These are the busiest few days of the Church’s year, liturgically at any rate. Yet it would be a dangerous sort of monastic life that did not often a sacristan and cantor time for reading and reflection, however brief.
There will be many excellent posts about these sacred days, so I shall leave it to my betters to provide them. Instead a providential piece of reading this morning, taken up by chance to accompany my breakfast, is worthy of sharing and reflection. Dom Michael Casey OCSO is an Australian Trappist, from Tarrawarra Abbey outside Melbourne. He is a writer on spiritual and monastic topics of significant renown, his wisdom tempered by common sense and the absence of cant or flowery piety. When I saw his name in the contents of March’s edition of The American Benedictine Review I knew I had found something to read over porridge and toast.
The article is really an interview, “We Have Lost the Love of Learning”; Michael Casey OCSO in Conversation with Bernhard A Eckerstorfer OSB. Its content and target readership are monastic but there are some universal principles nevertheless. What follows is a deliberately and unapologetically selective set of quotations which, however, do not suffer from the lack of fuller context. The selectivity is purely to highlight the points that resonate most clearly with me and seem to merit sharing.
It is Casey who speaks; Eckerstorfer’s questions will be in bold. It has been translated from German to English so is a little clunky at times with some lack of correct idiom.
…I had the good luck, I suppose, to have had eight years, more or less, of Latin liturgy and the old style of monastic life. I was actually professed in the steeled Cistercian way of life, so I can’t complain about anything.
Why do you say you were lucky to experience the old style monasticism?
…What was particularly good about it was the sense that you were doing something worthwhile, that the monastic life really had a meaning, beyond its details. But this had the power of the church [sic], the power of the world and so forth and a great sense of morale about it… most of the customs that we observed, when I entered, were those that are recorded in the twelfth-century customary of the Cistercians—even little things. This experience gave me a sense of continuity that we’re living the same life…
How did you experience the changes brought by Vatican II?
Well, I was on the forefront, as it were, today I feel somewhat guilty about it In those days I belonged to the group of young monks who had energy, who were interested in dialogue, well read in theology. We sort of hijacked the community. Looking back, I think it was probably unfair to those who were a bit beyond middle age, who were left floundering on the margins, while we “stormed the Bastille” and took over.
It was certainly an exciting time to live through, and you know we were convinced that this was the New Age, the beginning of the New Age, and everything was going to be fine after this…
You were never disappointed that monastic life disintegrated and slipped in a crisis in the last 50 years?
…If I have to walk to the airport tomorrow, well I might be frustrated, I might even be angry. But basically I start recalibrating, to say, you know, how am I going to get there or what am I going to do, and I don’t think disappointment is really a very strong emotion with me. I’d just say it’s a time to recalibrate, to say that things have changed. It’s necessary to take these into consideration, just as we did then…
What, then, is today needed in monasteries? Is there a need to re-focus, to re-envisage monastic life to flourish again?…
…[the] idea of fusion of horizons is very important to me. That we need to really listen to the past. We need to approach the past in an attitude of—as Gadamer says—uninterrupted listening, but we also need to apply that to the present: that the two horizons meet together…
Today, do you think there is the need to go back to the sources?
Oh, absolutely! Close reading I think is the key to it. It’s the response to modern education systems. They emphasize wide reading, and secondary reading, and rapid reading…
… I think, even in good communities, the absence of disinterested study would be a source of concern. People who have conferences to give do study because they have got to have something to say. But this sense of a love of learning that Jean Leclerq spoke about in L’amour des lettres et le désir de Dieu I think is somewhat deficient, generally speaking…
What I mean is to be with a book, to read it from beginning to end, and not just to want to read a condensed version of anything that is around. This problem might be related with [sic] the lack of the traditional languages, Latin and Greek particularly. There are many monasteries that have the whole Corpus Christianorum plus every other patristic series that you can think of, but none have ever been touched… And what’s the good of laving libraries that have been operated and then people don’t have the ability to read the books or spend the kind of time that it takes to read a collection of patristic works…?
…I see the danger to build up one’s own world and to emigrate into that, and to return to the real world of the community and community activities only regretfully. Now that can, temporarily, be a survival tactic. But as a permanent way of life that’s obviously very dangerous.
Study as a counterbalance. People look in monasteries or the right balance, but I wonder if we monks have not lost it ourselves?
I’m not a great lover of the world balance. Bernard uses the term “alternation”: an alternation of activities, and the balance is constantly changing. You don’t achieve balance by working out a formula: “That’s it—and every day must be the same.” Again we’re back to stability. My great image of stability is a surfboard… what I want to do above all is stand. To remain standing. But you don’t remain standing by doing nothing. You have to take into account the movement of the water and wind and the waves and your own body… Each day the balance is different. If you’ve got a headache, well, perhaps you’d be better digging some carrots instead of trying to read Augustine.
There is much worthwhile omitted, on formation, chastity, vocations and the lack of them. The entire article merits reading.
What strikes me is that Fr Michael, as a man of 76 who has been a monk since 1960 when he was 18, is grappling honestly with the need to reconcile the agenda of his youth with the realpolitik of today’s Church and world. A leading reformer he now, perhaps with a little residual reluctance, sees that the utopian hopes of the young reformers of the 1960s were misplaced, misguided.
He also recognizes that the tactics of the day, riding roughshod over the older brethren in order to effect change, were not ideal. Certainly many of his contemporaries are not comfortable with these tactics being used on them; or rather, stuck in their own perspective, they label any move to reform or restoration as being pursued with the same unforgiving zealousness they employed in their day. What they miss is that most often it is not being pursued with the callousness they once employed. Especially in monasteries the more reforming in spirit try to bend over backwards not to alienate the children of the 1960s but employing their own tactics. But any attempt to retrieve the tradition, to recover those good things so rashly discarded, is labelled by them as “turning the clock back” or “nostalgia”.
This is, of course, a nonsense. One cannot have nostalgia for what one never experienced—the young do not have a nostalgia for the pre-conciliar Church. Rather they recognize the deficiencies of many of the reforms and looking back to what preceded them discover much that is beautiful and nourishing in the tradition. Reading the Council’s documents more carefully then many a conciliar zealot of today, they can find no warrant for the reforms that were visited upon the Church. In fact, empowered by the Council, it is the laity especially that is seeking the recovery of what was lost while not abandoning any good that has emerged from, or despite, the reforms.
This is the contemporary horizon that the horizon of the 60s generation needs to engage with and learn from. A stubborn, faithless clinging to the utopian dreams that fed the conciliar generation is little better than petrification. Likewise a blinkered hankering to restore a 1940s heyday is similarly petrified, and ultimately vain. A purification of motives and methods on both horizons is needed.
Perhaps what we all need is the formation that Casey identifies elsewhere in the interview as the “deconstruction of the delusion”.