Interview With Denis McBride
  • Welcome, Father Denis, and many thanks for your time. We are going to tape this, if you don't mind and then write up the interview. First of all, how many books have you had published?

    Thirteen, I think, most of them in the area of the New Testament, focusing on the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

    • Journeying with Jesus - a Personal Companion
    • Journeying with Jesus - a Group Companion
    • Borrowing the Eyes of Others - Reflecting on Paintings Vol 1
    • Awakening to Yourself - Reflecting on Paintings Vol 2
    • Where Does the Jesus Story Begin? Reflecting on the Beginnings of the Gospels
    • Waiting on God
    • Jesus and the Gospels
    • The Parables of Jesus
    • Impressions of Jesus
    • Seasons of the Word: Reflections on the Sunday Readings
    • Emmaus: the Gracious Visit of God according to Luke
    • The Gospel of Mark
    • The Gospel of Luke
  • And you have produced some sets of CDs?

    Yes, a 36 set on Jesus and the Gospels; a set of ten on Where Does the Jesus Story Begin? And recently a set on the series Reflecting with Paintings. They were all taped before live audiences, rather than in a studio, so there is a nervousness and liveliness to them, thanks to the various groups. I always think that the human voice is easier to understand than the pen; and the voice can communicate passion and belief better than the written word.

     

  • Which of your books pleased you most and why?

    The latest book on the Gospel story, Journeying with Jesus, is my favourite among all the books I have written. It has been beautifully produced by Redemptorist Publications. It explores seven stations in Jesus' journey: in the wilderness; at the well; on the mountain; along the road; at table; on the cross; on the road again.

    The book attempts to celebrate a variety of images and stories about Jesus that are packed in to the four Gospels. I took the opportunity of including classical and modern art, so that people could catch something of the way different artists have managed to portray moments in the Jesus story. I also enjoyed writing meditations that might puzzle people a little alongside the commentary. I loved what J.R. Tolkien said of learning: "Real education begins when the familiar looks strange."

    My other favourite book is Impressions of Jesus. This is a work of fiction that takes characters from the Gospels and imagines them sitting down one evening to write about their understanding of Jesus. That exercise gave me plenty scope to explore the variety of reactions to Jesus surveyed in the four Gospels: some people loved him deeply; some were wary of him; some became committed to eliminating him from life and from memory. Jesus provoked strong reactions from other people, and it was an absorbing exercise in imaginative sympathy to try to enter the minds of different people, especially the enemies of Jesus, and articulate why they might respond to Jesus the way they did. The purpose of this imaginative writing is to provoke the reader into answering the question: "Who do you say I am?"

     

  • Do you ever want to write anything outside your normal area of writing? If so, what?

    I have published short stories - in the New Yorker and The Guardian and Short Stories Magazine - and poetry in a variety of journals. My first love was fiction, and I have always been fascinated by the fact that Jesus chose fiction, his parables, to communicate the contrary wisdom of his message. Although fiction invites you into an imaginary world, good fiction, like the parables, carries its own truth. And if the people in the narrative matter to you, then you begin to care about them, what hurts them and what haunts them, and you are drawn into their struggles in life.

    Before the theologians arrived in Christianity, the storytellers were there first. Christianity is built on the experience of those who met Jesus and who converted their experience into story before offering it to others as Good News. The word has a unique place in Christianity: there would be no Christianity without storytelling. That drive to convert experience into story, so that others can share it, is one that I feel deeply.

    I have just published two books reflecting on paintings in which I try to invite people to look at a world not their own and stretch their imaginations to embrace different people and the different struggles they endure.

     

  • Which came first, the vocation to be a priest or the vocation to be a writer?

    The vocation to be a priest. I only discovered I could write when I was commissioned to do my first book, The Gospel of Luke, while I was studying in New York. A Jesuit, Father Bill Yeomans, who was working for an American publishing house, came to hear me preach a few times. On the basis of my ramblings, he kindly invited me to write a simple commentary on the Gospel of Luke that ordinary folk could understand.

    I was terrified of committing anything to writing, because the written word has a finality about it the spoken word does not. Once something is published you cannot take it back. Bill persuaded me to have a sense of humility about the exercise and risk sharing what I thought, in spite of the possibility that I might even be ashamed of it later. He was a good teacher, and I have always followed his advice. If we waited until what we wanted to say was perfectly crafted, we would publish nothing.

    The old fear came back when I was invited to tape the series of lectures to accompany the book, Jesus and the Gospels. At first I resisted the idea: the thought of having my meanderings given such final form, one that would not be repeated, frightened me. Then Bill's voice came back to me: "Trust what you have to say and leave it." So, I did.

     

  • Who is the writer, in any area of writing, that you most enjoy and admire?

    In the area of fiction, I enjoy Graham Greene, Iris Murdoch, and Ian McEwan. Of these, I admire Greene the most - not because he was known as a "Catholic" writer - but because he had an exceptional ability to portray the lives of vulnerable people, those who were somehow caught in a web of life through choice or fate. You are drawn into their lives, and wonder if they are acting out of some hidden compulsion or need, or if they have been simply unlucky. Are we who we are because of fate or choice? Graham Greene loved the lines of a poem by AE:

    • In the lost childhood of Judas
      Christ was betrayed.

     

  • How do you see or know the audience you are writing for?

    I suppose the honest answer is that I don't. Writing is by definition a solitary affair, even an unsocial one, when you close your door and turn your back on everyone and everything to scribble words, or type them on a computer. As the poet Paul Durcan observed:

    • To be a writer
      Is to be buried
      Alive, first thing
      Every morning.

    I have always worked on the simple belief that if I can make something real and comprehensible to myself, then I might have a chance of communicating that to unseen others. In that sense I am my own audience - writing is a respectable way of talking to yourself!

     

  • How does the discipline of writing fit into your role as priest?

    Fairly easily, I think. When I was directing the courses at Hawkstone Hall I used to communicate with people during the day and write at night. Now that I have been appointed as publishing director of Redemptorist Publications I am expected to write during the day, and I am finding this difficult. I miss the people connection, the mix of people from around the world, one that funded the writing.

    The main purpose of my writing as a Redemptorist is to deepen people's understanding of the beauty of the Gospel and the power of its liberating message. I see my writing as reaching a much larger parish than any I serve. The wonderful thing about writing is that you can connect with a huge variety of people that you will never meet or know. And if the writing works, you might be able to touch them or lead them into deeper insight. That is a privileged ministry.

    The founder of the Redemptorists, Alphonsus Liguori, was a prodigious writer, credited with producing 111 works. Alphonsus saw his writing as an essential part of his ministry of outreach, so he wrote theological works, some of them rather technical, together with popular pamphlets and hymns that everyone could enjoy. I have a long way to go to keep up with my founder . . .

     

  • What do you read?

    All sorts. Obviously I read in the area of my interest, the New Testament, but if you saw the collection of books in my study, you would see books on art, psychology, travel, biography, history, and fiction. I love art, and looking at art teaches you to see. I like anything that connects you to the human story, anything that carries insight about how people manage to live in "this vale of tears".

    I have loved reading since I was about eighteen. I hated school and was thrown out for being too slow; the only thing I excelled at there was sports, which I loved. It was only when I left school and went to college that my brain seemed to open up, and I started to love study and reading. At eighteen I "discovered" Graham Greene and Iris Murdoch: they became my best teachers and kept me sane in seminary while we were trawling through works of philosophy that were about as exciting to read as telephone directories.

     

  • Can you write anywhere or do you need special surroundings?

    I have written in a forest hut in Borneo, on a beach in the Philippines, on a boat crossing the Sea of Galilee, and in a hospital bed in Shrewsbury. They say Luther did his best writing on the lavatory! If you feel compelled to write, you write where you are: surroundings, it seems to me, are irrelevant, although I would need quiet.

    Probably women writers are more adept at this than men, since women have a capacity for multi-tasking, concentrating on several things at once. J.K. Rowlings, writer of the Harry Potter books, did most of her early writing on her kitchen table while keeping an eye on three or four other things. Of course, now that she commands advance payments that look like telephone numbers, she probably writes on a Louis Quatorze desk!

     

  • What does being an established writer mean to you in your life?

    I really don't go around thinking of myself as an "established writer". For me, the phrase conjures up some rumpled octogenarian who appears on one of the BBC arts programmes, giving everyone the benefit of his mind-numbing insights!

    The fact, however, that you become known in your own field means that you get wonderful invitations to unpronounceable places in the world. I feel very lucky that my writing has been my ticket to places like Japan, Italy, Canada, the United States, Africa, Australia, Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines. There I have met wonderful people who are ministering the Gospel in a variety of different cultures and languages; I have always returned home energised by the experience and with a deeper sense of the universality of the church.

     

  • Do you want to be remembered and, if so, what for?

    Being remembered does not really bother me. Life itself is the greatest and most precious gift and we are lucky to have a small share in it. You've probably noticed that when you visit cemeteries or churches and see monuments to the dead, they sometimes look like desperate mementoes, built to fight forgetfulness. They shout in protest: "Remember me!" Yet the people who once lay underneath have now been long forgotten. That is the story of life: life moves on inexorably, a gift to new generations of people. I like the lines of the poem, Remember, by Christina Rossetti:

    • For if the darkness and corruption leave
      A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
      Better by far you should forget and smile
      Than that you should remember and be sad.