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Fr. Michael Casey Interview: Part 2

Conducted During our Community Retreat on January 5, 2010

Part 2. Begins our look at Cistercian history. This part focuses on our Cistercian Fathers and how best to read them.


Br Chris: Moving on to our main topic: Cistercian History!  From your perspective, what is the importance of our Cistercian Fathers and what do they have to offer to us today?


Fr Michael Casey: Well, their importance is what they have to offer us [laughs].  What they have to offer us is a mirror, in the sense that we can look and find ourselves, we can learn self knowledge from them and not just self knowledge in a very analytic or psychoanalytic context, but self knowledge in the context of a monastic vocation.  What it is like to live as a Cistercian monk.  What it is like to live the contemplative life, in a life that is meant to be a low intensity, low impact kind of life.  Simple, communal, marathon of a life that goes on, if we’re lucky, 40, 50, 60 years.  What happens in that life is spaced out over that period, so nothing very much happens for a long time.  They give us a sense that they were living the same life that was understood by them, in other words, they are talking to us.  Particularly, at the moment, I’m working on Aelred’s Sermons and people are often amazed at some of the things they find in monastic tradition.  Things that read as though they were written last week.  Contemporary kinds of interests, strategies for living a good, and happy, and holy life.


Br Chris:  How do you recommend reading the Cistercian Fathers?


Fr Michael Casey It depends on the individual.  Some people you give them a reading list and they read it, other people you give them a reading list and they don’t read it.  They’ll read anything but books on the reading list!  So it depends on whether you’re a contrarian or not.  Generally, I think you have to start with some texts that are fairly easy.  For me, it has to be the Sermons.  The “so called” Sermons, though I’ve taken a vow never to use that word because they were chapter discourses.

We have the chapter discourses of Guerric of Igny, which are very polished, very humane, a very gentle introduction which you can follow through the liturgical year.  We have the chapter discourses of Bernard of Clairvaux, unfortunately not fully translated into English, it’s very incomplete.  Some of these are quite spectacular.  Then we have the chapter discourses of Aelred of Rievaulx.  Ninety-nine of these are in the process of being edited because they were only discovered in 1989, the Cluny-Redding collection.  We only have about half of his discourses and even some of these are of comparatively recent discovery.  About 20 to 30 have been translated into English and these are mainly discourses which he gave while he was abbot at Revesby.  This was before he came to Rievaulx so they are his earlier ones.  It takes a certain amount of patience, it takes a certain amount of skill, but they are talks, chapter talks given to real monks, in a real situation.

It seems to me, that Guerric of Igny took a lot of care about his discourses and he had long practice and he probably wrote them out in advance and delivered them pretty much as they are given.  Bernard of Clairvaux, on the contrary, had an outline and may have delivered them in something that was approximating the vernacular, a sort of dog Latin, and then because he was very proud of his literary style revised them later.  Aelred, on the contrary, on at least one occasion comes in and admits that he hasn’t got anything prepared.  So he just waffles on.  There’s always a discourse before the discourse; he talks about something for five or so minutes before he actually gets into what he’s going to talk about.  So his soles are working!  He never had any interest in revising them so they’re rough and ready in one sense.  They’re a bit repetitious, he takes whole sections from one discourse and puts it into another.  He gets off the point and pulls himself back again, but they’re very humane and immediate because of that fact.  They’re not dressed up because mostly if somebody’s talk is too elegant and obviously well prepared and very learned, monks just go to sleep in it!  With Aelred’s in particular they’re pretty rough and ready.  There are some elegant passages but they are really worth while reading.  They kind of grist for the monastic mill, they talk to you about monastic life as it really is.   I think that’s what we can look to these ancient masters for is, as Bernard says about Peter and Paul, they didn’t teach us the riddles of Aristotle, or the complexities of Plato, but they taught us how to live.  The same could be said of Bernard’s own writings.

Aelred said there are three purposes in a Chapter talk: to give instruction; to give direction; to give motivational encouragement.  So sometimes he’s instructing people, he’s telling them how temptation works, how the idea transforms itself from just a vague thought into an action.  It’s a very interesting sort of psychological analysis!  He’s instructing his monks.  Other times he’s correcting them.  He’s talking about people that are complaining about their food, or complaining about their clothing, or who want a better job in the monastery.  It’s very clear correction.  Sometimes he’s just encouraging them.  Reminding them of the wonders of grace and the mystery of Christ and all these kind of things.


Br Chris: Do you think that Saint Bernard is over emphasized amongst the other Cistercian Fathers?  It seems that he has the pride of place in Cistercian monasteries, over and above our other Cistercian Fathers.


Fr Michael Casey Well, as I quoted Julia Childs in the retreat conferences saying, “You can never have enough butter”, you can never have too much Bernard in my book!  You asked the wrong man that question [laughs].

I’ve just written a fifteen thousand word article on how to read Bernard.  It’s being published in a companion book to Bernard by Brill, edited by Brian Patrick McGuire.  In that I say, Bernard is brilliant.  He’s a head and shoulders above all the others.  With the sheer brilliance, it’s really the only word for it.  But he’s also a very warm personality but we need to begin with some of the more basic works of his to understand where he’s coming from.  I like to suggest people to begin with the Parables.  They contain a lot of his solid teaching but in a fairly easy form.  The letters of Bernard are also very interesting although they are more demanding.  The translation by Bruno Scott James is not good and that’s the only one available in English.  Some of his other works are better to start with, the Sermon on the Song of Songs really needs to be postponed until we’ve got a good feeling for where he’s coming from.  It’s a brilliant piece of work but it belongs to this genre of Sermo, they’re talks and he models them as talks or reflection which go round in circles, they’re not logical, you’d go berserk if you tried to list the contents of it.  There’s a kind of coherence about them, so read as a whole they really do constitute a very good treatment of all aspects of monastic and contemplative life.  But they’re not the place to begin.

The Steps of Humility and Pride, which is a bit of a joke in some cases, he’s got some very profound things in there.  Things which are often forgotten, his three stages of spiritual growth.  The first one is self knowledge, the third one is contemplation, and the question is, what’s the intermediary step?  It’s compassion.  That’s the step which people often forget, they think they can get to contemplation simply by self discipline and self knowledge, by working hard at gaining humility and they’ve completely locked other people out of the equation.  Bernard is saying, if self knowledge is genuine then it’s expressed in compassion.  It’s expressed in this ability to go easy on other people, to be merciful and so forth.  It’s only in that context of giving and receiving mercy that we actually proceed to third stage of contemplation.  That’s a pretty unexpected, counter-intuitive sort of step.  That instead of going through the works of discipline and self knowledge and proceeding to contemplation, you actually do a sort of loop and come back to the world, come back to the neighbor before you go on.

So there’s a lot in Bernard.  But sometimes people are put off by too much enthusiasm, but there’s plenty there.  Really to understand Bernard, the other thing is to know the world in which he moved.  So reading any of the Fathers and knowing about the monasticism of that period is good preparation.


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