Mark Patrick Hederman in Conversation with Shirley Ward

Shirley-As psychotherapists listen to peoples’ stories I thought it would be interesting to start where you are now – man, monk, author, Abbot, visionary. I know also of your interest in spirituality and psychology. I’ll try to follow a pattern as this conversation could lead us everywhere with all the knowledge and wisdom that you have!

Mark Patrick- Well I will probably have to write three books to answer all that!

Shirley- Let’s start with your early story then! I read in one of your books that you didn’t go to school until you were 9. Why was this?

Mark Patrick- My American mother believed that children should not go to school until they themselves asked to do so. So the first nine years of my life were spent roaming the hillsides of West Limerick with my sister, Louise, mostly on ponies. We were taught to read but that was about it. My mother had a degree from Trinity College Dublin and so was allowed to home school. We lived on a farm close to Knockfierna, Cnoc Fírinne [Hill of Truth] almost 1000 feet high. Most of my childhood was spent around its vicinity.

Shirley- What were you doing in those years and did they help to form the person you are today?

Mark Patrick- I was leading a life of imagination and I saw everything as part of a world designed by God for me. Everything was symbolic, which means representative of something thrown in from another world. My father used to read us stories about the Greek and Roman Gods and Goddesses + The Iliad and The Odyssey in translation, for instance, and I read a number of childrens’ books myself. I developed my imaginative faculties in a way that most children cannot afford to do as they are hemmed in by structures and requirements of a more structured and prescribed variety.

Shirley- Was anything missing from your education by not going to school?

Mark Patrick- When eventually I did go to school I was surprised to meet so many ‘children’ because that is what they were. ‘Childhood’ is as much a cultural prescription as any other kind of existence. Being at school teaches us to be like children and to act that age. If you have lived all your life with adults you are not aware of the idiom. You are simply another human being. But you learn very quickly. I reverted to childhood within weeks. I was not aware of any of the things that children learn from about 4 to 9 and so I was very weak at Maths and Irish, for instance.

Shirley- I know you’ve also been a headmaster – so what sort of education system would you run if you were in charge?

Mark Patrick- The Benedictines have been educating for over 1,500 years. Glenstal has been doing so for 75 years. In my view, all education is privileged and preferential. It either happens, or it does not happen, to you. It can happen all over the world to one person in a class of fifty, and all the rest are left behind. It can happen to one person in a family and all the others are unaffected. And it really doesn’t matter if it happens to someone else, or somewhere else, the only thing that matters is that it happens here and now for you. If it does not, then as far as you are concerned the system is not working, and the school you are going to is a failure. There are horses for courses and the job of every parent is to find the school where their particular and unique child will find the magic place and time that allows achievement of full potential.

Shirley- What is the underlying philosophy of your school?

Mark Patrick- Our philosophy of education in Glenstal Abbey is that ‘small is beautiful.’ Education means a certain kind of relationship between a teacher and a pupil which rarely happens unless the school is small. Later on, at university, for example, the more people there are the more likelihood of cross-fertilisation of ideas. From birth to adolescence, on the other hand, the human person, like plants in general, need sheltered conditions and personal attention for maximum growth. On principle, we would not take any more than 200 or so children into our school because we know that any more than that number is beyond the proportion manageable by adolescent psyches. In our view every child in the country should be educated in this way, in this teacher-pupil ratio. We try to provide an atmosphere and an environment where those who come to our school can be looked after and nurtured in a way which is respectful of their particularity and their personality. This may be elitist because it has to be small, and because it is relatively expensive, but, in our view, it is the only genuine formula for real education and, also in our view, it should be adopted throughout the country. Instead of increasing the numbers in classrooms, these numbers should be radically reduced and the numbers of teachers exponentially increased. We have no shortage of teachers. We could double the number of teachers in the country and, in my view that would be the best investment we could make.

Shirley-And so more children would be giving the opportunity to develop their creativity and maybe find their true genius?

Mark Patrick- Geniuses don’t need education from anyone – they flower in spite of circumstances. But geniuses are few, and the average child needs care and individual attention, from competent and dedicated adults in a small environment, to develop their own personalities. Unless such education is available to our children then let’s not pretend that what we are offering is ‘education’.  Instruction can take place in a warehouse; education is the miracle that happens between people who have the time and the imagination to engage at a personal level in the very precise and creative activity which is educational relationship. It is possible to impart instruction to any number of people, even by electronic means over great distances, but the secret of education is transmission from person to person.  So, education, at present, is mostly a matter of luck: meeting the right person at the right time. But, in our view, such luck is more likely to happen in a small environment where real dialogue is possible. What ever the pupils do, whether they eat or play or practice or are taught, they should be developing their talents and their personalities and absorbing values, which we as parents and as educators, share about what it means to be a human being, and what fosters health, well-being and happiness in our lives.

The education system presently in place in Ireland is potentially a weapon of mass destruction where imagination is concerned. The Murder Machine, as Padraig Pearse described it, is an educational system based upon memory alone, where children are required to commit to memory unconscionable numbers of facts which they are then required to regurgitate at a particular time of examination. Unfortunately, this is the only way to get into third-level education, and access to the profession is so competitive at present that most children have to sacrifice the last two years of their secondary school career to cramming for points.

Shirley- As a teacher I understand what you are saying and agree entirely.  How did you end up in Glenstal Abbey – when, why and how did you decide to become a monk?

Mark Patrick- At a very early age – round about age nine, if I remember rightly – I had to make a big decision: either I was God or there was another. I had to admit after some calculation, that the first scenario was improbable. The second required of me some effort to get into contact with whoever was in charge of this universe into which I had been thrown without my permission. I have never doubted that there was such a person, or as it turns out, persons. Maintaining that contact and putting myself at the disposal of these distant, reticent, ingeniously nimble-fingered and intimate persons, who constantly guide us toward the goal for which we were intended since the beginning of time, despite their ludicrous insistence upon our free-will to screw up every attempt of theirs to bring this to fruition, has been for me the most fulfilling life I have imagined even if the first option had been a possibility.

The second school I went to was Glenstal Abbey about 50 kilometres away from my home. I went there at the age of 12 and remained there for the next fifty years. The reason why you go somewhere is rarely the reason why you stay. I am aware that having a school in the monastery was to ensure the survival of the species. Boys were approached by monks whom they admired and told the lengthy consultations with the heavenly hierarchy had revealed that you were being considered as a suitable candidate for entry to the novitiate. Not all the boys were regarded as worthy of such canvassing but I was told by at least three different monks that my name was being mentioned in high places. Half of me was flattered that I should be discussed in the heavenly courts; the other half was horrified. I had always been interested in, and deeply aware of, God, but I never thought of myself as one of these monks. I began to understand that it was impossible to be a mystic on a mountainside. I had to find a place. After a year at University I returned to Glenstal Abbey and have been here ever since apart from about ten years of my life spent in France, Nigeria and the USA.

Shirley- During this time you have been a prolific writer, were you also writing as a child?

Mark Patrick- I was editor of a school magazine and every fortnight I wrote scripts for plays which a troupe of us put on stage for the other students. There was a film every other week, but apart from that we had to provide our own entertainment.

Shirley- I understand you have thoughts on the Harry Potter stories and J.K.Rowling. The American anthropologist and philosopher Jean Houston, who was influenced by Margaret Mead and Teilhard de Chardin believes the Harry Potter stories are very much part of the modern Grail. What thoughts have you on Harry Potter?

Mark Patrick –I have no great interest in the Harry Potter stories in themselves. In fact, I have never read one of them right through. I have never been to a Harry Potter film. What interests me is the Harry Potter phenomenon. More than half the children of the United Kingdom name one of the Harry Potter stories in their three favourite books. Joanne Kathleen Rowling, and she pronounces her name as ‘rolling’, and she certainly is that at the moment. She has been named the world’s best-paid author. Once an unemployed single mother, she has now sold more than 250 million books around the world. It has been said that many conservative Christian parents refuse to allow their children to read the Potter stories claiming they promote witchcraft and wickedness.

Pastor Jack Brock of Christ Community Church in Alamogordo, New Mexico, had a holy bonfire on the Sunday after Christmas, 2001, and burnt the Potter books publicly as ‘an abomination to God and to me.’ Richard Abanes in  Harry Potter and the Bible, shows a direct link with ‘current paganism’ and the practice  of witchcraft, as well as ties to the occult and new-age philosophy. Connie Neal’s book What’s a Christian to do with Harry Potter? has a chapter entitled: ‘What would Jesus do with Harry Potter?’

Instead of bemoaning the fact that so many people are reading these stories or complaining that they denigrate, or are opposed to, the Christian message, we should be rejoicing that any literature causes such excitement. J.K.Rowling has a relationship with our children, and indeed with ourselves as children, which we should envy and encourage. Far from trying to stop the lights we should be helping them to burn more brightly. She is doing more for imagination than any other single force in our thoroughly bleak and businesslike century.

Shirley- I know you have a profound interest in Spirituality and Psychology and also Art, your writings contain much to confirm this.

Mark Patrick- Yes, several of my books are on this theme. I see these three as linked specifically. There can be no real understanding of spirituality without psychology; and most spirituality finds expression in the arts. Artists are, especially in destitute times such as we are experiencing presently, the spiritual prophets who show us the light at the end of the tunnel.

Shirley-That’s a real metaphor for birth and our new life!  You live a life of spirituality under the Rule of St Benedict. What is Benedictine Spirituality?

Mark Patrick-Benedictine Spirituality is a living out of The Rule of St Benedict, a little book on how to organise people who want to live together with God written at some time in the sixth century. Not a book at all, but a book about the book of your own life. It is how to have that script written for you by God, if you are prepared to waive your rights of authorship.  The Rule of St Benedict can make this happen. It is not something to read, it is something to be done. So describing it is like describing how to play Scrabble or Monopoly or Snooker, complicated and tedious until you know how to play. Or describing a trellis, a lattice, a runway, anything that exists to allow something else, something other than itself, to happen. It is a structure to promote growth, to put some order into abundance, to help you take off and fly. It is a form which teaches you to do without it; showing that all form is empty.

Books about how to write books are now an overweight industry. Shops stock dozens; some have special sections or shelves. In 1919 a very slim volume called The Elements of Style appeared in the United States. I think it was written for the army. Its purpose was to give you the facts without any frills. It was written by a professor of Cornell University whose motto was ‘No needless words’. He called it a ‘little’ book, stressing the word ‘little’ with cunning effacement, as a gifted athlete might put a spin on the ball. He was always full of deep sympathy for the reader, knowing that most of us are in serious trouble all the time, floundering in a swamp. And the job of a writer was to drain that swamp as quickly as possible and let the reader walk on dry ground. Half a century later a student of his resurrected this little book, his parvum opus, which summarized the case for cleanliness, accuracy and brevity in the use of English. This year 2010, which is 90 years later, the tiny book by Strunk and White, which cut the vast tangle of English rhetoric down to size and wrote its rules and principles on the head of a pin, remains an unrivalled classic. ‘For sheer pith it sets a record unlikely to be broken, as the blurb says, ’and in a drafty time it stands erect, resolute and assured.’

Shirley- So the Rule of St Benedict is giving guidance for a style of living?

Mark Patrick-What more could one say about The Rule of St Benedict which the author also calls ‘a little rule for beginners’? It too concerns the elements of style, but a style of life for those interested in living with and in God. Benedict was also a keen and compassionate observer of human nature. He realized that people are weak, that people fail, and yet he believed that they were able to measure up to this challenge. This is a no-nonsense, unembroidered hand-book for those who want to join the rewarding school of the Lord’s service. Any unusual calling, whether you choose to be an athlete, an academic or an astronaut, requires training and discipline. Benedict knows that too. But he refuses to lay down anything harsh or burdensome just to impress the monastic weight-watchers. If there is any strictness in his rule it is to correct faults and to safeguard love.

Shirley-But how is this adapted to so many different cultures and styles of living worldwide?

Mark Patrick-Benedict emphasises the importance of both the human person and relationships between persons living together. He has the natural psychologist’s sureness of touch when arbitrating between conflicting interests in human affairs. His rule contains directions for all aspects of community life, but there is an inbuilt diffidence and flexibility allowing for adaptation to different countries and climates, and centuries; which it is why it has lasted for over 15 hundred years. You can say it has carried, almost unconsciously, the wisdom of Christianity throughout the Dark Ages, when anything more articulate or less durable might have perished. It had a seminal influence on European history, providing the sanest and simplest infrastructure for community living, co-operative work, and communal prayer. The Rule of Benedict is as genial for what it leaves out as for what it puts in. It is not devotional, decorative or diffuse. It is food for the desert; pemmican rather than puff pastries. It is the lowest common multiple of monasticism and, at the same time, quintessentially distilled wisdom of the mystical East. It combines the genius of Rome for legislation with the Christian flair for personal touch. It has the beauty of a simple, yet effective ,metal container, to which it takes time to warm and adjust. The community which forms this complex tapestry would fray, stretch, tear and break without this delicate container. Poetry, as always, says it more accurately than prose;

‘And here is love
Like a tinsmith’s scoop
Sunk past its gleam
In the meal-bin.’

Shirley –Many believe that monks avoid the world and its ways and know little of the world. This is not what I have experienced with my contact with the Benedictines. Does Benedictine Spirituality have a place in the world today?

Mark Patrick-There have been Benedictine monasteries which give the impression you suggest, and indeed, there are many who might see monasticism in general as such a calling; to flee the world and retreat to the desert. However, fortunately, there are many kinds of monks, as the Rule of Benedict states in its opening chapter. The monastery to which I belong is one which follows the charter they adopted in 1995 before undertaking a large building programme which required the elaboration of a vision for the future. This was done after consultation with many people both inside and outside the Glenstal community.

Shirley-Let’s go through the Charter and see also how it might fit into the life of a psychotherapist, or to help people understand a different life style!

Mark Patrick-Ausculta is the Latin word for ‘Listen’. And is the first word in the Rule of St Benedict. Since the sixth century, communities have followed this Rule, as do the Benedictine monks of Glenstal Abbey in Ireland. Ireland is situated in a pivotal position off the mainland of Europe, Glenstal, in Southern Ireland, and within easy reach of Shannon airport, is ideally placed as a centre for spiritual revitalisation. Monasteries, like the ancient hill-forts of Celtic Ireland, provide access to the spiritual realm. A monastery is a listening ear for the world around it. As such, the monastery is an essential part of society, providing a place to be in touch with our deepest selves, with nature, and with God.

Hospitality, an essential feature of the Rule of Benedict, is also a hallmark of Celtic culture. After careful consideration the monks of Glenstal Abbey feel they are being asked by God to listen more intently to the needs of society and have decided to make themselves, their grounds, the ethos and atmosphere of their monastery, more available to people assailed by a world of unprecedented stress. The monks themselves have no great gifts to give away; they offer instead a place and an atmosphere conducive to the discovery of personal value and inner peace.

Monks are those who take a step away from the world around them. They strive to preserve what is best in the heritage received, while remaining open to what other cultures and traditions offer. They welcome with enthusiasm and discernment the advances of technology and science, and try to weave these into a wider and more ancient understanding of the universe. A daily round of prayer and liturgical celebration combines with work in education, ecumenism, pastoral ministry, counselling, farming, bee-keeping, gardening, woodturning, forestry and silviculture, research, scholarship, writing and the arts.

Farm and woodland, castle and gardens, inspirational surroundings for monastic life, must be preserved, even when offered to a contemporary world eager for genuine spirituality and inner peace. An architectural strategy has been devised to ensure that monastic life, as it has been lived for centuries, continues undisturbed no matter how many guests or visitors come our way at any given time. The vision of the monastery as a beehive of the invisible, distilling wisdom from many new sources, searching out a new cultural perspective; a new way of hearing, seeing, and being in touch with life. The search is for a fresh articulation of traditional beliefs and values, towards a better quality of life in a new century.

Shirley-Wow! There is certainly a lot to digest there. Also, how as individuals we might incorporate some of this into our own lives, whatever our style. But I did hear in one interview you did that you likened the monastery to a lunatic asylum! What is the comparison?

Mark Patrick-Lunatic asylums are places where people are lumped together who do not fit the very narrow definitions of normalcy that we apply to ourselves. Society simply dumps all those who do not fit into our description of ourselves as ‘sane’ into a corral for all the exceptions to the norm. In something of a similar generic sweep, monasteries are places where those who are ‘seeking God’ congregate. This does not give them anything much in common. The search for God is different for each one of the 7 billion people on the planet. As William Blake puts it into a poem;

The vision of God which thou dost see
Is my vision’s greatest enemy.
Both read their bibles day and night,
But thou read’st black where I read white.

The fact that each monk is seeking God does not make for similarity of temperament, personality, or goal in life. Every other collection of people who come together for a purpose are conjoined by reasons for gathering and common goals to be pursued. Not so in a monastery. Here in our community we used to have one of the older brothers who was fairly deaf and who used to have a deaf friend from Birmingham who visited him each summer. They would sit in the courtyard beneath all our windows shouting at one another. We in turn could not help overhearing the conversation which, on one occasion, went like this: ‘How many members are there in this community?’ ‘There are 40 members of this community. 38 of them are certifiably insane, and we are all trying to find out who the other two are.’

Shirley –Your most recent book ‘Underground Cathedrals’ has reached the best seller list. What message are you trying to convey to society in the midst of the scandals of the church? Have you personal opinions on the sexual abuse?

Mark Patrick-‘Bestseller’ is certainly an exaggeration. As regards the sexual abuse of children we have to recognise that this has been a feature of our society, and, indeed, other societies throughout the world, which reached the proportions of an epidemic. It is the total failure to respect the identity and the rights of children. It is comparable to the way society accepted slavery for three hundred years without being aware of its total degradation of our humanity, not just as slaves but as slavers. There was a moment when European civilisation was at its so-called peak when something like three quarters of the population of the world were slaves of one kind or another. We have been treating children in a similar fashion until very recently. But another very strange phenomenon; however much police documentation or other officialdom recorded the facts of such scandalous abuse in so many places around the country, it still remains an even more mysterious reality that the population as a whole was unaware of it. This is more especially true of people who were brought up in monasteries, convents or seminaries and who had no sexual experience themselves.

The accusation that Clergy were able to molest hundreds of vulnerable children because of a “systemic, calculated perversion of power” that put their abusers above the law, is true not because their superiors were covering up for them but because their superiors had no idea whatever about the actual gruesome reality in which they were involved. All knowledge being passed on to such superiors was in words and reports. These bishops and superiors, except in a number of exceptional cases, were quite incapable of understanding the full impact of what they were hearing. What has been reported as ‘the damning verdict on the conduct of church and secular authorities’ following ‘a three year investigation into allegations of child abuse by priests in Dublin going back to the 1960’s’ is an unwarranted conclusion. Such uninhibited scope was afforded to abusers in the Catholic Church because the people who were in charge were incapable of understanding the horrific realities which were being presented to them. It is as if they were tone deaf or colour blind precisely because of the total absence of any sexual education or experience in their own lives. There was a cultural purblindness which affected the whole country until the rude awakening which happened towards the Twentieth century. The stunning reality is that no matter what was said to them or presented to them verbally or on paper, they were incapable of taking in what sexual abuse was.

Shirley –There is much more we could discuss on this matter but there are many who feel completely betrayed, and have left the institutional church and are seeking their own spirituality elsewhere. Do you have a message for them?

Mark Patrick –This is a difficult question which I can only answer for myself. I was born into the Catholic Church and I have had the good fortune of being able to study theology and the history of that Church for many years. I do believe that this Church, whatever human beings may do to it, especially those who see themselves as in charge of it, contains everything we need for allowing us to be disciples of Jesus Christ, whom I believe to be the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity come on earth. He gave us His Holy Spirit and promised that this Holy Spirit would be with us forever until the end of time, and that not even the gates of Hell should prevail against us. That is all that matters to me. I have the Holy Spirit in my heart and that Person will never desert me. The food and drink, which I need for the journey through life, is the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ which he gave to us in the Eucharist at the Last Supper. ‘Do this in memory of me,’ he said. It is a deed that we do, not a dogma, or a book, or a set of concepts. Wherever this deed is done, indeed, wherever two or three of us are gathered in His name, He is there with us. We eat his body and drink his blood to give ourselves the blood transfusion which we need to swop our kind of loving for His kind of loving, to transfer from our own human energy to His Divine Energy. And this can be done in many ways. It matters little how we do it; what matters is that the deed is done in memory of Him and that we participate actively as often as we want to have the deepest communion with Him.

All the rest is secondary: what clothes we wear, what rules we obey, what forms of government and structures of community we adopt. If the whole world were to betray us the Holy Spirit would never do so. We need to cultivate direct relationship with the Persons of the Holy Trinity, first person singular, present tense. There should be no intermediaries, no third person, no go-between. Christ gave us the life and love of the Three Persons of the Trinity flowing in our own hearts, we only have to drop down there to bathe ourselves in this supernatural splendour. We don’t need anyone else or anything else to access this privilege which is our birthright since the time we were baptised. Of course it is a pity beyond all telling that we have been so betrayed by human institutions, but God never relied on any of these to speak directly to His chosen people. All we have to do is answer the phone.

Shirley- But you live in a Catholic environment…..

Mark Patrick –I accept that being a male and a monk in the monastery of Glenstal Abbey make it easier for me to find a satisfactory life within the Roman Catholic tradition; and I can see very easily how so many others are feeling alienated by the present structures of this institution. However, I believe that everything can change, and should change if necessary, except one thing which is the love of God made present to us in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.

It is up to us to insist on such changes, but for my part, I do not want to invent a new Church, nor do I feel the need to abandon this one. And this one, for me, means recognising that Judeochristianity is one religion stemming from the revelation of the one God; that the break between Judaism and Christianity is similar to that between Protestantism and Catholicism, namely a family quarrel; that Jews and Christians belong to the Catholicism which stems from the God of Abraham, also recognised by Moslems, and Isaac and Jacob, which in our view reaches its culmination and fulfilment of revelation in Jesus Christ, the Messiah that Judaism has announced through its prophets, who is God incarnate. The Church, the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic, must as an organisation, embody the Holy Spirit of Christ. Until it does so, it remains human, fallible and faulty, not yet having reached its full potential.

I believe in God and I believe that the Holy Spirit is gradually improving the mechanisms which might change the Church from being the fragmented, self- opinionated, thick-headed, sexist, male dominated organisation that cultural forces in our patriarchal world have allowed it to become, so that it may eventually struggle towards being the transparent image of the God it was meant to be serving. I shall work as hard as I can to remove such dross and clean these windows, so that all manner of things may be well, and that all may be one, without that meaning uniform. There are many ways of being Christian and our union is one of love, not of domination.

Shirley –I’m sure many agree with you on this. We spoke early about Glenstal, what do you believe the future of Glenstal to be in your vision of the future of the Church?

Mark Patrick-This monastery of ours, Glenstal Abbey in Limerick, is being offered first refusal – and everything always depends upon the willingness of those who are approached – on establishing a three-ringed Community of the Holy Spirit in and around the present structure of the community here as it now exists. The outer rim of the community will comprise professional people, some married, some not, men and women who are interested in living the liturgical life of the core community and some who will be involved in the active life and professional engagements of the Abbey as a whole. The inmost circle forms the contemplative liturgical core; those who undertake to live the full schedule of Trinitarian life here on earth.

In between these two there will be accommodation and space for a third party who might want to live with us for a certain time, at their own rhythm and to the extent that they find appropriate. This last group might be artists, business people, consultants, doctors, entertainers, families, general practitioners, historians, iconographers, journalists, knights of the road, liturgists, musicians, novelists, OAP’s, painters, quantum physicists, ramblers, scientists, teenagers, university students, visitors, writers  – all whose interest in being in such an environment might be temporary and even sometimes quite tangential to the purpose of the whole.

Shirley-What would they do here? What help would they be given?

Mark Patrick –Glenstal would establish a spiritual centre which would offer initiation into a way of life which aligns the whole person, body, mind and spirit, with the universe as a whole, with those who are in it, and with the Three Persons of the Trinity who have invited each one of us to share in their life. Taking our cue from Cluny, Glenstal can provide many people with an element and an atmosphere allowing them to breathe spiritually. Again poetry describes this:

If you came this way in may time, you would find the hedges
White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness.
There are other places
Which are also the world’s end, some at the sea jaws,
Or over a dark lake, in a desert or a city-
But this is the nearest, in place and time.

There are other places, of course. But the Spirit seems to be saying that at this moment and as things are, Glenstal is the nearest in place and time. We do have one of the most beautiful places in the world imbued with the mysterious time of liturgy.

Shirley –And people coming here would become marinated in this beauty.

Mark Patrick-Most people educated in the 20th century are blind and deaf to the symbolism of liturgy, the ‘divine beauty’ of nature, the language of art. Western European civilisation has long ago sold its birth right for a mess of pottage. Our birth right is the mystery of life hidden in the symbols from the beginning of time: the mess of pottage is a world constructed by scientific technology. Not that science and technology are not wonderful and essential but without the other dimension they are ‘a dry weary land without water’.

Monks should provide for a world that has become blind, deaf and dumb to the language of symbolism, the meaning of life. We should be able to pour that trickle of water on the palm of the hand which allowed Anne Sullivan, imaginative, patient and inspired educator, to teach Helen Keller, born blind, deaf and dumb, how to retrieve her sensibility, her humanity, her personality, her spirituality.

Shirley-What point are you making from their story?

Mark Patrick –On 3rd March 1887, Anne arrived at the house in Tuscumbia and for the first time met Helen Keller. Anne immediately started teaching Helen to finger spell. Although Helen could repeat these finger movements she could not quite understand what they meant. Anne and Helen moved into a small cottage on the land of the main house. After a month of Anne’s teaching, what the people of the time called a ‘miracle’ happened. Helen had until now not yet fully understood the meaning of words. When Anne led her to the water pump on 5th April 1887, all that was about to change. As Anne pumped the water over Helen’s hand, Anne spelled out the word water in the girl’s free hand. Something about this explained the meaning of the words within Helen, and Anne could immediately see in her face that she finally understood.  Helen later explained that she experienced a thrill of returning thought and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to her.

Shirley-How does this fit into a monk’s life?

Mark Patrick-Monks must first of all learn for themselves the language of symbolism, the language of liturgy, the language of the saving mysteries of Jesus Christ, made real for us on a daily basis through the power of the Holy Spirit. The digitus Dei, or finger of God, as the Holy Spirit is named, spells out ‘the word’ for us as the water of life is poured on the other hand. The Holy Spirit writes on our hands, as blind, deaf and dumb people, also through the medium of sound. ‘I was dumb, silent and still..  He put a new song into my mouth’ which is from Psalm 38  v3; and 39 v4.

Shirley-And people would learn this new way?

Mark Patrick-Yes. Gifts of place, time and culture have been given to us as providential sources from which to provide ‘the running streams’ for which many, if not every soul is gasping. And once we ourselves have learned and are living from this mystery, we too can provide ‘small cottages on the land of the main house’ which will allow many people as possible to have, or to gain, access to these mysteries. This means initiating people, starting with ourselves, to a new culture, a new alphabet, which is really the very old culture, the very ancient language of liturgy. This would be a language and a culture which help us to become fully alive, with that fullness of life which the Trinity always wished to share with us; resurrected life, the life of love with God.

Shirley-Would this mean a new type of community?

Mark Patrick-Glenstal would become like Clonmacnoise in Seamus Heaney’s poem. This is a place where the abbot and community help the artist to anchor the altar. The monastery becomes a place where artists can hope to tie whatever kite they happen to be flying to a firm and stable anchor. The monastery as silent hub of that fireworks display which art and culture need to scatter with reckless flamboyancy into the night.

Such revelation is possible only from the ambience and tranquillity of a monastery where, to quote Alexander Solzhenitsyn; people have the time, the atmosphere and the opportunity ‘to survey, as from a great height, the whole tortuous flow of history; and yet at the same time, like people completely immersed in it, they can see every pebble in its depths.’ (Solzenitsyn 1971:358). Providentially, it seems to me, the Holy Spirit has gathered together in this very beautiful place, the people and the competences, the genius and the generosity, which could allow us to provide a well-organised and effective oasis in an over-expanding spiritual desert.

Shirley –I was in Glenstal some weeks back with our students of psychotherapy – there were over 200 visitors that day including another psychotherapy group, a creative writing group, a retreat day for ladies plus the overseas tourists. What brings people to Glenstal? What are they seeking?

Mark Patrick –I think you managed to hit the day of peak population! But, you are right in saying that very many people like coming to Glenstal Abbey for various reasons. This ranges from people who like the grounds and the garden, a place to go for an afternoon walk, to those who are interested in finding out how monks live. Such an interest can be passing or it can be serious. It can be similar to people who visit the zoo to see how monkeys live, or it can be a genuine curiosity about an alternative lifestyle from the one most people adopt. It can also be a prompting from God to someone to go somewhere that God is more obviously present than elsewhere. Most people have a desire to live with God in some way and have a secret part of themselves that would choose to be a monk.

Shirley-For you the Holy Spirit has a great deal to do with it! How can people recognise this invisible force in their lives whatever they choose to call it?

Mark Patrick-There is a place in every person where God touches us and where we are constantly in contact with God. If I can reach this place I can touch God. The Bible gives this interior place the name ‘heart.’ At a given moment a great withdrawal of all other faculties must take place, a sort of fast must be imposed on them. We try to rest before God in reverent and loving attention, while our interior faculties remain empty. We must work to create this emptiness, this space within. This does not normally happen quickly. Perseverance, humility and patience are needed. If I can arrive at a point where I can free myself from every other reality and bring the gaze of my spirit to bear on this point exclusively, I can meet God.  Our desire for God leads us toward that reality in ourselves which is the deepest and most divine part of our being. That place where God dwells in me is also the place of prayer.

Shirley –How do we recognise this place of prayer?

Mark Patrick-Long before I am aware of it or before I take an interest in it, this prayer is going on ceaselessly within me. It is important to insist on this: prayer has already begun before I do anything – Prayer is there; it abides there; it comes before any of my efforts, any of the techniques I may learn. At the deepest level I live in a state of prayer. At the beginning this prayer is entirely unconscious – so all my efforts will consist in letting the prayer flow out and spill over into my consciousness. It’s nothing more than that. From being unconscious, this prayer must become conscious. I must allow it to take me over from within, so that I can become united with it, and take direction from it, while allowing myself to be borne up by it.

I hope that all this makes it clear that when we pray we are not ‘doing’ anything, we are not starting from scratch and building something, or throwing out some kind of lines of communication as a fisherman might cast flies onto a river. On the contrary, we are trying to slow down, stop all our active faculties from racing around madly trying to achieve something, and allowing ourselves to sink back slowly into that cave within our hearts where the prayer of the three persons of the Trinity is already flowing through us like a murmuring stream. We have to incline the ear of our heart to hear what they are saying to each other and to me who has been invited to be part of their communion as the greatest honour and privilege that can be imagined. So, rather than saying anything or doing anything, I have to stop doing anything, stop saying things, and allow myself to enter the diving-bell of prayer which will carry me to the depths of myself where I can freely enter this conversation.

Shirley-What sort of image would you give this?

Mark Patrick-An image which I find useful is this: How do you get seaweed lying on a beach, hard, brittle and sundried and crackling under foot, to become lithe, supple, flowing, velvet? Not by crushing it, kicking it, stamping on it, lifting it up; rather by putting it back in the water and holding it there until the ocean seeps through it and after a while caresses it into its underwater softness, so much more natural to it than its hard, wrinkled, tetchiness on the shore.

Shirley-How do we melt the anger in us that trauma in life has caused us to experience?

Mark Patrick- You are asking, how do we achieve a similar softness in ourselves, causing the heart of stone to become a heart of flesh by allowing it to be bathed in its natural element of prayer? The answer is that we do whatever is necessary for us to sink daily into this element which beckons to us, as the waters of the ocean beckon to the holiday makers on the shore. Every advertised exercise of prayer: yoga, transcendental meditation, rosaries, which are digital labyrinths to hypnotise the fleeting mind, are simply tried and tested ways of holding us down in the area of the heart where the agitated body and even more agitated mind won’t carry us off into other areas of distraction. None of these are foolproof or guaranteed to achieve their purpose. Their only goal is to push you into position so that the Holy Spirit can pray for you and through you to the Father and you can be aware of that breath of life moving through you.

There is really only one prayer: that taught by God come among us when he was asked to teach us how to pray: Our Father. This prayer contains everything we need to know and everything we need to say. But, as we go about our business and as we live through each day we can teach ourselves some shorthand version, some prayer of the heart which then continues to murmur through us even while we are sleeping: Come Lord Jesus, Maranatha, The Spirit and the Bride say Come – you choose your own and, more often, your heart chooses for you. These days, when I am out walking in the beautiful sunshine in the splendour of nature, I bless myself and say Father, Son and Holy Spirit, or I say a prayer that came to me in the Icon Chapel at Glenstal in front of the Healing Icon of Christ: ‘Drive away the darkness which surrounds me, shed around me the mantle of your light; help me to know your will and give me the courage to do it.’

Shirley-All of us need this light and guidance, and may be struggling to find ways to find this light. Have you some last words for our readers?

Mark Patrick-I think we all need certain times and special places to help us reach this cave of the heart each day. But this place can be the car as we drive to work; and the icon which reminds us of our place in the depths of the heart of the Trinity can be a stone, a picture, a piece of music, a prayer. None of these are vitally important in themselves, but any one of them can become for us the element which allows us at any moment and in any circumstance to change ourselves, like the seaweed, into the body and blood of Christ. This allows the Holy Spirit of God to breathe through us and become the source of everything that we do or say. This morning [Sunday 25th July, 2010] the Gospel at Mass provided the answer [The Holy Spirit] Luke 11, 9-13:

 “So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.  “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

Shirley-Mark Patrick, thank you so much for sharing your life journey with us. I hear your message of hope coming from your deep convictions which is inspiring in the present climate. There is so much more we could share – but I thank you for your generosity of time, words of wisdom and your vision of hope for the future.

Mark Patrick Hederman is Abbot of Glenstal Abbey. Formerly, headmaster of the school, he has lectured in philosophy and literature in America and Nigeria, as well as in Ireland. A founding editor of the cultural journal The Crane Bag, he is also author of a number of books including The Haunted Inkwell, Kissing the Dark, Symbolism and the recent best seller Underground Cathedrals.