FM = Father Mike Russo
FMF = Father Michael Fish
FMF: When I was young, my dad belonged to the Knights of Da Gama. So, here in this country you have the Knights of Columbus, but throughout the world they are named after the person who discovers the country. So, in South Africa it was Vasco Da Gama. Part of the work the Knights of Da Gama in South Africa did was what they called a speaker circle and my dad was one of the main organizers. He taught people to speak. So, when he helped me with essays at school or writing or—he taught me something that he taught the speaker circle that I have never forgotten, that I use for every homily, every letter that I am writing, every retreat that I am doing, and it’s called IPREC. Introduction, Point, Reason, Example, Conclusion. I feel that if young people at the seminary or people interested in learning could go back to that, it makes a short, succinct, clear homily, with one point.
FM: Our preaching journey brings us here to Burlingame, California and the Mercy Retreat Center. We are here to meet Father Michael Fish, a Camaldolise monk from the Hermitage in Big Sur, some 150 miles from here. Michael Fish is a South African, who came to the United States in 1997. He is among our country’s most gifted retreat masters. We will join the “Hermit Fish” as he calls himself, and the 105 women and men on a three day retreat, where Michael encourages participants to pause, to relax, to step back for a while and find that inner monk. Let us pause and take time for our conversation with Father Michael Fish.
I am with I am with Father Michael Fish here at The Mercy Center. It’s a wonderful lush setting, isn’t it?
FM: God has been waiting for all of us to be here on this day. It’s such a beautiful day. You are here with approximately how many retreatants?
FMF: I think there is about 110.
FM: You do many of these around the state?
FMF: I do around the state, dabbling in the east coast a little bit. Sometimes in New Mexico area, but mostly in the California area.
FM: You are a monk of the Camaldolise Monastery or Hermitage in Big Sur.
FMF: I am.
FM: How long have you been there?
FMF: Twenty years, but about eight years ago I got permission, which is rather unusual to live on my own in the hills of Santa Cruz and I go back to the community on a regular basis, but I wanted to experiment the mix of living in solitude and doing this type of work you just described. So far, this is my eighth year, it is working wonderfully, but it’s a tightrope. I have got to keep trying to balance the attraction of work with the need to be quiet and to be still, as we spoke about yesterday.
FM: Thomas Mertin once said our task is to spiritualize the world. How do we do that?
FMF: Well, that’s—I love Mertin. I mean I just feel that I know the guy. I have never met him, but I just know the guy. I love Mertin because I feel that what he did was he really brought spirituality to the ordinary every day American and English-speaking Catholic throughout the world. That is sort of my passion, is I want to take what I have learned in—I was at Redemptorist for 26 years before I came to the Hermitage, my Redemptorist experience, my monastic experience, and I want to dilute is the wrong word, but I want to be able to make that available to men and women in the world and enable them to find a spirituality that nourishes them. So, not a monastic spirituality, not a quasi—no. I want them to find what I found, but they have got to be able to capture it in their situation. That’s my passion.
FM: That passion you have labeled the “inner monk”. What is that?
FMF: So, I feel that every person has within them this contemplative dimension. It comes really from a guy called Romando Panicar. He wrote a book, and in it he talks about an architype that is in every person. He calls it the monastic architype. So, he says there is an inner monk. Or, if people don’t like that, an inner contemplative in each person. I feel my mission is not to do anything to people but to give them a name for what is already there. It’s just amazing. The minute I put them in touch with this inner contemplative, inner monk, they say but of course. So, they have got a name for what it is, and then they don’t need me, which is great. They begin to grow and develop this contemplative dimension.
FM: Tell us of your experience in South Africa and what brought you to the United States.
FMF: So, I was born in a normal, ordinary Catholic family. I went to Catholic school. At that stage of the game was apartheid South Africa. Military training was compulsory. You could choose if you were going to go to priesthood, you could choose whether you were going to do military training before you studied for the priesthood, or afterwards. My dad was adamant that I had to go first.
FMF: Immediately. It was a traumatic experience coming from a close Catholic family, Catholic school into a very, in a way, hostile environment. There were 800 in the intake. There were about 24 English speakers, because it was mostly Dutch and Afrikaans. Anti-Catholic, because they were Calvinist—but anti-English. So, it was just like it was my initiation rite. So, I think I entered a little boy, and I came out a young man through that experience. It was very good for me. Then I did medical technology for four years and I couldn’t push aside this idea of call. The priests that had served my family and community were oblates of Mary Immaculate, and my parents wanted me to be an oblate, but I was looking for this more contemplative, more monastic call. So, I came to meet the Redemptorists in South Africa and much to everybody’s aghast, I joined the Redemptorists. It was an amazing journey, those 26 years, culminating—well, not quite culminating, but nearly culminating in me being made novice master and I spent 10 years of that being novice master, in a Zulu village. No electricity, no running water, each year another group of young guys mixed—some white, some so-called mixed race. Mostly young black guys. We wanted them to be able to live in a situation that was easier for the black guys, rather than to put them in a big, white monastery. Those ten years was one of the most formative experiences of my life.
FM: As a preacher, the Redemptorists training, provided the opportunity to become better at that kind of outreach?
FMF: You have no idea. So, I went to a national seminary, but every month we had in the monastery, in the Redemptorist Monastery, what they called preaching academy. So, on a Sunday, after lunch, after siesta, first year we would all have to go to the refectory, all of the young guys. The old missionists, the old priests would sit along the edge of the refectory and one by one we had to take our shoes off, one by one we would have to get on to the refectory table and we would have to recite—we learned it all by heart, recite Shakespeare. These crusty old guys are leaning up against the side—every gesture had to be shoulder height and every gesture—you couldn’t say you know, Brutus—every gesture had to be in a circle. So, they taught us first of all projection. Stance. They didn’t want anything in front of you. You had to stand. Learning things off by heart and gesture.
So, that was the first year. Then, the second year they had what they called the blue book and the blue book was all of these terrible hellfire and damnation sermons that the Redemptorists were famous for. Now we are in Vatican II, but they wanted us to learn that sort of the language of these old guys, this colorful, emotive language. So, we would have to learn extracts of the blue book, and it was awful because you would be standing back again on the refectory table and you would be pulling people out of hell. Then asking them why they went to hell, and then another almost voice letting them tell you the awful things they did, and then dropping them back and then pulling—so they just wanted us to use body, to use symbol, to use--
FM: So, there is a level of performance?
FMF: For that tradition. So, we were part of the London Province in South Africa and the London Province was committed to the art of preaching.
FM: So, today we are preaching you know, can be an issue in many of our parishes. What is your recommendation? Should we have an academy of preaching for many of us who need help?
FMF: Well, I would say that preaching should be one of the top subjects in any seminary. I am not sure of what the curriculum of seminary is today, but I would say if we are going to be able to feed the people of today and tomorrow, preaching has to be taught and it’s an art. It’s something that needs to be cultivated. I think the subtext of this program is a privilege of preaching, a journey into preaching, is it?
FM: Well, we call it Sunday to Sunday—A Preaching Journey.
FMF: A preaching journey. I think learning to preach is a journey and for me, if young seminarians could be taught, it’s an art. Everybody can do it. Some people are better than others, but there are some aspects of it that we are all able to do and if we could have confidence in it, especially the storytelling, it would be one thing.
FM: I have been told that the shortest distance between two people is a good story. You are a master storyteller. How do you recall some of this? You keep journals? Do you have memoir that could possibly be in the making?
FMF: I wish. No. I think it must be part of my African blood is that in African society, and there is an oral tradition. Story is everything. So, I think I have been brought up with story, Anglo-Irish—the Irish side—I feel the minute we use story we hook the child in the person or the audience. Once you have hooked the child, then you can do anything you want. If you hook the head, they are listening to you, the congregation or the audience is listening to you, but they are still trying to work it out rationally. If you hook the child, you almost bypass the head, you hit the child, you hit the heart, you give them the message, and then you have got them. Then they can go back afterward and say what the hell did this guy say, and they can process it, but the story stays there forever.
FM: The very famous Abby Roche of Tiset, once said that we preach too much. In fact, when I listen to you and your preaching, it’s always very concise. It is tailored almost to the way your habit is tailored, to fit that audience, but it’s not particularly long. That’s your style?
FMF: Sometimes—I have a reputation every now and again of getting carried away and then you can see some of the guys in the choir thinking where in the hell—so, I can get lost a little bit, but I prefer short, pithy—perhaps not even sermons but ideas. So, you don’t even finish the sentences, but let them finish them. Just like half ideas, symbols, that they can take and then run with it. So, I am looking at people’s eyes as I am talking to them and I can see with one eye they are watching me or one ear they are watching me. The other one, they are already transposing what I am saying and applying it to themselves. So, it’s this sense of looking at me with one eye but looking within themselves and applying the story already with the other. The less I can get in the way with unnecessary details, but with symbol and story, then I give it to them and you can almost see them say shut up. I want to continue this exploration that you have started in me on my own. You are getting in my way. You can actually see like the garage doors come down when they sing basta.
FM: Michael you are a retreat master, but you are a spiritual guide, a spiritual director. People come to you with heavy hearts at times. How do you work as a spiritual director? What do you see your role in that particular function?
FMF: So, I say my passion would be helping people live a contemplative, balanced, happy life in the world. That has so many challenges. Part of my love of spiritual direction is being able to meet people and just redirect them on this challenging journey of finding contemplation in the marketplace. So, I would see people usually about once every six weeks or so, and the aim would be not to go back to where we were last time, how are you now. Where are you now? Then we begin to work from that back and forward. So how did you get to this place, what triggered off this sadness, this heaviness, and how can you make sure that you don’t get caught in the same trap again in the future? So, it’s really no agenda, the only agenda is the person coming with his or her issue of where they are on that day. It’s wonderful.
FM: I have a favorite word. It called hospitalist. It’s the person who meets you in the emergency room. Has to diagnose you in a few minutes. In a way, you have that medical background. So, in a way, as a spiritual doctor, you look deeply into people’s lives, into their hurts and their ambitions and their challenges and provide them with kind of the right set of words to begin to deal with that issue for the moment and move on.
FMF: Absolutely. And it’s the words. I have got this feeling once people can name for themselves what is going on, I am no longer necessary. All I have got to do is help them, because they have actually got to choose the word. Help them find the word, apply it almost as like a salve or a balm to this wound or this situation, and then they take that and run with it. So, I think even with spiritual direction, part of the aim is to become redundant. Same with the preacher. The preacher is there, gives the little message, gives the little—breaks the bread and then should really get out of the way so that people can chew on it themselves, take it, and find their way through it.
FM: Before we leave, we are not far from the Camino here in Burlingame, but this is not the Camino you are referring to. This is the Camino in Santiago de Compostela. How often have you walked the Camino?
FMF: So, I have done it four times and I am about to leave for the fifth walk. I try to do it every two years mainly because it’s an opportunity for me to do that sabbath again. When I leave, I take my AT&T sim card out of my phone, I put a Spanish one in—I don’t exist. I am no longer Michael Fish. I am no longer a monk. I am no longer a priest. I am a pilgrim, and just that freedom to be walking through Spain and the anonymity of it. the beauty of Spain—silent, seeing what comes up it’s like every two years a 30 or 40 day retreat. So, as I said, walking is my spirituality. It has become my life and as long as my body holds out, I would hope to continue. So, in 2020 I am hoping to do the very famous walk—not the Camino—another older walk than the Camino called the Via Francichina, which is from Canterbury to Rome. So, that’s if everything works, I would like to leave late spring, because you have got to gauge it to be able to get over the Alps in summer, and you walk through England, through France, through Switzerland, over the Alps and into Italy. So, I have done the last leg, the Swiss Alps to Rome, and now I would like to do the whole.
FM: One hallmark of Michael Fish’s liturgical style is his careful retelling of very familiar scripture stories. Listen to how he begins this liturgy.
FMF: There is something so apt about an evening—late afternoon/evening mass. Its right. Lighting is right. Time of the day is right. It ties into with two beautiful moments in scripture. One at the beginning of the bible and the other at the end of the bible. The beginning is that Genesis tells us that every day, every day at this time in the cool of evening, God, Adam and Eve would rendezvous and walk together through the garden. The rabbis tell us that they would walk—God in the middle, Adam on one side, Eve on the other. The three of them would be totally in step walking through nature and creation. The rabbis say that Adam and Eve would then start telling God the names they had for God’s creation and God would laugh. Hippopotamus. And God would laugh at the size of that strange animal and the name they gave. Rhino. Giraffe. Kangaroo. Bison. They would have all of these names, and the three of them would walk together in this rendezvous time in the cool of evening.
Then, the rabbis also tell us that after Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden, God sort of forgot, and the next day, God walked up to the rendezvous place and his friends weren’t there. They say ever since then, every day, ever since the beginning of creation, every day at this time of the day, God goes walking through nature and creation looking for God’s friends. No longer Adam and Eve—you, us. The rabbis also tell us that there is a certain moment as the sun begins to set, this quiet, this gloaming time, this sacred time, where all nature and creation-–every bird, every beetle, everything just for a moment keeps dead quiet, because they know—we don’t—God’s pausing, looking for God’s friends. Us. You and me. That’s the first beautiful text that makes mass in the late afternoon/evening right. Because it’s the rendezvous time. So, isn’t it amazing? We have shown up even before she arrives. We are waiting for her, waiting for this rendezvous moment.
The second one is that other beautiful text right at the end of Luke’s gospel, there is this couple, very downhearted, dejected, feel everything is lost. Jesus has died, and they leave Jerusalem, and they are going home. This stranger turns out to be the risen Christ sidles up to them and starts walking with them and says; what are you guys talking about as you walk along? They tell him of their disappointment that Jesus has died. Then he begins—and you know the story—he begins to tell them all through scripture how that had happened. But what I am really interested in, is they arrive at Emmaus, this little village where they are going to—and Jesus pretends he is going on. He sort of says; bye, and they say; Lord, it is nearly evening, and the day is almost over, stay with us.
Beautiful prayer. Lord, it is nearly evening, and the day is almost over. Stay with us. Of course, he does, and they recognize him. But I think that’s a prayer for us. Especially those of us in the evening, late afternoon of our lives. The evening of our lives, and it’s a prayer that we should be saying almost every day. It should be second nature prayer. Lord, its nearly evening in my life and my day is almost over. Stay with me. It’s a prayer for us at a certain time in our life, but it’s a prayer for us every day. So, this is the prayer we make as we begin this Eucharist. Lord, its nearly evening. The day is almost over. Stay with us.
To prepare us for this rendezvous. To prepare us for this moment of epiphany of recognizing, of mystery. Lord, have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord, have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord, have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord, have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord, we thank you for the gift of this day. Thank you for the beauty. Thank you for the beauty of this place. Thank you for this space. We ask that you will fill us with your presence. That you will open our eyes to recognize you here in this mystery, but in ourselves, in each other, and in the beauty of the world around us. We ask this in your name, for you O, Lord, forever and ever. Now, we have had our scripture. Our scripture has been the whole day. It’s been the conferences, it’s been the poetry. It’s been your quietness. It’s been the meals. I just want you to stop now and look back over the day. Ruminate. Close your eyes and just relax and see—you haven’t got to share anything, but just go back over the scripture of the day and see what word, what thought, what idea touches you as we come to the culmination of the evening of this day. What did the beloved say to you today?
FM: Michael Fish writes that prayer is listening to the heartbeat of God and prayer is us inviting God to listen to the beat of our hearts. I want to thank Father Michael Fish and Suzanne Buckley and her staff here at The Mercy Center. In Burlingame, California and for Sunday to Sunday, I am Father Mike Russo.