You are on page 1of 8

Rozmowa z o.

Markiem Sheridanem OSB o

monastycyzmie dzisiaj przeprowadzona przez o.
Wodzimierza Zatorskiego OSB Jerozolima stycze
P. Wodzimierz: I personally think that questions involving the monasticism as it is today are the
most crucial. Before coming to this, though, I would like to ask about the specify of
monasticism. What makes ones life monastic? Christ announced the Gospel for common people
and the monastic movement evolved only several centuries later. What is it, then, that
distinguishes monastic life from the usual, the life of a common Christian, the follower of
P. Mark: I think one has to look at it from the historical point of view and in terms of the
development of the Church. (In fact, I have an essay on this subject which I can give you it is in
German which I gave last September.) The famous German historian Harnack already noted, at
the end of the 19th century, that by the end of the 3rd century the Church had become rather large
and in terms of the original manifest proposed in the New Testament. When you have very large
organization and you are already several generations off on there is inevitably going to be
differences. Some people will want to have more fervent religious life and others will have less
interest, and this will be reflected in the overall structure. By the end of the 3rd century we have
the Church which has grown less fervent, on the whole, as compared to the 1st century. He saw
monasticism as an answer to that that it was created for those who wanted a more fervent
Christian life. For Harnack this was a mistake. He is the most famous Church historian from the
end of the 19th century, he died in 1930. In his view it was a mistake, because what was really
needed was a reform of the whole Church it is a typical Protestant, evangelical point of view.
As a historian Harnack was, in fact, very good. He knew the sources of literature very well.
More recently this question has been taken up by an American sociologist named Starck
(Ronald). Starck, sort of, accepts the basic historical view of Harnack but he does not accept the
theological point of view of Harnack. Starck say: from the sociological point of view you find a
similar phenomenon in different religions. That is, you have an initial strong religious
movement, but by the time it develops and becomes large then you inevitably have different
groups within it. Those who are more religious, who have higher level of religious interest and
those who are less interested and they are quite satisfied with a minimum kind of religious
practice. He says what you have then is that structures develop to adapt to this situation, so that
there is something for the people who want more fervent, active religious kind of life and there
are forms for those who are less interested. This in fact, he says, is a normal thing that you find in
different religions. So he would put then monasticism in this kind of framework as a response
to a developing historical situation; to me that makes a lot of sense. When you look at the
literature of the 4th centurys monastic movement, especially the Life of Anthony by
Athanasius is the first classic in the monastic literature but it is not so much about history.
The Life of Anthony played a big role in the development of monasticism, because it was the
first work of this type to portray a Christian who was not a martyr (non-martyr) as an ideal for
imitation. So Athanasius portrays Anthony in terms of certain traditional, actually philosophical,
ideals and when he says that Anthony took up monastic life he says Anthony began to watch
over himself: that is, to pay attention to himself; and to practice, to engage in exercises. He uses

two technical word one is the word for paying attention to oneself which is Greek word
prosoche, and the second one is askesis, which means to engage in exercises. Then he explains
what these exercises were for Anthony, he says how Anthony used to visit other ascetics who
were living in the area and he tried to imitate their virtues; so these are examples of askesis
imitating virtues, trying to acquire the virtues that he had found in others through imitation.
One of the things he imitated, for example, was the ability that certain people had to read and
interpret the Scriptures so this forms part of askesis also. This focuses on the interior life, the
inner life. That is, what Athanasius proposes is really what monasticism is about focusing on
developing inner life. We find it in other authors, too, for example Basil. Basil, although is
famous for writing a rule or this collection of answers to questions which is called the monastic
rule, but in fact Basil was also well aware of this tradition. And one of his most famous homilies
which was translated in Latin by Rufinus is precisely on this concept of prosoche. He uses as a
point of departure the text of Deuteronomy, where this word occurs, where it says prosoche pay
attention to yourselves. The whole homily is the development of this idea. So, there again, we
have the focus on the interior life of the person. When you get to someone like Cassian, maybe
50 years later than Basil, there again the whole focus is on the interior life. Cassian says quite
explicitly, when he is in the early books of The Institutes, that the reason why the external
form of the Divine Office, for example, he describes in it, he says this external form exists to
help develop the interior life of a prayer, which is what it is all about. He goes on to describe that
later on in the Conferences. By the time you get to the Rule of Saint Benedict we are in the
period at the end of the development of the early period two hundred years later after
Athanasius. We are in a very different cultural situation in the 6th century in the West; in a very
different cultural situation from even a hundred years earlier. The Rule reflects this and the
author is aware of it: when he talks about our Fathers before us and when he speaks of the little
rule for beginners, I think, he needs to be taken seriously. One has to make a distinction between
the intrinsic content of the Rule of St. Benedict and the role that it played in the history. And that
role in history is well known. In the early middle ages it became the one rule for monks and so
forth. Throughout the whole history it served as a framework for monastic life even when it
was interpreted in many different ways in the later middle ages.
The Rule itself, if we are talking about intrinsic content it does not have the content, say, that
we find in Cassian or for that matter in Basil. The author was aware of this. This is why in the
end of the Rule he say: for those who want to go on, to develop in the spiritual life, one should
read these other works. One of the key differences between the period of Cassian early 5th
century and the early 6th century, when Benedict is writing, is a shift from a focus on the
development of the interior life to a focus which we can call social control. And the most
extreme form of it, in the Rule of St. Benedict, is the suggestion that one should search the
bedding of the monks to see if they are hiding anything, any private property. This also reflects a
great difference in cultural situations. The problem with the Rule is that it focuses too much,
from my point of view, on control. Everything is done in common. The monks sleep together,
they eat together, and they pray together every time. That is not the case in the earlier
monasticism, not at all. In the Life of Anthony Anthony explains that there are two reasons
for working. One is to support oneself hermits had to do this; the other is to have money to
give away to those who are really poor. We are in a different world when we get to the Rule of
St. Benedict. It is true that in Egypt we also had the form of Pachomians monasticism which
also had a fairly high social control, but it is not the only form in Egyptian monasticism and it is
not even perhaps the most representative in terms of early period of monasticism. So, when you

look at these things in terms of historical development (because the question is, inevitably, what
all this has to do with us today?) then I think you have to be somewhat selective and I would
think then monasticism still represents an option for those who want a more intensive form of
religious life and that within that context it is very important to focus on the development of
interior life, as Cassian did. Cassian is not sufficient for us, we live also in a different age. We
need also to live within our intellectual world but we can find a lot to use from that religious
tradition. I am sorry it is a very long answer for the question.
P. Wodzimierz: You have stressed that the monastic life evolved because people wanted to lead
amor intensive form of religious life but wasnt it possible to realize this goal within the
framework of family life? We witness such initiatives in various Christian movements (for
example, the Neo-catechumenal Way). The participating families strive to develop their spiritual
life. Similar possibilities could be open to people in that period. There is, though, an element
which distinguishes monastic life from, and it is living alone. Live alone monachos. Be alone,
without wife, children, family life, in a community with the same persons who try to direct their
lives with religion and focus on religious things. Why, then, has this form of life eventually
P. Mark: There is a problem with that, you can do it, in the first generation, but in a family you
have soon people with different levels of interest. In one family you will have children who do
not have the same level of interest. One way of dealing with it in these new movements is, in
fact, and it is not new although the movement is new, to develop a high level of social control, so
that you keep the children in the movement. This is the reason why you get movements like the
Amish in the US. The Amish are of German Protestant origin and in the early 19th century they
developed an intense form of communal Christian life the families. But to preserve this they
develop a lifestyle which is different, which sets the whole group apart: they way they dress,
everything. The more extreme ones refuse to ride in cars, automobiles. But they dress in a very
distinctive way even today, to try to keep people within one group. It is exactly the same
phenomenon as orthodox in Israel from the sociological point of view. The development of
orthodox Chassidic (Hasidic)Judaism is the response to Reformed Judaism. Because the
Reformed Judaism of the 18th century was influenced by the Enlightenment and they wanted to
adapt to the modern world of the 18th century. The orthodox Chassidic movement: no, we are
going to live completely differently, we dress differently so we stay separate. This means then
that you have to maintain a very high level of social control to keep people within that, but this is
very opposite of developing the interior life. You cannot develop the interior life by insisting on
social control.
P. Wodzimierz: You should be free.
P. Mark: You should be free to do this. So that is what I say: this can only be done on a long
term basis by celibates, by people who choose not to found a family. Because once you decide to
found a family you are faced with all these problems.
P. Wodzimierz: There is another option, though. In India we observe another model: a young
man marries, founds a family, has children. But once he has reached the grandparent age, after he
has seen the face of his grandchild, he goes away to live in loneliness, learning wisdom. Then

he comes back to pass on that wisdom to the younger generation. Such model seems more
P. Mark: Well, from the beginning of the monastic movement till now Jesus Christ is the model:
He did not get married, He did not found a family, He represented an intense form of religious
life. So from the Christian point of view He is always the model.
P. Wodzimierz: But monastic life is present in other religions: in Buddhism, Hinduism, in Islam
as well.
P. Mark: First of all you have to be careful methodologically the word monastic is a Western
word, comes from Greek life. We apply it by analogy to these other religions forms, we are
comparing something always, implicitly. As I said at the beginning in different religions you will
find these possibilities for more intense religious life.
P. Wodzimierz: Last year a few Tibetan monks visited Tyniec. They said that they felt there
very much at home, finding our lifestyle very similar to theirs. Monastic life is undertaken not
only within the framework of Christianity, but in other religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam
what is, then, specifically monastic in comparison with the life of other (religious) people for
example the communities of American Protestants already mentioned here or the contemporary
Catholic movements? How can we say monastic is
P. Mark: First of all, for Christians it is the Christian life by following the teaching of Jesus
Christ in more intense form than it is possible normally in the society in which we live, in a fact,
we do something like these other movements like the Amish or the Orthodox. We, too, live
apart in order to have this more intense form of Christina life. But I would say that looking at the
monastic tradition it is very important to insist on the goal of development of the inner life as the
focus of monastic life. It is true that one can do this outside of this sort of framework. It is more
difficult because it is normal for human beings to want to have support from others doing the
same thing; so you create a society where there is interest together in pursuing these values.
P. Wodzimierz: What is important for the contemporary monastic life? In the past decades we
witnessed huge changes in lifestyle, in the way people work and acquire the means to survive, in
the types of human relations These changes are truly revolutionary. What do you think about
monasticism in those drastically changed social settings? What is the most important issue when
we undertake monastic life and try to keep it intact in the contemporary reality?
P. Mark: I think that the focus cannot be on the externals. First of all, it has to be on the heart of
the monastic life the spiritual life, developing that. I think that many of the developments of the
last 50 years were disastrous for genuine monastic life. I think particularly of the US, but not
only. I would say that in many monasteries there is no clear idea of what it all is about, at all.
People focus on all sorts of external things, they focus on external ways of trying to create
community life social engineering, which ultimately will not work. You cannot create
community that is a sharing in something unless you are clear about what you want to share. If
that is not really the interior life and following Jesus Christ, it will never work. It is somewhat
pointless to begin with talking about the external, as so often people do, when they are not

focused on what the real goal is at all. For example, it is no use to talk to people about living
together in a community and then you bringing outside people to tell them how to live together if
they have not decided for example that anger is something you have to combat. Anger is one of
the eight principal vices that we find in Evagrius, in Cassian and so forth, but if you find the
people are justifying being angry, anger is going to destroy a community. That is one simple
example of focusing on the interior life. If the people are not convinced that they have to deal
with their own anger, then you will never achieve the goal.
P. Wodzimierz: It is true. Here comes the moment for me to ask: what is the meaning of the
word spiritual? What is spiritual life? It seems to me that we observe a certain
misunderstanding in the Western Church, where spiritual life has been limited to moral life - plus
piety. This is a simplification. Moral life should result from the spiritual, but is not one and the
same. If I am a spiritual man, I should keep a high level of morality. Moral behaviour should
reflect the content of ones heart, but moral correctness does not necessarily warrant spiritual
growth. The Pharisee are the classic example: they led very moral lives but when God came they
didnt recognize Him! They didnt see the messenger of God in Jesus of Nazaret, in spite of very
clear signs which He was giving.
P. Mark: It is true. The word spiritual to the average person means very little. It often means
superficial, devotional practices saying the Rosary, whatever that is spiritual. In the monastic
tradition this is not true at all. It has nothing to do with the superficial, external devotional
practices. It has to do with a simple schema: the goal of struggling against the vices is in order to
acquire virtue. According to the classical tradition of Evagrius, Cassian and so forth: you aim at
apathia. Cassian never uses the word for other reasons but the goal is to overcome the vices,
these principal tendencies, you could call them, that get in the way of our developing. In this
tradition the goal of seeking (Cassian calls it the purity of heart, as does Evagrius also) and the
reverse of that is, in fact, charity. Because all of these vices are obstacles to developing genuine
love. If you are angry all the time you cannot possibly love the people around you, much less
develop a contemplative life. The contemplative life does not mean just focusing on a blank
television screen, it means coming to the knowledge of Jesus Christ above all through the
Scriptures, through studying interpreting the Scriptures, through theology. In other words, a
genuine intellectual life is an essential part of the contemplative life, but the vices get in the way
if this. I have known people in monasteries who think about food all the time. I have known
people who are so angry, you just see them shining with anger. These are obstacles to developing
any kind of genuine contemplative life and these are unhappy people because they never focus
on what the goal really is. You know, one can multiply examples.
P. Wodzimierz: Could you say in a few words what is spirituality?
P. Mark: I doubt that it can be said in one sentence. It is developing ones own internal life, so
that one overcomes these vices, acquires virtue. Virtue means in the classical sense, the ability to
do something easily and well. We develop the virtue of patience so that we are not constantly
bothered by anger, so that we are able to deal with the normal problems of life, things which
cause anger. But we recognize it by practice, so that we do not get angry at many of things that
people normally get angry at, because that disturbs our internal peace and that is what we are
aiming for to live in peace internally; to have peace with those around us, to be at peace.

P. Wodzimierz: Gabriel Bunge said that spiritual life is living in the Holy Spirit no more and
no less. I think it is a very apt statement.
P. Mark: Yes, this is the Christian, but I think it needs to be made more specific, otherwise it is
too abstract. People do not know what you are talking about.
P. Wodzimierz: For me personally, Bunge has expressed in this statement the whole sense of
spiritual life. To enter the path of spiritual life one must make a decision of choosing true life, in
the full sense of the word; life, which is expressed in love, joy, peace to go this way of life
one`s decision must be strong, even stubborn; Saint Benedict uses the word zelum, he literally
speaks about zeal in brotherly love. Only such authentic determination allows us to live true
life. Otherwise the misterium of vice, inhabiting us, will defeat us and strips our life of its
authenticity. Within this framework, what is formation to monastic life? A young man coming to
a monastery needs information. What does it mean the formation of man?
P. Mark: This is a relatively modern word, I believe, and I think one has to be careful of it,
because it reflects the development of religious orders which are often oriented toward doing
apostolic works. So you form the people coming in, so that they will be oriented toward doing
these works well. And somewhere along the line I am not sure when it happens even in
monastic life formation came to be the spiritual life you formed people in the spiritual life so
that they could do these other works well. From the monastic point of view that is a mistake,
because the goal is not these other works. The goal is ultimately the development of the
individual person. They can do all sorts of good works, does not matter what this might be.
When you bring people into the monastic setting, I think, the goal should be to introduce them
into the monastic tradition, to help them understand it, to help them understand what the goals
are, what asceticism means in its original sense and then to encourage them in this context to
engage in all kinds of spiritual exercises that will lead them to develop their own internal life.
P. Wodzimierz: I guess the word formation is not appropriate. We should, perhaps, talk about
introducing to spiritual life or about demonstrating the values of spiritual life, about guiding
into life, helping to recognize ones spirit
P. Mark: In the whole process of developing the interior life the concept of self-knowledge is
very important. It is what really the focus of prosoche attention to oneself, is all about. It means
attention, paying attention to yourself. And already in Philo of Alexandria it becomes acquainted
with self knowledge, the famous saying know thyself.
P. Wodzimierz: Saint Augustine said: know God and know yourself.
P. Mark: Yes, and in Basil also it means coming to self-knowledge. Self-knowledge, of
course, means to be able to identify what one is experiencing. Cassian devotes one of the books
of The Institutes to anger, to analyzing anger he says that many people say that they are not
angry and yet they show by the way they talk and walk, that they are very angry. They do not
have self-knowledge; they cannot recognize what it is that is bothering them. So, in order to deal
with this thing you have to, first of all, be able to recognize what you are suffering from. I think

that this is a very important part of bringing people into this tradition: you are trying to help them
come to self-knowledge, because without that you cannot change.
P. Wodzimierz: If we keep on using the word formation, it means introducing people to
prosoche. What more? When we enter a monastery we enter a community of life. What is the
most important aspect of communal life? For the followers of Christ love is the most important
because you cannot be His follower without it. Thats why community is so important, one
cannot live in love outside community. What would you say about life in a monastic community?
P. Mark: I think that in community first of all you have to have people who share the same
goal, the same values. If you bring in people into community who are not really interested in
developing spiritually, you are going to have serious problems at some point further on.
P. Wodzimierz: It is a very depressing truth, sadly, affecting many monastic communities. In
the 72nd Chapter of the Rule Saint Benedict wrote: Hunc ergo zelum ferventissimo amore
exerceant monachi (RegBen 72,3). A common goal is an important factor in a community
sharing ones experience on the way to this goal and supporting each other.
P. Mark: All those things are true, but supporting one another in the basic goal. Unfortunately
many communities, you know, they engage in very superficial things to develop a community;
even in some places they watch movies together and this is supposed to develop community. I
have nothing against watching a good movie but you cannot develop a genuine community in
this way, or whatever it is. Surely, you need occasions to be together, you need to share many
aspects of life; but we do this because we have overall a greater goal.
P. Wodzimierz: The next question: what do you deem the most important thing when you
organise a monastic community, especially when you found a new community? What shoould be
done before anything else?
P. Mark: I think the most important thing is to talk about what the goals are about, what people
are aiming at in their monastic life. Too often people begin by having an ideal form of monastic
life in their minds and usually they focus on the external they want to have the Office exactly as
it is described in the Rule of St. Benedict; or they want to have, to limit their meals in such and
such a way but these are all externals. You can move these things back and forth in different
ways but ultimately it does not matter. That is not where the heart of monastic life is.
P. Wodzimierz: This means that talking about the goal is the most important. We have to be
fully aware of the basic values of monastic life: goals and that, which is crucial in our life.
The last question involves a more external issue: the economy. One cannot create a community
of life without the material means: money, house and everything else which one needs in
everyday existence. What is the relation of spiritual life and that economic, material aspect of
life? At the first sight one has the impression that they contradict each other.
P. Mark: In the early monastic tradition monks worked to support themselves. So you have to
find a solution to the economic problem. And depending on what work the community is
engaging in, which depends on where they are, you may need more money. The really important

thing is not to get lost in the external, whether it is works, good works no matter how good they
are. Sometimes for certain kind of works you need outside support, you need benefactors. If you
lose the goal of the interior life then, you know, this will become what it is all about. But it is not
what it is all about; so this is very dangerous. The more one receives from outside, the more
important it becomes to maintain a focus on the heart of the monastic life. You asked a very big
question with not one simple, single solution. It is a question of maintaining a relationship
between different aspects.
P. Wodzimierz: I think that economic aspect of life has a positive function for spiritual life. The
necessity of working to support oneself makes us keep our feet firmly on the ground. I think that
some communities, especially closed nunneries, live off others, who provide the means in
exchange for prayers of the sisters. I dont think it is good, because in such a setting one does
not tread the ground. Piotr Rostworowski said once: My friend, if you want to reach the
summit of spiritual life, you must remember that your legs must reach the ground! It seems to
be a basic truth pertaining to spiritual life.
P. Mark: You mentioned nuns praying for their benefactors. It is an early medieval model where
you have monasteries founded by wealthy people to pray for them to save their souls and so
forth. Basically, I think, you are right that one needs to maintain the perspective that monks
work, they do not live off charity. You know the Franciscans in the Middle Ages developed the
quite different sort of effect; but now they do not need charity. They changed very quickly. But
on the other hand there are certain kinds of work that require support and it is work that it is
just an example that is very valuable for the Church as a whole or even for the monastic life on
the long term basis. Take for example the Maurists in 17th and 18th centurys France or one group
of the Maurist congregation represented by Mabillon and his contemporaries. They did a great
work for the intellectual life of the Church this was not the work, however, that brought in
money. They were able to do it because they had the resources. Now, I assume they had those
resources because the monasteries had land, you know, income that allowed some people to do
this kind of work. I think it is going to be true in any time. But again, you know, it is something
that could be abused. We have to keep the values in relationship to each other.
P. Wodzimierz: Thank you very much for this talk.
P. Mark: Youre welcome.