December 29, 2012

A Call to Silence…

… 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

December 21, 2012

“He has sent me…

…to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind
to set free those who are oppressed
to announce the year of the Lord’s favor…

Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

(Isaiah 61:1 and Luke 4:18)

I received this image as a Christmas greeting from a friend.

The image represents a small crib made out of olive tree, three wise men from the East, and one wise man from Bethlehem. The wise man from Bethlehem, Tawfiq Salsaa carved the crib. At first sight it is just like any other crib of olive tree that are sold by hundreds in the shops of Bethlehem. Nevertheless, there is a small difference. The wise men cannot pay their homage to the Child, because a wall – more precisely: the Wall – separates them from Bethlehem.

At least in our thoughts, and to the extent of a prayer, let us be together with those who, caught between radicalizing doctrines, still keep hope in their hearts. 

Sretan Bozic. Peaceful Holidays.

December 17, 2012

Sleeper to the Most Serene Republic.

Imagine the anticipation of stepping on board a train, all aglow, as the brisk winter’s evening has just fallen.

Budapest, the neglected beauty on the Danube, is a city of friendly people, opulent buildings, golden domes, thermal baths and opera.  A foreign city robs you of your prejudices about different neighborhoods—you look at everything with fresh virgin eyes.

Keleti pályaudvar, Budapest's Eastern railway station, does not rank among the world's greatest termini. It has neither the presence of Grand Central Station, New York, the imperial thrust of Milan's homage to the Roman Empire, nor the glamour of London's St. Pancras. Yet, not withstanding its deja vue look it conjures up a spirit of bygone era adventure.

For it is from here that Hungary connects with the outside world. Daily the trains depart for Moscow, for Bucharest and the Black Sea, for Thessalonika and the warmth of the Greek isles, for Prague, Warsaw, Berlin, stretching still further to the Baltic States and onwards into Scandinavia. And it is from here, around five-thirty each afternoon that the overnight train for Venice departs.

I departed Budapest thinking of these two quotes by Thomas Szasz: “The stupid neither forgive nor forget; the naive forgive and forget; the wise forgive but do not forget” and “Clear thinking requires courage rather than intelligence.”

Although designated 'Inter City', complete with 'Wagons-Lits' and 'Dining Car', this is no express. For the first two to three hours it meanders slowly southwards, a stopping train for the resorts of the Balaton, Hungary's 'sea' and the largest inland lake in Europe. But what spectacular scenery as the sun dips down over a sheer expanse of water.

As night falls the train passes over the border and into Croatia.  Gone midnight and we are in Zagreb. Student backpackers, mostly Italian, homeward bound, jostle the corridors and gangways seeking seats. In the early hours we reach Ljubljana. Then a peace descend and the train slides into Italy, on to Mestre, and finally to its destination, the Queen of the Adriatic, Venice.

A brief ride on the Vaporetto delivers me to my home away from home in the Sestiere Dorsoduro.  Sandwiched between two side canals and affording direct views onto the Grand Canal, and rarest of all a courtyard garden. A shady bower, vine hung, edges the water, the quiet disturbed by no more than the splash of a gondola oar and the chirping of sparrows. Perfect. Whilst behind the palazzo a lawned area, surrounded with perennial borders and palms, provides all the seclusion one could possibly require.

I ask for nothing more. A short walk and I am at the Gallerie dell' Accademia renewing a friendship with Bellini. A step further and I am at the magnificently restored Ca' Rezzonico, it too with a shady garden, home to the English painter Robert Browning and one time studio of the American portraitist John Singer Sargent. Two steps on and once more I am in heaven, for is there anything more wondrous, more uplifting than the Scuola S. Rocco with its accumulated works of Tintoretto? I think not.

December 13, 2012

Natural Wonders.

One of my most satisfying emotions is enjoying somebody the same way I enjoy a sunset.  People are just as beautiful, like a sunset, if I accept them as they are.  Perhaps we admire a sunset just for that reason, not being able to control it. 

When I admire a sunset I do not say: “Please a softer orange in the right corner and a little more violet on the horizon and a bit more rose for the clouds.”  This I do not do.  I do not try to control a sunset.  I just look at it in admiration.