Full interview transcript below
Paul Monk: The Secret Gospel According to Mark – The extraordinary life of a Catholic existentialist
Listen at PodBean here: https://www.podbean.com/media/share/pb-yb2a9-8d0e6a
Dr Paul Monk is a poet, polymath and highly regarded Australian public intellectual. He has written an extraordinary range of books, from Sonnets to a Promiscuous Beauty (which resides in Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s library), to reflective essays on the riches of Western civilization in The West in a Nutshell, to a prescient 2005 treatise on the rise of China in Thunder from the Silent Zone: Rethinking China.
Most recently, Paul has written a biography on the life of Brother Mark O’Loughlin: science teacher, mentor to youth, pastoral counsellor to the mentally ill, marine scientist of global stature and founder of ecumenical Christian base communities. The Secret Gospel According to Mark – the extraordinary life of a Catholic existentialist is the subject of this inaugural podcast, and is Monk’s tribute to his lifelong friend and mentor, whose story certainly deserves wider understanding and appreciation. A comprehensive, loving, and fastidiously researched biography, Monk traces the humble but profound and influential life of a man who sought to live up to the example of Christ, and who was and is sustained by boundless love for humankind. Monk sets down the story of this one precious life with a remarkable consideration of major societal movements across theology, the Church, politics, science and academia, all of which formed the backdrop to Mark’s life and shaped him in turn.
This interview is but one example of the endlessly rich and varied conversations that Paul has kindly shared with me over the years. I am forever grateful for his friendship and support.
You can purchase The Secret Gospel According to Mark here.
Transcript Below ^_^
Paul Monk – Secret Gospel according to Mark
00:00 Nick: Welcome to Eudaimonia, a podcast about people. My name is Nick and by hosting these conversations, I hope to engage with women and men who have led interesting and good lives and broadcast their stories to a wider audience for inspiration and interest.
The show takes its name from the Greek word meaning human flourishing and it is this theme which rests at the heart of the podcast.
00:20 My guest today is Dr Paul Monk, poet and polymath who has been a long-time friend and mentor of mine, who has just written his latest book which is called The Secret Gospel according to Mark: the extraordinary life of a Catholic existentialist. Welcome, Paul, to the podcast Eudaimonia. It's great to have you here and I was hoping you might be able to open up and firstly tell us a bit about yourself and also about the book which you've just written.
00:45 Paul: Thanks, Nick. It's good to be on Eudaimonia. This is the technology of our time and I think it's giving us a very flexible means through which to reach a wider audience. Briefly about myself, I set out many years ago after leaving school to get myself what you might call a liberal arts education. I wanted to understand western civilisation rather than just go into a profession. Meaning, truth and value were high on my agenda.
01:14 I did an arts degree in European history. I then did a doctorate at the Australian National University in international relations which was about US counter insurgency strategies throughout the Cold War. At that point, I thought I really better a job and I worked in the intelligence services for a number of years after that and they assigned me to work on east Asia.
01:31 After six years in the bureaucracy, I lost interest in being a bureaucrat, intelligence work or otherwise. Since then, over more than 20 years, I've worked as a consultant, I've taught in universities and I've written a string of books.
01:45 This latest book however takes me all the way back to before I launched into that liberal arts degree and in many ways, it tells the story of the person whose influence on me prompted me to want to do that. That man was a fellow called Mark O’Lachlan who taught me briefly for one semester in year twelve and made an indelible impression. I would never have anticipated 44 years ago that I'd end up writing his biography and indeed, all those years ago he hadn't done most of what I've described in the biography, but he became, after being my teacher, a mentor, a friend, a role model in a lot of ways and an inspiration. In this latest book, I've told the story of how he was all those things to me and as it turns out, to a great many other people as well.
02:34 Nick: It's an extraordinary summary and I guess a fascinating insight into how, you know, life can have sliding door moments where you incidentally meet someone. I met you at a pub in 2012 and, you know, we've since struck up an incredible friendship and relationship which has informed many aspects of my life. So, perhaps I'll be writing your biography one day.
02:54 Anyway, so could you maybe using that as a jumping off point about Mark, tell us a little bit about how and why he first made that big impact on you. Was it through the teaching of religion or science? I mean, what kind of was that moment in which you knew this was a special person?
03:10 Paul: Well, it's probably worth observing though I didn't know it at the time that he met me at Aquinas College in Ringwood in 1974 because he had in a sense been sent to Coventry. He was in a religious order and they sent him out to Aquinas by way in a sense of disciplining him because they thought that he was off the reservation a bit, he was too progressive in his thinking.
03:35 Nick: Heretical...
03:36 Paul: Heretical in a way, and they wanted to corral him. He says these days that they thought they were punishing him but in fact, it was providential sending him to Ringwood because he met me and my family, but that's all looking back.
03:54 At the time, he was sent out there in a teaching role. He was a science teacher, an excellent science teacher but I didn't study sciences. I met him in religion class and for only one semester in year twelve, but what he did in that class was transformative and it really lit a fuse. I might read just a paragraph from the book...
04:16 Nick: Wonderful.
04:16 Paul: ... where I'm making precisely this point. "I first encountered Mark when for a single semester he taught my year twelve humanities class, religious education, 43 years ago. I found him to be a teacher different from any other that I had had. He was tall, strongly built, spoke in a clear and authoritative voice and seemed to brim with vigorous ideas. At a defining moment, he stood before us with a book called African Genesis by Robert Ardrey and read to us its opening lines. Not in innocence and not in Asia was mankind born. The home of our fathers was that African highland reaching north from the Cape to the lakes of the Nile. Here we came about slowly, ever so slowly, on a sky swept savannah glowing with menace. Man is a fraction of the animal world. Our history is an afterthought no more tacked to an infinite calendar. We are not so unique as we should like to believe and if man in a time of need seeks deeper knowledge concerning himself, then he must explore those animal horizons from which we have made our quick little march.
05:17 He read these lines not as some mere academic book learning but as something fundamental to what we needed to understand as human beings. It was the winter of 1974 and this was revolutionary. No lay teacher, never mind any member of a religious order had ever brought evolutionary biology or the science of human origins into a religion class in my earlier schooling. Mark placed these profound matters front and centre and invited us to reflect upon them."
05:44 That in me ignited a passion to get to the bottom of the relationship between human evolution, religion and the history of our species that I have lived by to this day. That's why I undertook the studies that I did and it's what enabled me in the end to write Mark's story so many years later.
06:04 Nick: That's an extraordinary passage which has these incredible sorts of Shakespearian and Hamlet resonances as well in it but, yeah, certainly it's very moving to hear from you what a profound impact that that passage and Mark's role as an educator, pastor and teacher actually had on you as a young man.
06:22 Paul: Well, I should add that there was of course more than that. That was simply a signature moment which I've always remembered but he also brought into religion class an unusual sense of the real human meaning of various passages from the bible. No other religion teacher had brought the bible alive to me in the way that he did, not as a fundamentalist, not as a preacher, not as a dogmatist; as a human being.
06:47 There was passages from Isaiah, from Micah, from the gospel, from the actual apostles which he brought into religion class and discussed with us which have remained with me ever since. It was clear to me the better that I got to know him, that this wasn't just doctrine he was teaching, this was the way he lived.
07:04 Nick: Yet, this is all extraordinary because you were head altar boy and dux of the school and obviously Mark had that profound influence on you as a Christian teacher but you - I mean, this is just a tangential aside, but you did leave the Catholic church and are an avowed sort of atheist.
07:20 Paul: That's correct and this of course goes to the heart of the project because I found myself thinking Mark comes across as completely real and authentic as a human being, the values that he's espousing seem profound, but I cannot make a connection between those values and the dogmas that I'm supposed to recite and profess to believe and I can't make sense of this idea of god. So, I'm not going to keep going to church and saying I believe in god, the father almighty, when in fact I'm not even sure what all this means. In so far as I think I'm clear, I don't think I do believe that but I do believe in justice, in integrity, in compassion, you know, and Mark brought into religion class in addition to the bible and human evolution the novels of Albert Camus and the thinking of John Paul Sartre, these existentialist thinkers who had made an impression on him only a few years before and whom I'd really never heard of before then.
08:19 When I left school, as soon as I left school not only did I buy Ardrey's books and read them for myself, I bought the books of Camus and Sartre and I started to put, you know, get my hands on anything I could about what was the church, how did it come about in the first place.
08:33 When I went back to university, I studied classics, I studied philosophy, I did reformation history, I did modern revolutions because I wanted to understand quite literally what on earth is going on.
08:45 Nick: Extraordinary. So, just moving along in the interview, I mean, what are some of the things that seem to you to make his life extraordinary or worth writing a 700 word biography on which I think is really, you know, a testament to like this great gesture you've made for this incredible man obviously, telling a story about I suppose an unremarkable man in many ways because he's, you know, not a celebrity. He's not famous, he didn't accrue great wealth or fame or power, you know, and yet you say in the subtitle of the book Secret Gospel according to Mark, the extraordinary life of a Catholic existentialist. Why is he extraordinary?
09:25 Paul: I would say two levels and let me say, it's not a 700-word biography but a 700 page one.
09:31 Nick: Sorry, did I say word? Yeah, I can't edit that out unfortunately. Yeah, first time nerves.
09:35 Paul: That was a moment of humour.
09:38 Nick: It would be a very short biography, wouldn't it?
09:41 Paul: I think the thing that struck me about Mark from very early on was the breadth of his interests and the strength of his character. The combination of these two made a profound impression on me. Subsequent to that, he kept developing. He didn't remain static and he wasn't a figure in my past. We remained in touch and what I realised is that in addition to teaching science and teaching religion at school and doing that exceptionally well, he was an outstanding sports coach. He had been an outstanding athlete as a young man and then he became a scientist of world stature in his own right in marine biology. He became a great mentor of young Catholics in a youth movement called The Stranger Movement and many of them wrote letters to him which I got to read, you know, in recent years in which they testified to his unique impact on them as a person, for his intelligence, his care, his imagination, his freedom.
10:47 He also founded ecumenical communities so that he extended the reach of his Christian vision or his biblical vision if you like beyond the Catholic community in which he'd grown up and certainly beyond the male monastic order in which he'd been formed from a young age. He brought women as well as men into these communities. He brought non-Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Chinese, Thai, Korean, East Timorese into this community and he made that community work. Again, there are letters from numerous individuals from these different backgrounds testifying to what a remarkable father figure he was, what a great community leader, what a great mentor he was, what a splendid human being he was in terms of his humour, his compassion, his intelligence.
11:38 So, when you combine mentoring youth, family and communities, being a great teacher, being a great scientist, being a great sports coach and then you add yet another dimension, he became a pastoral counsellor for the psychiatrically afflicted and he did extraordinary things in that field. Once again, I have letters that people wrote to him or interviews that I did with them where they testify to his unique impact because of his capacity to reach out to such people as people, not as patients, not in terms of their illness but in terms of their humanity.
12:16 So, you can see from that spectrum of activities that he really has lived an extraordinary life in terms of range, doing more than most people do, but what's really extraordinary is that in every one of those fields, he has delivered with extraordinary integrity and effect in terms of other people, his impact on other people.
12:35 Nick: He's a wonderful model I suppose for the types of lives we'd all like to live, you know, lives committed to ideals, great causes, other human beings, rather than I suppose the, you know, hum drum, you know, I guess tasks that sort of confront us day-to-day and week-to-week and month-and-month which we sort of just get through, right?
12:54 Paul: I think that's true. We live in a culture that is very addicted to celebrity. So, a lot of people read glossy magazines. They're always reading about movie stars. They're reading about wealthy people. They're reading about famous people. What we know from these glossy magazines is first of all that a lot of that stuff is puffering, right? It's not even accurate or honest a lot of the time. Many of these celebrities actually live dysfunctional and unhappy lives. Their impact on others is as often destructive as it is creative or nourishing.
13:29 What's remarkable in Mark's case is that he has never been a celebrity. He's never sought celebrity. He has never sought high office even within his religious order, though he's had leadership positions. He has simply sought at every point to do what he felt was called to be done in terms of the biblical background from which he came, you know.
13:51 I can't emphasise this too strongly because most of us need models that are real, that are doable, that aren't fantasy land, right; that if we dream only of being an elite athlete or a Hollywood celebrity, we're in many respects off with the fairies. First of all, because it's out of the reach of most people and secondly, because it's often not what it's cooked up to be.
14:12 If on the other hand it's possible to live a life which has great impact and is intrinsically rewarding without any song and dance routine or puffery, then that's far more within our reach in principle and that's what Mark has done.
14:29 I want to share with you another aspect however of his life and this becomes crucial to understanding the richness of his life as he experienced it because not only was he so compassionate and such a great mentor to so many people, he had a great interest and has a great interest - he's now 83 - in the arts. He loves good cinema, good classical music, ballet, great art and this goes all the way back to when I first met him. It's always struck me that this range of interests on top of everything else contributes to how extraordinary a human being he is.
15:09 I'd like to read a brief passage which just - one of many which in the book illustrates this aspect of his life. This is the first time he travelled abroad. He went on what was called a tertiary trip, a study tour, with his order to Rome and got to see a bit of Europe. The passage I'm going to read is his first free day in Rome. It will give you some idea of the kind of mind we're talking about.
15:37 "On his first free day in the eternal city, the traveller visited the Pincio, the great hill that had been outside the old city walls during the early history of Rome but was the site of the fabled gardens of Lucullus from the first century BCE and was brought within the enlarged walls of the imperial city in the late third century CE.
15:56 What had been the gardens of Lucullus, including a fabulous villa and library coveted by others and eventually taken over by the empire, was by the last 20th century the Borghese Gardens which surrounded the Villa Borghese and the Borghese Gallery. All three would later become favourite haunts of the Christian brother on his returns to Rome.
16:14 His first visit was a reconnaissance. He moved quickly onto the Tiber, crossing it at the Ponte Cavour, then visited the Palace of Justice, the Castle of St Angelo, originally the Mausoleum of the emperor Hadrian built in the early 2nd century CE and then Vatican City.
16:30 Several days later, he travelled outside the city limits up into the Alban Hills and visited Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer residence away from the seasonal heat. There in a large courtyard, he heard an address by Pope Paul the Sixth to several thousand people from around Europe in Italian but simultaneously translated into German, English and Spanish.
16:51 He was stepping here into a quite extraordinary historical setting. Castel Gandolfo is a town that has grown up on the ruins of what long ago was an immense summer residence of the first century CE emperor Domtian which had occupied a staggering 14 square kilometres. Even earlier than that, it had been the site of ancient Alba Longa, dating back before the foundation of Rome itself.
17:14 Castel Gandolfo was built in the 12th century but acquired by the papacy when it ruled much of central Italy in the late 16th century. It was handed over to the Italian state as a museum in 2016 by Pope Francis.
17:27 Mark took daytrips south to Pompei and north to Assisi but within Rome, his attention was riveted by the endless architectural and art treasures of the ancient secular and perennial religious capital of the western world.
17:38 He visited the Capitoline Hill, gazing upon the imposing equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, then wandered through the Capitoline Museum and the Capitoline Picture Gallery, laying eyes for the first time on such classical works and sculpture as the Dying Gaul and Eros and Psyche. He was attended Verdi's La Traviata at the Teatro Eldesayo on 20th September, a production of the same composers Rigoletto on the 26th, a second performance of La Traviata on 3 October and a dance fiesta in the Alban Hills that evening.
18:10 In between, we find him at the National Museum of Villa Giulia, the National Modern Art Gallery, the Borghese Museum and Gallery and the Catacomb of St Priscilla. His interest in the arts was inexhaustible."
18:21 Nick: That's extraordinary. The second sort of component to the sub-title which I wanted to come back to was this notion of him being a Catholic existentialist. Can you sort of reconcile those two terms for us here briefly?
18:34 Paul: Yes, it's important to understand that Christian theology, Catholic theology in its foundational centuries was greatly shaped by Greek philosophy. In its earliest centuries, that was principally the philosophy of Plateau and Plutinis, the Neoplatonist. In the medi-evil period on the other hand, the writings of Aristotle were rediscovered and it started to become clear that Aristotle was a very different thinker to Plateau, much more of what we would call a secular thinker. There were people who feared that Aristotle's philosophy would pull the rug from under Christian belief. So, people called the scholastics set about trying to demonstrate that Aristotle's philosophy was perfectly consistent with Christian belief and used it to articulate it on a new basis.
19:23 Nick: Aquinas and so forth.
19:24 Paul: Thomas Aquinas is the most famous of the school men, the so-called scholastics. For centuries after that, most notably in the wake of the reformation with the counsel of Trent in the 16th century, scholasticism was the philosophy that defined Catholic belief and to a significant extent also, Protestant belief: Lutheranism and Calvinism.
19:42 However, in the 20th century, scholasticism had come under very substantial criticism in terms of epistemology, in terms of how we define what is truth. A number of philosophical schools grew up, the proponents of which one might say were not particularly religious and the same kind of challenge occurred for the church as it occurred in the med-evil period. How would you articulate Christian belief in terms of these philosophies to make them acceptable to or comprehensible to 20th century people?
20:15 One of the most notable such philosophies was existentialism. The difficulty with existentialism, unlike the other philosophy of Aristotle, is that it was somewhat vaguer, what exactly is existentialism? The simplest way to define it - and this was crucial to Mark's life - is that scholasticism basically says god is a thing out there, an existent entity in which one believes. The resurrection actually happened. The eucharist is the body and blood of Jesus. The existentialist turn in theology is all of these things have to do with the human imagination. God is a projection of the human psyche as a conscious being in the world, the horizon of being; not a thing or an entity, external to a conversation among human beings.
21:01 The eucharist is a symbolic ritual about community, about being members of a body of Christ; that is to say, a redemptive community which we call the church. The resurrection is an event within the human mind in terms of our transcendence of the mundane and of the concern with mortality or of the carnal appetites rising above that despite for example the execution of Jesus, his presence animates the redemptive community called the church. That's an existentialist way of looking at it.
21:35 Karl Rahner was a distinguished Catholic existentialist theologian. Mark picked this up in the early 1970s because he started to ask himself I've taught these documents in scholastic terms, I've said I believe them but now that I ask myself what exactly do I believe, I find that I can't make sense of them in scholastic terms, because he was a modern man, because he was a scientist, because he was a highly intelligent and thoughtful person but perhaps existentially he could because if you could understand them in those terms, you could continue to live by the great values which he believed you were called to in that tradition and which he did live by.
22:15 So, from that point he tried to live out and find the existential meaning of the Catholic tradition, the biblical texts, the scriptures as they've been called. The argument I suppose I would say of my biography is that he did that with exceptional quality and integrity and that's what made his life a Catholic existentialist one as well as a humanly extraordinary one.
22:39 Nick: This notion of living up to the example or stature of Christ. Is that right?
22:45 Paul: Well, this is an idea that was put to him by the Wesleyan minister, Drew Le Lean, who was his supervisor when in 1991 already aged 55, he undertook clinical pastoral education to become a pastoral counsellor to the psychiatrically afflicted.
23:04 Drew said, you know, our call as pastoral ministers are to rise to the full stature of Christ. Now, if we took that in a scholastic sense, it would be a little difficult to understand what exactly it would mean and it might even seem a little blasphemous, Christ being the lord and god. You can't, in the nature of the case, rise to that stature.
23:27 If on the other hand we're talking about existential meaning, then Christ is the great myth that grew out of the exemplary life of Jesus of Nazareth and one endeavours to rise to the stature that that myth calls one to which is of compassion, of forgiveness, of healing the sick, of visiting the prisoner, of caring for the orphan and the widow, and it traditionally goes back before Jesus to Isaiah and Micah.
23:55 Mark undertook that and what we find in his ministry there is really quite extraordinary. Again, and again, he encountered people deeply afflicted; suicidal, depressed, schizophrenic, psychotic, and he was able to touch them as human beings in such a way that he won their love, their gratitude and their respect uniquely in that environment. I interviewed a number of these people who had actually been drawn back from the brink by his care to living more normal and even completely normal lives.
24:33 Nick: Is this through his work as a pastoral counsellor for psychiatric patients?
24:36 Paul: Indeed, it is. I'd like to share with you just as an illustration of a profound impact he had on some of these people, a letter that was written to him by a 20-year-old girl to whom he had been a counsellor. This is at Larundel Psychiatric Hospital as it then was. She was suicidal. She'd been sexually abused when very young and her life had become a psychological mess but he was able to find her and reach out to her in such a way that she saw him as unique. The tragic thing is that she took her own life unable to go on, but what I'm about to read is a letter that she wrote to him an arrange that he would get only after she had taken her life and these are a few words this brief letter, I think, conveys quite profoundly the impact that he was having on her as on others in aspiring to rise to the centre of Christ as Drew Le Lean had suggested.
25:42 The letter reads, "Dear Mark, I know you're probably angry and upset with me but it's because you couldn't possibly understand what it’s like to be me. I decided once and for all to end the nightmare and set myself free. Please forgive me. I want you to know that to me, you were the father I never had but always wanted. You made me feel so special and so happy. Whenever I was with you, the sun shone brightly and I felt safe and secure but you couldn't be around me all the time and I couldn't go on feeling the way I do.
26:14 I deliberately stayed away from you in the past weeks in the hope that the longer you didn't see me, the less upset you would be. I hope it worked. Thank you. Thank you, Mark, for all the wonderful times you shared with me and all the things you did for me. Apollo Bay was one of my all-time fondest memories when I said to you what I did in the kitchen that day, that I now felt able to give my life a go. I was really telling you the truth but, in the end, the urge to escape forever was too great. I love you, Mark. Your eternal friend, Kelly."
26:46 Nick: That's very deeply moving.
26:48 Paul: It's quite stunning, isn't it, because you think how could somebody write such a sweet letter, such a lucid letter written I should add in impeccable handwriting without errors or corrections...
27:01 Nick: Recognising the significance of this man and his redemptive power in many ways.
27:04 Paul: ... and then go and hang herself. It's...
27:06 Nick: It's baffling.
27:08 Paul: It's, you know, powerful.
27:09 Nick: You mention in the epilogue that Mark maintains to this day - he's 83, I believe - this incredibly human warmth and, you know, supporting, reassuring educative sort of human qualities identified by Kelly in her letter all those years ago. Yet, despite all that he has seen in, you know, clinical, pastoral work in psychiatric hospitals and a whole range of other facets of his life as a Christian Brother in his order, he has become more melancholic in his later years. It's that sort of just I guess the accumulated weight of all that he's seen in terms of human suffering, that idea from Romans 8:18 and, you know, the world is groaning and we groan with it sort of thing or is it - is his melancholic, I don't know, disposition (not that he is a melancholic person, he's lovely) but, yeah, can you speak to that sense of sadness that he has?
28:07 Paul: Yes, there are several strands to it. I should preface it by saying that over a long period, since he took the existentialist turn in the early 70s, he started to develop his science as an outlet for his passionate imagination as well as these other things. By the time he is becoming melancholic which I think is an accurate description of his mood in the last 10 years or so, he has published 65 scientific papers. He's given papers around the world…
28:44 Nick: A world renowned scientist...
28:44 Paul: He's done five stints of research at the Smithsonian, he's been on an expedition to the Antarctic, you know, he's very highly regarded. So, his life had expanded, his circle of friends had expanded, the gratitude coming back to him from all sorts of people was abundant and you would have thought that perhaps in those circumstances why would he be melancholy?
29:04 Well, the answer is twofold. One is that he had striven throughout those years to get his order to also rise to the full stature of Christ, to renew itself, to become more imaginative, to reach out more...
29:15 Nick: The Christian brothers...
29:16 Paul: The Christian brothers, to be less enclosed, less cloistered, less conservative. He'd had only moderate success and that weighed on him, that wore him down a bit so that by about 2008, he's in Washington doing research at the Smithsonian and he's writing back to his community saying that he can't do that anymore. It's almost become traumatic for him. He thinks that they don't want to hear what he has to say; they're not going to change and he's just got to put that aside. So, there's that strand to it.
29:47 The other strand is that he became more and more concerned that the world of mankind at large was not moving in a very promising direction, that ecologically we were devastating the planet in terms of going back to another species, in terms of the sustainability in the natural environment of our materials use and our appetites, in terms of I think what he perceived as our culture becoming more and more consumerist, not only in terms of materials but in terms of human relations.
30:22 Nick: Yes, and he has this incredible grasp of quite literally like earth history because he does work in deep time given his scientific work with echinoderms and so on. You know, he's going back, you know, many, many millennia to different periods in, you know, the earth's biosphere and so on. So, he has this incredibly sense I guess of I guess of perspective for humanity, that idea in - that initial reading, was it Ardrey you read about our whole history is just like the last page turn in the book of the earth's history really.
30:52 Paul: I think this is important. I don't think it's led to melancholy, I think that aspect of his life opened up horizons to him that are largely unguessed by those of a narrower outlook, but I haven't talked about the specific fact that you've just touched on which is his marine biological work and his reputation are linked to work on echinoderms, what many people would think of as sea stars though sea stars are only one kind of echinoderm.
31:23 The crucial thing here to pick up your hint is that echinoderms are an extremely ancient life form, that all the fila of echinoderms that are in existence today appeared what's known as the Cambrian explosion 545 million years ago.
31:41 Nick: So, I was off when I said millennia....
31:42 Paul: Indeed.
31:43 Nick: Millions of years...
31:44 Paul: Yes, it's hundreds of thousands of millennia, right. Echinoderms are very unusual creatures but among invertebrates - and this will really sound strange to our listeners - as Richard Dawkins points out in his book The Ancestor's Tale about evolution in general, echinoderms are among our closest relatives in the invertebrate kingdom.
32:14 Nick: Is that right?
32:15 Paul: This is one of the many counter intuitive aspects of what we've learned about genetics in by and large Mark's lifetime. So, he's been positioned a, in deep time; b, with exotic and very ancient creatures in deep time; c, those creatures have been sea creatures and the sea became more and more of a metaphor for him in terms of his dreams, in terms of meaning, in terms of ecology. He was at the cutting edge by the last 10 or 15 years of research on echinoderms and a significance of research for our understanding of life on earth, of conversation, of speciation, of environmentalism. So, he was getting his source of transcendence and depth of meaning and his sense of concern and melancholy at the same time.
33:11 Nick: That's quite an extraordinary reflection. I really can't add much more to that. I mean, that's incredible. If I can sort of make a bizarre shift I suppose but all of what you just mentioned in many different buckets of conversation have sort of - you know, they sort of bespeak an incredible energy, a vitality, a - you know, an unerring sense of endeavour, all the while as a Christian brother which we've gently alluded to towards the end of the interview. Of course, that order prescribes that its members must be chaste, so without any sexual relations at all. Can you speak to that notion of chastity and I guess abstinence in the 21st century which is entirely unappealing and just not workable for many people? It's an outdated sort of concept and yet it seems to have underpinned, you know, his ability to be such a wonderful person without any kind of overlay of sexual relations at all. It's almost enabled him to be a more fuller human being but that's an uncomfortable thought, isn't it, because so much of our relations as human beings are tied up in sexual relations basically.
34:27 Paul: Yes, they are. It's been a very notable phenomenon of western civilisation of let's say the last 100 years or so, that our culture has you would have to become more and more sexualised so that we're essentially told at one at the same time that sexual gratification is indispensable to the sanity and wellbeing or happiness of a human being and that what's generally called sexual repression, that is to say non-gratification, is simply unhealthy.
35:01 On the other hand, we now know with the 'we too' movement and all this other stuff, that there are all sorts of anxiety about sexual abuse, sexual licence, sleaze, etc. How do we strike the right balance?
35:18 Well, I know that when I first met Mark, you know, I was idealistic and I contemplated religious vocation but the central thought in my mind in the 70s was ‘but I'm not going to give you my sexuality.’ You know, I've always been a romantic and I thought, you know, why would I give up women? They seem to be the most extraordinary phenomenon in the world, you know?
35:42 So, I, you know, apart from the epistemological questions about theological belief, I thought no, I'm not going to go there.
35:47 Nick: A bridge too far...
35:48 Paul: Yeah, a bridge too far. However, I remained as I said in touch with Mark and he seemed to me to be different to any other religious figure I knew. I knew others - priests, brothers, nuns - who had taken vows. They didn't impress me as having the same qualities of personality so I wouldn't say that Mark was an exceptional person because he was religious or because he was chaste, he was an exceptional person who was religious and chaste but the way in which he lived out his vow chastity has been exemplary and it shows that this can be done. That's the point I would make.
36:27 I used to ask him all the way back in the late 70s why are you a Christian brother? Why did you do this? Why would you accept these vows? Why would you limit your life? His response then - and I would say this has remained the case - was ‘I'm not a Christian brother now for the reasons that I was when I took vows many years ago...’
36:44 Nick: When he was 15...
36:45 Paul: When he joined the order as a novice when he was 15 which was very, very young, but he said, you know, he was formed by men of character and intelligence and high ideals. We should make this clear, you know, at a time when there's this sense that too many religious figures seem to have infringed against canons of proprietary or even engaged in really criminal activity, that even according to the Royal Commission is still the distinct minority of religious figures. So, most of them - a great majority - have not been accused of any such thing. Mark stands further apart because not only is he not accused of such things, he has lived quite an exceptional life, a really virtuous life, right?
37:34 Let's come back to centre frame, alright? I know many people and particularly women, right, who testify to Mark's integrity, his virtue and also of course his virility. So, he hadn't withdrawn from sexuality out of incapacity or distaste, he was a great athlete and a virile man interested in human sexual relations and in culture more generally. So, he wasn't shut off, he wasn't blind to reality. He was looking it right in the eye and choosing freely to live this way in order to give to others and not succumb to basic appetites. That's exceptional at any time and not least in our time.
38:19 Nick: It is.
38:20 Paul: It's one of the reasons why telling his story was well worth doing.
38:24 Nick: Just conscious of time, Paul. I want to sort of come back to the title of the book again which has sort of underpinned a lot of my questions today. You know, you call the book The Secret Gospel according to Mark. A couple of questions here which I hope you might be able to remember. I know you will, but firstly what do you mean by the gospel, like are you suggesting that there is some sort of message in his life which I actually think that answers itself, having just done this interview? In this book that you have written which is almost the gospel to - which has recorded the life of this sort of Christ-like figure frankly, what would that message be and what makes it a secret?
39:03 Paul: Well, I got the idea for the title from Frank Commode’s book The Genesis of Secrecy where he says that in the 20th century, a guy called Morton Smith found in a monastery in Israel a letter or a copy of a letter - it was an 18th century copy of a letter - apparently written in Greek in the 2nd century by Clement of Alexandria, one of the great church fathers as we call them.
39:31 Clement in this letter had said that when St Mark wrote what we regard as the canonical gospel, he wrote it in Rome based on the reminiscences of St Peter, but when Peter was executed under Nero, Mark fled from Rome, went to Alexandria and there says Clement he wrote a second and secret gospel which is only made available for those being initiated into the deep mysteries.
39:56 Now, I thought to myself how tantalising is this? Given that the Mark of my story first of all is called Mark but secondly had been christened Peter, right? So, if you just look at his life, there's the...
40:09 Nick: Peter Desmond O’Lachlan...
40:11 Paul: Peter Desmond O’Lachlan is his name. His family to this day calls him Des, right, but he took the religious name, Mark. As Peter Desmond O’Lachlan, he was taken into the religious order and trained in scholastic theology in the old monastic, conservative tradition but over time, he rethought this and he thought to himself no, I think what the gospel surely really means, what this whole idea of Jesus as a salvific figure of the last supper and all the meanings we attach to it, they have an existential meaning. He tried to live that meaning out, not turn it into a doctrine that he sort of self-righteously preached to anybody which he never did. That's in a sense the secret gospel according to our Mark.
40:58 What I do towards the end of the book, having told the story of his life in its many dimension, is try to distil out so what are really talking about here? The answer is that Karl Rahner, the existentialist theologian, said if we retreat from the idea of god or deity and the sacred, we run the risk of regressing to just being clever animals with tools and weapons and appetites. We would lose our self of the transcendent.
41:26 So, I ask well maybe Rahner was onto something but let's look at Mark's life because what he did is he retreated more and more from that theological language. He was more and more immersed in human community, in human art, in human science and in the truths that science has made plain, did he regress? Demonstrably, in fact, he did not. Did he become merely a clever animal? No, he didn't. Did he lose his sense of transcendence? No, he didn't. This ought to be reassuring.
41:55 What Rahner had said is if you also disconnect from the idea of a personal god and god intervening in history as in a biblical tradition, then at best you will be left with natural religion where it is this world and its possibilities in which you seek your transcendence and your meaning.
42:16 Well, Mark did do that and one could say that by the 2010's, his religion was in a sense a natural religion but one nevertheless anchored in the greatest calls for justice, the greatest poetics, the greatest methodology if you will of the biblical tradition, but attached now to being a person informed by the scientific sense of deep time and actual ecology and the nature of the world. That seems to me distils the secret gospel so it is a hermeneutical one. It brings down to us in our time the values, the best insights that we can still find if we read what we've so often called the holy scripture but without the dogmas, without the mystagoguery, without the able authority, without the scholastic mystifications; you know the idea of transubstantiation, it's a stumbling block for non-Catholics.
43:13 Nick: Literally eating the body of Christ and the blood of Christ...
43:14 Paul: Body and blood of Christ, what can this possibly mean? It sounds like cannibalism, it sounds weird but if on the other hand - and there are hints of this even in the epistles of St Paul - what one means is that when we partake of last supper consuming bread and wine, we are members of the body of Christ; the mystical body which is the church, which is living differently. Well, that has some meaning.
43:38 Nick: What I think also has meaning, Paul - and this is my final sort of point of today's interview - is that I think that the power of narrative - and you refer to this in the biography. The power of narrative for understanding and engagement is so much more compelling than rigorous, you know, schema of doctrine or ideology or dogma or whatever it might be and particularly those who sort of, you know, blandly just regurgitate what is sort of laid down to them. I think that, you know, stories like Mark's need to be told because it is frankly, I guess psychologically - or I don’t know in terms of engagement - how people relate. I think you'll actually find a lot more people who have lost, you know, touch with the Catholic church, with their faith, whatever it might be - Hindu, Islamic, Buddhist and so on - really being inspired by this lived example of I just think a good human being which we should all aspire to be. So, that's what I - as a final reflection, do you have anything to add onto that?
44:46 Paul: Yeah, I would say that is surely the case. You know, there's an old quip, you know, which points to hypocrisy when you accuse - when you say a certain individual who purports to be an authority is in effect saying do what I say, not what I do; in other words, don't look at my example, just follow my words.
45:07 With Mark, it's completely the other way around, right? He has never in all the years I've known him be someone to say this is the truth, take it from me.
45:15 Nick: ... with deeds, not words.
45:17 Paul: Absolutely right and even when he does as he has done exemplary things, he doesn't say you see, I'm the guy whose got it right. He just says well I think this is what I'm supposed to be doing; this is, you know, I'm seeking transcendence, I'm trying to form community. He doesn’t have tickets on himself.
45:35 Nick: Earnest, authentic, genuine, hardworking, humble...
45:38 Paul: Yeah, and you know, he's not seeking the limelight. What he hoped when he asked would I perhaps write his biography was that I could at least help to get the record clear and show what if anything had been the meaning of all the things he'd been trying to do.
45:58 Nick: What does it add up to?
46:00 Paul: Yeah, and I should - perhaps this is a good note in which to finish. So, the bottom line is well you can try things out, whether cynically or idealistically, whether dogmatically or open-mindedly but at the end of the day you have to ask does it work? Well, he founded these ecumenical communities which were clearly experimental. They weren't hippy communes; they weren't social utopias and they weren't monastic communities and they certainly weren't Celtic. They were communities in which people - men and women, old and young, Christian and non-Christian - could come together and what he was able to generate was a community. Always only a dozen or so people, the number of whom - well, not the number but the, you know, specific members of whom changed over time - they would come and go but the community worked.
46:51 In preparing the biography, I interviewed numerous people who had been members of his community at different stages. What they said is the community was a wonderful family like place to live, to be mentored, to feel safe; that Mark was like a father figure or a big brother; he was so caring, so competent, so full of humour and interest in his stories. This surely is a model worth looking at.
47:17 Then, I would say to some of these people so is it a model that can be replicated? Is this a way for more people in our society where so many people feel alone or uprooted, to be brought into communities that might give them a sense of belonging and identity and warmth and security?
47:34 The answer tended to be well it's a good idea in theory but without Mark, I'm not sure whether it would work, right? That's challenging, isn't it? So, can we as it were to use a contemporary term - can we clone Mark? If people look at his life, might they be inspired to say I'm not Mark but this kind of thing is worth doing?
47:58 Nick: Living up to the stature of Mark.
48:00 Paul: Yes, exactly, so that's what the biography perhaps is asking people.
48:06 Nick: Yeah, well it's an extraordinary gift and an incredible gesture. I think it's deeply humbling for him to have someone write about his life in such detail with such depth of understanding, feeling and an incredible understanding of the great sort of seismic forces that are at any stage of human history operating on and influencing the individual. We tend to, you know, labour this idea of, you know, man is, you know, the maker of his own fortune, the artisan of his own fortune but, you know, yes we have faculty within us to do certain things but ultimately we are subject to forces which are incomprehensible and far greater than, you know, the sum total of the actions of our own individual endeavours.
48:55 I think you've taken both those things into consideration. You know, Mark as the man and the individual but also, it's this incredible sweep of philosophy, theology, economics, social changes, academic shifts and other social - I think I've already mentioned that - upheaval. So, it's a unique work I think, Paul, and I do thank you very much for being here today to explain it. I hope that we can help Mark's legacy live on through not only the gospel, The Secret Gospel According to Mark, which you've published and is available online but also through this podcast which might broaden the sort of set of listeners a little bit wider.
49:36 Paul: Yeah, and we should point out to your listeners of course that they won't find the book if they go into their favourite bookshop but they will find it online. It's available on a print on demand basis through all the major online retailers - Amazon, Book Depository, Angus and Robertson, Barnes and Noble. For those who are a little finicky about cost, it's a big lavishly illustrated and expensive book but this winter, we hope to produce both a paperback and a kindle version. They won't have all the photographs, they won't have the maps, they won't have the appendices but you'll get the main text, so you can choose.
50:13 Nick: Perfect. Alright, thank you very much, Paul.