Fr. Michael Casey Interview: Part 1
Conducted During our Community Retreat on January 5, 2010
Part 1. Discusses Fr Michael’s books, his readers,
and his current work with podcasts.
Br Chris: When Abbot Peter announced to us at our community chapter that you would be giving us this year’s community retreat, he said it would be based on the new book you are working on. What can you tell us about it?
Fr Michael Casey: Generally, I don’t like talking about the book in progress, as many authors don’t, simply because it takes a certain amount of the pressure out of it. What I do however is to workshop my material and to try it out on people and see how they respond and how it fits together and perhaps learn something from the feedback that I receive. What it also does, it helps me to formulate different ways of ordering my material. So I may give a very similar retreat in different places, to different audiences and a different progression of ideas emerges. This retreat, as you are probably becoming aware, is a little like a continuation of my book Fully Human, Fully Divine. It’s this idea of taking the Gospel of Mark, which is, my favorite I think, and reflecting on it, in a way that allows it to speak to our own experience and to give us some sort of guidance and direction for the way that we live our particular mode of discipleship. So it’s a monastic retreat, not because it brings in all sorts of monastic figures necessarily and waves a flag, but because it’s derived from monastic experience and directed to monastic experience. It talks about the things we are familiar with, there is nothing much which is new, but it stirs over the coals a bit and hopes to kindle a bit of flame, somehow or other.
Br Chris: How do you deal with the tension between writing for a monastic audience and a non-monastic audience? For instance, your book Strangers to the City is a very monastic oriented book, while Fully Human, Fully Divine would have a broader appeal.
Fr Michael Casey: The person I want to please, is myself. So I must admit, I write to please myself. Fully Human, Fully Divine, which I think is my best book, is really just closely tied to the Gospel but it’s also, in a very clear way, a continuation, if I wanted to be ambitious, of what the Cistercian Fathers were doing. By taking the Scriptures and interpreting them in a behavioristic kind of light and drawing in our own contemporary experience. Strangers to the City was great fun. I had the most fun writing that because I was pretty uninhibited and fired off a few rockets in it in every direction. It’s a very challenging book in some parts so I wonder whether this will be suitable for other people. Yet from the feedback I received, all sorts of different people are reading it, monks least of all possible… Cistercian monks least of all [laughs]. It’s being read in a lot of Benedictian refectories. The two biggest Benedictian communities in this country, which is Saint Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania and Saint John’s Collegeville, in both, every monk received a copy of it. It’s unabashedly from the Cistercian end of the Benedictian spectrum, it’s talking about Cistercian values, but I was very interested in just the wide spread acceptance of what I had to say. It tells me to trust in my own instincts. To say what I want to say and if people want to hear it, they will hear it. Perhaps, as often happens, they will hear more than I thought I was saying. So it’s a very monastic book which has had a wide readership. It’s a bit the same with Thomas Merton. His most monastic writings are the one that people seem to enjoy the most. The ones that are more political and perhaps controversial, have a readership and following but not of the same depth and enthusiasm as those who read books like The Sign of Jonas, which is just simply monastic gossip written in appealing language but it’s just what happened in the monastery in the 1940’s or 50’s whenever it was written. Not much happens but people are interested in the monastic side of things.
Br Chris: Are your non-monastic readers challenged by your work?
Fr Michael Casey: I hope so, I suspect so. They try to put my writings into their context. I think that’s far more realistic for the reader to put it into his or her context than for me to try and imagine where the reader might be and try to talk to that imaginary person. So if what I say is true to my context, they just simply have to take it and put it into their context. Obviously, that means a very active and intelligent sort of reader.
Br Chris: Personally, I find your work, on the one hand, to be very challenging. At the same time, I feel encouraged by your work and that your speaking to me where I’m at in life.
Fr Michael Casey: I think that’s a very Cistercian quality, if I may be so rash to claim it, is that the program that I’m giving next week on Aelred, as we start his nine hundredth anniversary this year, it begins by talking about just how well Aelred knew monks, their foibles, misbehaviors, trails, temptations, and vices. You might say how well he knew the ugly side of life. It’s because he knows the weakness, blindness, and malice of the human condition and speaks about it very openly that we can accept that when he speaks a message of hope, when he proclaims the Good News, that he’s not proclaiming it in the delusion that he’s talking to angels or to saints or to the innocent but that he’s talking to a pack of losers [laughs], but that he’s still giving the Good News to the losers. He says that you’re included in this. So yes, there is a challenge to pull up your socks and to be more faithful to the Gospel but it’s a challenge that is optimistic. It’s one, that by the grace of God, you can do it.
Br Chris: Is the program on Aelred from your new podcast.
Fr Michael Casey: No, the program I’m podcasting is something else.
Br Chris: What is the podcast program then?
Fr Michael Casey: The idea was to set up something a little different on our website, that would have audio capabilities. The first idea was to record the Sunday Homilies, which I personally think is an abomination because a homily is destined for this particular group, it’s ephemeral, it’s meant to evaporate. Homilies are not meant to be preserved and as soon as you start preserving it for eternity you’ve lost the character of a communication with a particular group. You’re making a Papal statement from the balcony up there that’s destined for the city and the world. Really, the sacrament of preaching, is the sacrament of communication between persons. When it becomes just a reading of a written text, or the proclamation of something which can be heard on your ipod, well it becomes a different genre. So I said if we’re going to have some audio on our website, it needs to be just simply for the website, speaking to the audience that would listen. We thought about what to do and I said the thing I would like to do is to reflect on the Rule of St Benedict. Now this word “reflect” is not one that I use easily, in the sense that if you look through the titles of many of my books, you’ll find that the sub-title is often “Reflections on”. I think that’s my specific genre. I do a lot of scholarly work, I read various languages, but my actual writing is a reflection. It’s a conversational piece that draws in streams from many directions and it’s not unlike the Sermon, the discourse of the Cistercian Fathers. It’s a relational kind of thing. These reflections then are on the Rule of St. Benedict. What I’m in the course of doing is offering a reflection on the Prologue of the Rule. There are fifty verses in the prologue and each week I’m going to reflect on one single verse alone. That’s a great discipline for the speaker and also a discipline for the reader. To just look at that verse, to read it closely, to reflect on it, and to try and extract from that verse just some short message. The podcast are short messages about five to six minutes and a couple of introductory ones and that will make fifty-two so we will have enough for the year. Then we will go on to something else.