… led to an infinity of little hours.
Brousing through Charles’ library I found a ‘slim’ volume titled “An Infinity of Little Hours”. As I began reading I recalled what my father had written on the last page of his journal, “There have been times in my life when I wondered whether I couldn’t make a good monk.”
The subtitle explains the content: Five Young Men and Their Trial of Faith in the Western World’s Most Austere Monastic Order. The order is the Carthusians; the monastery in question is Parkminster, the only Carthusian house, or charterhouse, in present-day England (check out the high-tech Website); and the five young men are novices—three Americans, an Irishman, and a German—who entered in 1960. Early in the book the author writes that of the five only one became a fully professed Carthusian following the mandatory five-year trial period. This injects an element of suspense into the reading: Who will it be and why? Or conversely who will fail to make the grade and why?
The Carthusians are the Navy Seals of monasticism, except that once fully professed, they are enlisted forever. They effectively live in individual hermitages around a central courtyard and only emerge in silence two or three times a day for mass, prayer, and occasional meals taken in community. Their “major work,” according to the author, is Night Office, said between 11 pm and 2 am. The Monks feel “the special responsibility of being awake when everyone else is asleep.” Which means, of course, that they don’t get as much sleep as you or I. Once a week, they take a walk together, known as spatiamentum, promenading two by two through the countryside and changing partners on command every five minutes so that they do not become too attached. They are never to make eye contact with one another. Carthusians do not minister to the surrounding community; they do no missionary work; Carthusians pray. Their motto is Soli Deo, God alone. They wear hair shirts. They take cold-water baths (or did until recent changes). From September 14 (The Exaltation of the Cross) until Easter, except Sundays and feast days, they undertake “the great monastic fast,” one meal a day and a pretty sparse meal at that. For lent, they also give up dairy products.
The author is a woman, Nancy Klein Maguire. Given that women cannot enter a Carthusian monastery under any circumstances, you’d think Maguire must have had three strikes against her before even starting to write. But she had an ace up her sleeve: her husband is a former Carthusian novice attached to Parkminster. In fact, if you put two and two together, it seems that she is married to one of the four 1960 novices who didn’t make the cut. Dave, or Dom Philip, as he is known in the book, “had weighed the difficulty of solitude before he came to the Charterhouse. He had not weighed the difficulty of the other monks.” What drives Dom Philip out finally is the horrible singing of his fellow monks in choir. In Maguire’s on-line biography, her husband is described as “an ex-Carthusian monk, who hadn’t minded hair shirts, sleepless nights, 48-hour fasts, and total solitude, but who couldn’t tolerate the monks singing off pitch during the Divine Office.”
Maguire’s description of life in a charterhouse is so vivid, you can feel the cold damp of the cell and the rude comfort of a coarse sheet and blanket on a lonely bed. You can feel the hunger pangs from mid-September until Easter. You can feel the terrible loneliness. I was not cut out to be a Navy Seal, and now I know that I was not cut out to be a Carthusian.
So what was is it that attracted Dad? It is the silence, the chance to bring the rest of life to stillness and “know that I am God.” When we discussed the book at table Charles said; “good vocations come from good homes”. The thought kept going through my mind. One may have every quality and every virtue necessary for monastic life, yet if there is a lack of stability that has affected the candidate's life the fellow will have a rough time of it and most likely will not persevere.
Happy New Year