Fr. Michael Casey Interview: Part 3
Conducted During our Community Retreat on January 5, 2010
Part 3. The Conclusion of our interview, which contains many wonderous and amazing things, too many to be listed here.
Br Chris: What’s your perspective on the Cistercian reformer and Abbot of La Trappe, Armand de Rance?
Fr Michael Casey: I haven’t read much of de Rance. A former postulant of ours, who in fact only lasted three days in the monastery, has retained a lifelong interest in monasticism. He was at a Church book sale, where they were selling old, second hand books for very low prices and he managed to buy de Rance’s Commentary on the Rule of Saint Benedict, a first edition, for two dollars. It was a beautiful, two volume work. So I started reading bits and pieces of it and it’s very interesting. As far as I’m aware, de Rance was almost the only person in monastic tradition that has taken St. Benedict’s idea of mutual obedience seriously. It’s one of these ideas in the Rule of St. Benedict that we say is terrific, that it’s revolutionary, but then why didn’t all these great figures take it up and develop it? There is a little bit in St. Aelred, but de Rance actually has a really coherent commentary on it. We have to obey our superiors because we’ll get into trouble if we don’t, but the real spirit is when we obey those who have no power over us. Particularly, he says when the Seniors obey the Juniors! He goes further than St. Benedict and he actually, in his regulations, he institutionalizes this. He said that the Juniors are to get the best rooms and the best cloths, while the Seniors are presumed not need these fringe benefits any longer. So I wouldn’t say that I’ve take a vow, but I’ve said to myself that I must continue to delve into this commentary of de Rance. He was certainly well read in monastic tradition for his times, John Climicus and so forth. He was a very learned man, and a bright man.
I think that a lot of what we attribute to de Rance actually comes from Fr. Augustin de l’Estrange and his kind of penal attitude towards things. There was a rigidity and strictness and so forth, that was probably necessitated by the fact that they were traipsing around Europe at the time. They didn’t have a monastery and structures but they had to carry their structures with them. So the very ridged system of spirituality which was then preserved when they came back to the monastery. These days I’m finding de Rance a far more attractive figure than I previously did.
Br Chris: Do you think that the spirit which de l’Estrange had went all the way up to Vatican 2?
Fr Michael Casey: And beyond!
Br Chris: To this day?
Fr Michael Casey: To this day, yes. I think, as I mentioned this morning, a kind of narrowness and scrupulosity, a meanness. Take for example in our Order, there is no list of the monks and nuns of the Order that is generally available. Just about every order, the Benedictans have a directory that is published every five years that lists every Benedictan monk and nun in the Order. In our Order, they don’t count. The General Chapter, they grudgingly admit delegates but they get no vote because they say that they don’t represent anybody. It’s very much centered on Abbots, there not very much respect, it seems to me, for the experience and the wisdom of monks and nuns. Many regional meetings are moving to restrict the number of non-Abbatial people that come to the Regional meetings. I think there’s a sort of tendency to institutionalization and hierarchy is quite strong in our Order, it doesn’t have that sort of human respect.
Benedict, on the contrary, talks about honoring every human being. I don’t think that we, non-Abbots, are very much honored by the Order as a whole. It’s been shown, interestingly enough, that honor given to people actually extends their life and those who receive more honor, generally live much longer. Ever since I read that article, there were a number of surveys that were done, I’ve noticed that when the death notices come up, Abbot’s tend to live longer [laughs]. Just looks at the death notice, there are exceptions of course, but living with honor, with respect actually prolongs life. I don’t think that we have been solicitous enough in really honoring the people and saying you are valuable human beings. You go to certain monasteries, the quality of hygiene, the quality of food, the way that it’s served up, the quality of the buildings and so forth, all of it speaks to me that there is a kind of stream of thought, in our Order, that says it’s not important that you give honor to persons.
Br Chris: Do you see that changing?
Fr Michael Casey: I would hope so!
Br Chris: What could change that?
Fr Michael Casey: Well usually the only thing that changes things is a change in leadership.
Br Chris: What about our current Abbot General now?
Fr Michael Casey: No comment [laughs]. I’m talking in generalities of course, I’m not talking about personalities. But I’m just saying, respect for persons is very important. Talking about Dom Eamon, he’s only been in office for a short time but Dom Ambrose and Dom Bernardo certainly respected persons. Small and great.
Br Chris: Did you see much change in the Cistercian Order with Dom Bernardo?
Fr Michael Casey: I think we have to distinguish between “with” Bernardo and “by” Bernardo. The Order has changed in the last fifteen years but not necessarily through any action of his but because there’s a certain evolution. If you think back to the 1970’s obviously the Order has become a bit less wild. In those place where it became wild, it’s rebounded a bit from what you might call the excesses after Vatican 2. I think it’s more conscious of the importance of stable structures in the monastery, of trying to direct people towards a goal.
At the same time, all of our communities the average age is creeping up. You only have to look at photographs taken twenty years ago and you see that all these people are much older now, if they’re still around. That changes things. It changes your capacity to embrace change.
Br Chris: Looking now at another important Cistercian figure, Fr Tomas Merton. Do you see your books as being the new Merton by having an effect on people’s desire to enter monastic life as Merton’s works had on so many?
Fr Michael Casey: No, I think I’m minor league, I’m in the little league only. You only have to look at the royalty checks, they’re not in six figures I assure you [laughs]. I don’t worry very much about influence. In fact, if I did, I would probably get scruples and never write another word. I write what I write like Pilate and once it’s written, it’s written and I’ve forgotten about it. In fact, when people talk to me about my books I often say, “I’m sorry, I don’t remember it.” It’s out of my system. It’s a kind of cleansing, a catharsis. The thoughts that I have, I put them on paper and then go on to the next thing. I think I’m always learning. I’m always interested in pursuing new fields and that is always more interesting to me then what I wrote ten years ago, twenty years ago. Occasionally, if I’ve picked up something I wrote twenty years ago I’m surprised by it. I can’t remember writing it, I can’t remember where I got those ideas. I even look at the footnotes and I don’t even remember reading that book. So I’ve moved on.
Br Chris: Is it fair to say Fully Human, Fully Divine is your best book then?
Fr Michael Casey: Well, I think it is. As I said, I think that it has a little bit of magic about it. Yah, each book means something different at a different time in life.
Br Chris: I think, that if I were to write books about monasticism, I would want to write books that would bring the monks in.
Fr Michael Casey: Yeah, well you dream that way, but in fact it’s the call of God, it’s the work of God. I mean think of all the people who Merton brought in and who went out again!
Br Chris: I guess I don’t think of that.
Fr Michael Casey: I wouldn’t like it to be just a sort of public relations exercise, although it certainly is to some extent. I really just think that I like writing and I find my own truth by writing. So I’m writing for myself more than anybody else and the fact that publishers are naïve enough to put it into book form and people are generous enough to buy it, well, that’s something different. Once I’ve expressed it, that’s what it’s purpose is as far as I’m concerned. If there are collateral benefits well I’m delighted! But that’s not why I write.
Br Chris: What was it about Merton that attracted so many people?
Fr Michael Casey: I think it was his modernity. He was the very model of a modern monk. That, I think, is something that we need to consider is maybe his downfall as well. In the sense, that we have already moved into a post-modern world. Modernity seems so very last century. Although there will always be a cult following of people who like Merton because he had an interesting life and wrote very well about that life and it skyrocketed in all sorts of different directions. But the most enduring and attractive tray that I consider is that he was so up to date, but so up to date in 1968 – if you pardon the rhyme [laughs]. That’s forty years ago and even to read some of his things on race relations he would never have thought that there would be an African-American in the white house.
Many of the things he wrote are still relevant but I think that any writer is running in a relay race. He runs a certain distance and runs it well. But the time does pass.
Br Chris: I’ve heard it said that Merton was a prophet. He was a prophet in his era, is he a prophet now?
Fr Michael Casey: P-R-O-F-I-T, yes his books are still selling! [laughs] I don’t know exactly. As I said, he still has a following. What he does with that following I don’t exactly know.
Br Chris: We’ve touched on it a bit but what’s your perspective of our Cistercian Order today?
Fr Michael Casey: Part of the truth of who we are, is what we’ve been and we have a very good tradition. The Cistercian tradition is top drawer, there’s no doubt about that. A great tradition of spirituality because it takes seriously the Word of God and the tradition of the Church on the one hand, and human experience on the other. That is something that is perennial. This can be seen by the number of papers that are given every year at Kalamazoo on Cistercian topics, the number of books that Cistercian Publications has published, that there is something attractive and perennial about the Cistercian tradition of spirituality. I think to the extent that it shapes our Order, we’re in good shape.
I know there are plenty of monks who haven’t ventured into the patrimony of the Order and it’s foreign country. I remember the inimitable remark of a certain monk in this country, who when confronted with the new Constitutions and there was a quotation from Baldwin of Forde, he said, “Who the hell is Baldwin of Forde!” Well it doesn’t say much of his monastic formation, if he was unaware of who these people are. So I think, one side of monastic formation is introducing people to the Cistercian Patrimony in its living and vibrant form. So long as we allow that to govern us, then we’ve got something going.
I also note that in a recent vocation survey in this country, that when they asked people, four thousand men and women who entered religious life recently, what are the things they were looking for in the communities that they joined, that just about all of those things you find in a Cistercian monastery. We have a regular life, we have a community life, we have regular prayer, we have daily Eucharist, we wear habits, we work together, these are the things that are actually attracting people to religious life. They are the things by our great fortune, I think, more than by calculation, we have retained.
So I’d say, yes we’re going to get smaller numbers because families are smaller and people are faced with more options of living a sort of spiritual life or even an ecclesial life without becoming members of a religious order. There is one post-modernist kind of tray which is a fear of institutions and particularly the fear of commitment to institutions, lifelong commitment. All these things are diminishing the intake to all religious orders but I think that we will probably still continue to get our own share of vocations. Our communities may well be smaller and experience a sort of trauma in reframing the way that they live, but I would be relatively optimistic about the future. Relatively optimistic.
Br Chris: I’m very optimistic for Our Lady of Guadalupe, I feel there is hope here.
Fr Michael Casey: There’s a hope there but there are also demographic changes. The level of Catechesis in Catholic education for example, means that people can go through twelve years of Catholic schooling without encountering a religious or being aware that religious life exists. If the go on to study science or something like that, they can very quickly go through the university training without knowing anything about the history of the Church or medieval history. It’s not that they’re bad people and they’re not, it’s just that the Church and monastic life have never impinged on their consciousness.
Br Chris: Are you doing anything at Tarrawarra Abbey to reach out to people?
Fr Michael Casey: It’s very hard to know what you can do. Our website is the main instrument of outreach and certainly I know there are religious orders who have people on the road, going around campaigning but they’re not yielding much fruit. The Marist Brothers, which my own brother is one, put a lot of effort into youth apostolate. They have a very good induction program but the numbers are very slight. You would think that these dynamic people, going full-time with a generous budget, working at this, that something more would develop but the numbers are not there.
I think we’re simply a different style of life. They have the problem that they’re associated with the teaching apostolate and that teaching apostolate is becoming increasingly difficult, in the sense that people can be teachers without being religious. On the other hand, many religious don’t want to be involved in this anymore. So what’s the point in joining religious life?
Monastic life is far more visible and far more attractive. It frightens a lot of people because of its intensity and commitment. If you read the Exordium Parvum, that’s what they say about the first generation, that they were scared stiff! It’s a wonderful thing but it’s not for me. That’s where I think it’s important that those who work in guest house exhibit a certain quality of humanity and accessibility.
Br Chris: We’ve come to our final question. Looking back on your life, what are the major life lessons you’ve learned? How have you grown in wisdom?
Fr Michael Casey: Well, let me tell you about wisdom. In the old rite of Baptism, a little piece of salt was put on the child’s tongue. The words said were, “Accept the salt of wisdom.” When I was Baptized, I accepted the salt of wisdom and then I stuck my tongue out again and got a second dose! [laughs] Then I stuck my tongue out again for a third dose but my mother wouldn’t let me have it! So I think that’s a very holy story that will look good when I’m canonized, he was always in the pursuit of wisdom! [laughs].
Wisdom is the taste for ultimate truth, I suppose and I’d have another definition for it. Wisdom is just simply the quality of resilience after making mistakes. Any real human life is full of mistakes and the more mistakes the better because with more mistakes we learn. The longer we live, the more mistakes we make, and if we’ve got half a brain, we eventually begin to learn something from those mistakes. What I would see as one grows in age, the number of one’s mistakes increases, thereby you learn from one’s own experience what works, what is good, what is true, what is beautiful. That’s what wisdom is.
+ I’m very grateful to Fr Michael for participating in this interview with me. He is an outstanding man and a great light in our Cistercian Order. He’s also my favorite author, so do your self a big favor and read his books!