions about, you know, OK, if it's just the hedge customers because they have to sell planes, that's all right. But if it's just to play like in the casino, I have problems with that.

GROSS: So you're in this hectic life, you're trading derivatives that you don't particularly trust or endorse.

Mr. QUINSON: Yeah.

GROSS: What was the turning point, where you said: I want to get out of this life?

Mr. QUINSON: When I was a student. So it was really, before I started working with the bank and the markets. I actually, when I was 20, I had this spiritual experience that was so strong that actually, seven years later, I came to this conclusion that I wanted to change my lifestyle and join a monastery - because I thought, you know, the spiritual part of my human life was more important than a career or making money.

And so that was really the core of it - is for me, the spiritual life was something that had to take the first place in my life. And of course, I could have decided something else, but at one point I thought, you know, I want to change, and go and try the life you can find in a monastery.

GROSS: Can you describe what that spiritual experience was?

Mr. QUINSON: No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: OK. Fair enough. Yeah.

Mr. QUINSON: Well, it's not that I don't want to but it's very difficult to describe, actually. I had everything in my life and at the same time, I thought that something was missing, and I just couldn't get my hand on it. And at some point, I just went to my room and said to God - I don't like that name because it comes from - I mean God; what is God? You have to define what youre, what god you're talking about - but this spiritual entity: If you really exist, well, could you make me understand who you are? Or even better than that, experience who you are? And at that point, I was filled with peace and joy and actually quite surprised by that experience. So I thought, you know, maybe this is just psychological. And I tried, then, studying different religious traditions -Judaism, Christianism(ph), but also Islam, Hinduism - and came to the conclusion that well, this was part of the human experience, and that I wanted to know more about it, but not just intellectually but as a transforming experience of my life.

GROSS: So when you decided to leave the investment world...

Mr. QUINSON: Right.

GROSS: ...and enter the monastic world...

Mr. QUINSON: Yeah.

GROSS: ...did your colleagues in the investment world, did your family think you were crazy or...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. QUINSON: Berserk?

GROSS: Yeah, berserk, or were they surprised - or did they see you heading in that direction beforehand?

Mr. QUINSON: Part of my family was not surprised because they thought that I was really moving, in some ways, towards something of that direction. Then my colleagues, some of them, were just flabbergasted. I remember one of my colleagues just couldn't talk. He was like, you know, a computer that bugs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. QUINSON: And you would hear the hard disk, you know...

(Soundbite of a computer short-circuiting)

Mr. QUINSON: So it was a mixed bag. Some people very close to me - only the people who were very, very close to me understood that, you know, this question of spirituality, religion, that was something important in my life. And other people in the business were really, in a state of shock.

GROSS: So you decided to enter a monastery, which is a pretty extreme way of going about religion because you're so shut off from the world. And the monastery that you chose is based in - correct me if I'm wrong here - it's based on seventh century teachings by St. Benedict?

Mr. QUINSON: Thats right. Yeah. Oh, youre right about the extremism.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. QUINSON: It certainly is extreme. Now, at the same time, monks who live under this monastic rule - that actually has evolved in different ways because of course, in the 20th century, people cannot live in the same way as they used to in the Middle Ages, but still you have this calling to silence. It's actually not that shut off as people might think because you always have this tradition of hospitality. And so people, many people actually come to the monastery for retreats. And in France, where I was - at Tamie - it was something like more than 100,000 people every year. So it's a lot of people...

GROSS: Oh, my goodness.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. QUINSON: ...come to the monastery.

GROSS: OK. More visitors than I have.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. QUINSON: Yeah, right. Of course, the monks are - the community is not interacting with all these people all the time. Some of them are in charge of retreats, etc. But still, there's a relationship with - a connection with the world that is stronger than people might believe.

GROSS: So just curious: When you walked away from the financial world and you entered the monastery, what happened to all the money you had as an investor?

Mr. QUINSON: Well, most of it I just gave to charities - although I don't really like to talk about that because, you know, thats something I should keep for myself. But you asked me the question; I have to answer. And so, yeah, the idea is that, you know, we should be living a simple life and so that was, well, that was easy to solve.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You giving away money?

Mr. QUINSON: Yeah.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. QUINSON: The most difficult is how you embrace a new life - because that's the real part of it, and that's the personal part of it. And you know, changing from one life, a very hectic life - you know, connected to all the different financial markets - and suddenly being plunged into a life that is very, very silent; also, with 35 brothers who come from different walks of life, and making cheese instead of dealing currency options, that was quite a change.

GROSS: That was the occupation, making cheese?

Mr. QUINSON: Yeah. That was part of it. Yeah.

GROSS: My guest is Henry Quinson. He lived in a Trappist or Cistercian monastery in rural France for six years, after leaving his life as a trader at a large investment bank. He was an adviser on the new French film "Of Gods and Men."

Well talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of chanting)

GROSS: If youre just joining us, my guest is Henry Quinson. Hes a monk who used to be a currency trader. He is the monastic adviser for the new film "Of Gods and Men," which won the Grand Prix, the second-highest prize, at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. And it's based on the story of French monks in Algeria who worked with poor people in a rural Algerian village. Seven of the monks were kidnapped in the monastery by Islamic extremists in 1996, and were later beheaded.

So you spent six years in a monastery in which the monks were expected to spend a lot of the day in silence. But about four hours a day were spent singing as a group, singing hymns and spiritual songs. What is the importance of singing in that order?

Mr. QUINSON: Yeah. Four hours is a lot. Some people told me that people who -singers, professional singers do not actually sing four hours a day. Something like - I think it's 15 percent of the words that you can actually hear in that movie are songs. So I think it's an experience, a human experience - not necessarily a religious one, but a human experience that people can actually share in, that if you sing together, theres a harmony, there's a unity that is physical. I mean, you are actually breathing together. And so a community is going to be stronger if every day, you're able to sing together. Of course, in the case of monastic life, singing together is also a prayer. But the fact is that its at the same time, a human experience. Singing together is a human experience and the same time, it's sharing in what really brings you together. And that's, I think, one of the major points, both in the real life of the monks of Tibhirine and also in the movie.

GROSS: I want to play a song featuring monks singing, and these are the monks in the abbey where you lived for about six years, the Abbaye de Tamie?

Mr. QUINSON: Right.

GROSS: And this is the song that plays over the closed credits of "Of Gods and Men" and its "O Pere des Lumieres," "Father of Light."

Mr. QUINSON: Yeah.

GROSS: So let's hear the monks of the Abbaye de Tamie singing "O Pere des Lumieres," "Father of Lights."

Mr. QUINSON: Sure.

(Soundbite of song, "O Pere des Lumieres")

MONKS OF ABBAYE DE TAMIE (French monks): (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

GROSS: Its really beautiful singing. Were you one of the monks singing in that recording?

Mr. QUINSON: I was, which was so strange to me because 14 years later, after the death of these brothers, I was actually with the whole team of the movie at Cannes, listening to my own voice in this place where, you know, there was no reason to have us sing, you know. And so it was very, very strange - and so refreshing because to me, it's a kind of miracle.

GROSS: So you spent about six years in a monastery in France, a rural monastery dedicated to silence, spending four hours a day singing. And then you left. And you left the monastery to work in an inner-city neighborhood in Marseilles, France, in a largely Muslim neighborhood. Why did you leave a rural, monastic life to work in the inner-city?

Mr. QUINSON: Well, before I joined the monastery of Tamie, I actually had a vision - which only happened once in my life - and I saw myself - I was still in Paris then. I had just had, you know, resigned from my bank, and I saw myself in Marseilles, and so I thought it was just so strange to see myself in Marseilles, with kids apparently coming from the other side of the Mediterranean. And so at one point when I was in Tamie - and probably, the story of Tibhirine was part of my struggle - I started thinking, you know, it's just so important to have people who are different living together and not only just stay among Christians, Christians among Christians; but have a community in a Muslim neighborhood, in a majority Muslim neighborhood.

And that's how I ended up in Marseilles, in a very strange way, because I didn't really decide to go to Marseille. But at some point, somebody said, you know, maybe you should go and see Marseilles because theres a small community of sisters there. And I thought, you know, what am I going to do with sisters? And then it all started like that with Karin DeBukan(ph), who was someone from Marseilles, who came - himself - from Algeria. And so we started up this little fraternity. And that's how things started in 1996, just after the beheading of our brothers of Tibhirine. So it was like a continuation and I thought, you know, it's probably the best way to keep up the good work and continue this kind of - I don't know if it's a real monastic life because it's much more open to the outside world. Who cares? I mean, I don't really care about it. It's just, you know, a life of prayer, work and hospitality in the context of poor and mostly Muslim people.

GROSS: So when you were living in the rural monastery, the monks made cheese, and I imagine that's part of the way the monks supported themselves. I guess now you have a teacher's salary?

Mr. QUINSON: That's right.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. So I think part of the reason for like, a rural monastery is the understanding that in the natural world, you could get closer to the presence of God - or fully experience the presence of God. So in moving from like, the natural world, you know, being in nature, to the inner city - to concrete, to, you know, crowded buildings, lots of commotion - do you feel like you've moved any further from God because you're not in nature?

Mr. QUINSON: Actually, not. I think it's very interesting because this theme of the desert, going to a place where nobody lives - because it all started in Egypt where people, Christians, would go and find solitude in the deserts, in Egypt. And then when it - when this monasticism came to Europe, actually the place was, you know, was not a desert, so people would go to rural areas. And then what happened is that many cities started to develop around the monasteries because they were also centers of culture, economic life. And I think there's always a new definition of what the desert is. And today, many people don't want to go to inner-city areas because they find it crowded; maybe they find more violence than other places. And so you could view that, also, as a desert - not in the sense that you don't have any noise, because it could be very noisy, but that nobody wants to live there. Nobody wants to live in a desert, and probably not many people want to live in inner-city areas but would go to suburbia. So I think it's more about the - your inner motivations rather than just what is visible.

GROSS: Since you've been teaching for years and have lived in the inner city, and your home - whether it's been in the housing projects or in the church - has been open to helping people with various things - so you've had a lot of interaction - are you ever too busy to do the kind of prayer and silence or meditation that became such an important part of your life? Is it hard to find the time now that you live back in the world?

Mr. QUINSON: I wouldn't say that, no. What I have actually moved to is a different way of doing things. For example, I spent - I don't know, I think four - years without driving a car, and now I have to drive a car just to go to the various places. And what I do is, I pray in my car, so I have some of the Psalms and singings that I can listen to. And I sing with them. And so it's - that is different compared to what I used to do before.

GROSS: Wait. Wait. I'm going to stop you. Can you multitask while you pray? I mean, is that...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Is that acceptable?

Mr. QUINSON: Well, for me it is. But I mean, sure, it doesn't mean that I don't take some time off and really give - I mean, all my time and all my body is silent and resting in prayer. But also, there - I think there are different ways you can connect in prayer and certainly, this is one of the new ones you can have in the modern world, is that you can really also listen to a radio and pray with other people over the radio. So it really is a new way of connecting with other people in prayer, and I think it would be just simply stupid not to join in. And that is certainly new for me, but it's really in line with what I've been doing over the years.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. QUINSON: Well, thank you.

GROSS: Henry Quinson served as an adviser for the new film "Of Gods and Men."

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.