'It was a really crazy fantasyland we were in, an unhealthy and unreal dream'

THE SATURDAY INTERVIEW: MARK PATRICK HEDERMAN:  The sometimes unorthodox abbot of Glenstal Abbey says it’s heart work that’s…

THE SATURDAY INTERVIEW: MARK PATRICK HEDERMAN: The sometimes unorthodox abbot of Glenstal Abbey says it's heart work that's needed now as Ireland unravels, not head work

THERE IS SOMETHING about a recession that gives a sharper focus to the search for a deeper meaning to life. That search can seem like an escape route when money loses its lustre – or, indeed, can seem the only comfort for those who are ruined financially. For many people, however, this search for spiritual sustenance is itself their ultimate goal.

As I drive up the avenue to Glenstal Abbey, in Murroe, Co Limerick, I am aware that here is a place where such spiritual searching is welcomed. The boys who attend its boarding school are still at home, on their holidays, so there is an exceptional quietness – which is characteristic of many country-house estates in midwinter. Even the trees seem to be sleeping, recovering from last month’s heavy snows.

The Anglo-Norman castle that houses the boarding school and part of the monastery where its Benedictine monks live is sturdy and dramatic without being ostentatious. A new extension, with its reception area, shop and small dining room, is fresh and modern, giving visitors an immediate sense that time does not stand still even in monasteries.


People arrive in their cars for midday Mass, when 20 or so white-robed monks assemble at the altar. The soft chanting for which the monks of Glenstal are famous gives an ethereality to the liturgy, which is celebrated four times a day. This sharing in worship has today drawn an American woman writing a thesis on chant, a woman from Galway and a couple from Cork to join others at Mass and, later, walk through the woodlands and gardens and have supper in silence with the monks. A guest house in the grounds accommodates up to 15 people.

Back in his brown robes after Mass, the abbot of Glenstal, Mark Patrick Hederman, comes into the guest house’s small sitting room to talk. He has lived more than 50 of his 66 years in Glenstal Abbey, first as a student, then as a teacher, headmaster and head of building works before becoming abbot.

The roles don’t seem to have weighed him down. In fact, once we start talking it is clear that his heartfelt interest in intellectual, artistic and spiritual matters nurtures him to the core. That Ireland is unravelling at the end of an economic boom doesn’t faze him at all. “I’m of the view that it was a really crazy fantasyland we were in, an unhealthy and unreal dream,” he says. “It was about grabbing as much as you could, growing as big as you could and losing a lot of other qualities, such as kindness, thoughtfulness, by moving at 100mph. I’m aware that people are suffering now from jobs lost and huge mortgages, but it is better that we burst the bubble and come down to land and start building from reality.”

That said, like many places, Glenstal Abbey benefited financially during the boom. “We’ve had some extremely generous donors, which allowed us to build a new library, the guest house and the new reception area.” There are plans to build three or four eco-friendly “God pods” near the abbey’s 17th-century walled garden. “That’s what is needed now: spaces where people can have as much silence and solitude as they want and yet be connected to the church.” Another plan in gestation is a farm where children can come to interact with animals and nature and then express themselves through workshops led by artists. “This will give children, especially those from feud-scarred areas of Limerick, a chance to express themselves artistically, which is the most enriching thing.”

Hederman himself grew up close to nature, on a stud farm in Co Limerick. This early contact with ponies, cattle and dogs, including hounds for the annual fox hunts, was a formative influence, as was the fact that when they were young he, his brothers and his sister were schooled at home by their American mother. “She didn’t teach us at all – she only taught us to read – but because she had a degree from Trinity she was allowed to teach us. We only went to school when we said we wanted to.”

And so that was how, at the age of nine, Mark Hederman – he took the name Patrick when he became a monk – was packed off to boarding school at St Gerard’s, in Bray, which was then a lay-led preparatory school for boys, many of whom were destined for English public schools. Hederman instead went to Glenstal at 12.

He says he doesn’t have strong memories of his school days: “I enjoyed them and learned almost by osmosis.” He does, however, have very strong views about education itself, particularly secondary education. “We never did any work outside of class and [specified] study, but now people who want to get points have to give up the last two years of school life to study. I believe the whole system of education is out of date, based on a completely different culture, with short school terms because children were needed in the summer to work on farms.

“The fact that all exams are based on memory in an age that you can find every fact about anything on a computer is obsolete. Half of people’s abilities lie latent in this memory-based race for points. And college has become like secondary school, with students demanding notes for what will come up in exams so that they can learn it off by heart.”

Hederman believes this system should be replaced by some form of continuous assessment. “We have to trust schools more and take into consideration what teachers say about their students.” He also believes that more specialist secondary education, where students can follow music and the arts or the sciences, would be beneficial. And he firmly believes that small is beautiful when it comes to schools. “The secret of education is to have a lower teacher-student ratio: this is more important than having computers and other equipment in schools. Communication between people is vital for any form of education, as the essential element is person-to-person magic. There are one or two magic teachers in every school.”

After secondary school Hederman went to study philosophy and literature at University College Dublin, but within a year he returned to Glenstal to join the monastery, at the age of 19. When he was 21 he went to Paris to study philosophy and theology. The three years he spent there, which included the student revolution of 1968, made a lasting impression. “It was a wonderful liberation to think that every single structure of civilisation could be removed. It gave me an awareness of the fragility of social structures, which, unless we agree, won’t keep on going.” Paris also gave Hederman a fantastic introduction to the world of cinema, theatre and the arts. “London and Paris, with their galleries and museums, are cities which are tremendously generous to penniless people,” he says.

Over the years Hederman’s thirst for the arts grew and grew. He founded and edited the cultural magazine the Crane Bag with a former pupil, Richard Kearney (who is now a professor of philosophy), and, latterly, much of his published work has been an exploration of art and literature. In the 1990s, a year lecturing at Boston University followed by three years in Nigeria allowed him to further nurture these interests. “I was in Nigeria between 1992 and 1995, which was at a point in its history when writers who were so proficient in English were producing the most extraordinary literature and drama.” He mentions Wole Soyinka, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature for his plays based on Yoruba religious rites.

NOT WITHOUT HIS critics, Hederman has at times created controversy, both by his outspoken views on a self-serving patriarchy within the Catholic Church and, more locally, with his personal flamboyancy. His commissioning of the repainting of the church’s interior in vibrant colours in the late 1970s shocked many of the monks. Similarly, when he spoke publicly about his use of tarot cards as a tool in Christian meditation, protesters came to the gates of the monastery with placards. He has no qualms about either issue. “Tarot cards were created in Europe in the 1500s, when everyone was a Christian. People have a false belief, as with other things, such as reiki, that they are evil.”

Lately he has written vociferously about psychology, spirituality and the growing links between the two. “We’ve all become so educated that we rely on our minds and have become so dependent on our understanding of what’s going on. Yet, psychologically, we are becoming more aware of the distance between the head and the heart. It’s heart work that is needed now, not head work, and psychology knows that it needs spirituality as the last step on its journey as it leads us to a place where religion has always been trying to approach.”

Hederman also believes there is a great thirst for spirituality itself and a desire for new ways to pray. “There is only 2½ per cent of the world’s population who believe there is nothing more than the world we live in at this moment,” he says. “In the past Ireland had a form of Catholicism directed at an uneducated people who were prepared to obey. Now people only want to follow what they feel is right and know has an effect on them.”

Most people are looking for a way to connect with God that is not too complicated or esoteric or forbidding, he adds. The monks at Glenstal have put together an iPod app that allows people to give themselves “liturgical pauses” in their days. “We’re saying that prayer is not something you do with your conscious mind. It’s unconscious: you have to get below your flitting mind, and to do so you have to develop certain patterns and habits. Here in the monastery we are fortunate that it’s all laid out for us.”

The monks at Glenstal live by the Rule of Benedict, finding their personal balance between work, prayer and leisure. “St Benedict wrote this book at the end of the Roman Empire, a cataclysmic event that was almost like the end of the world. This rule has become a guide for how people would live together [in Benedictine communities] the world over. And what we’re trying to do here is have a living centre of worship and work which provides a lighthouse, an anchor or a solidity to this belief, or hope, that people always want. We are the very privileged guardians of this place, and we have to be welcoming to people and stand back to give them space to find their connection to God.”

Writing has become even more central to Hederman's contemplative life in the past number of years. Underground Cathedrals, whose title is a metaphor for an alternative place and time of worship, and Kissing the Dark, an exploration of the unconscious, are among his most recent books. "I feel compelled to write down what I've understood from the previous year and have written a book every year for the last 10 years or so," he says.

He is working on a new book entitled Dancing with Dinosaurs: A Spirituality for the 21st Century. "The great world will continue to spin, but we have to know how to balance ourselves within it. For Irish people, in particular, our sense of humour is the most important form of balance. We're able to laugh no matter what the situation is."

Hederman brings me to see the new library, as well as the Russian and Greek Orthodox devotional paintings in Glenstal's Icon Chapel, built as a miniature of Hagia Sophia, in Istanbul. We share our interest in a new book, Atoms & Eden: Conversations on Religion Science, by Steve Paulson, and begin to talk about physics and whether it is really possible for a layperson to understand it.

I’m left with a lasting impression of a man with a lively intellect, a heart warmed by the company of friends and meetings with strangers, and a life steadied by the rituals of the Benedictine order. As he waves me off down the avenue, the Anglo-Norman castle that is his home stands in the background as a beacon for the 21st century, offering people a place to nurture their spirituality and shelter from the storms that cross their lives.

  • glenstal.org

Curriculum vitae

BornIn 1944; grew up in Ballyneale House, near Ballingarry in Co Limerick, where his father, John, ran a stud farm.

EducatedAt home by his American mother, Josephine, until the age of nine, when he began three years as a boarder at St Gerard's School, in Bray, Co Wicklow. Then moved to Glenstal Abbey. Started to study philosophy and literature at UCD, but after a year, at the age of 19, he returned to Glenstal to become a monk. He continued his studies there and in Paris, taking a PhD in the philosophy of education.

WorkAt Glenstal he became a teacher and, later, headmaster. Since 2008 he has been abbot of the monastery. In the early 1990s he lectured at Boston University for a year, followed by three years lecturing in Nigeria. Since 2000 he has written 10 books.