An Infinity of Little Hours

by: Nancy Klein Maguire
published by: Public Affairs

What happens when 5 young, healthy men from disparate backgrounds leave the 20th century behind and enter a monastery whose clock stopped ticking 1000 years ago?

Nothing you are likely to expect.

Because she met and married a former Carthusian monk, Nancy Maguire wanted to learn more about the process of "discernment," the time of discovery when a person tries to determine if he or she has a vocation to the religious life in the Catholic Church.

At least for this group, it's about a 20% success rate, if by "success" we mean the ability to find a permanent home in the monastery.

Monastic life is old, far older than the Catholic Church. In almost every culture there are those who seek a life apart from "the world," looking for a way to put aside the distractions of day to day life, and open themselves more fully to God.

The Carthusian order is also called the Order of St. Bruno, and was founded by St. Bruno of Cologne in 1084 as an enclosed order, including both monks and nuns. The order has its own Rule, called the Statutes, and combines eremitical and cenobitic life. (Eremetic life is the life of a hermit - living alone, whereas cenobitic life is within a community.)The Rule is the set of conditions for the life the monks undertake, and prescribes literally every minute of every day, from when and where meals will be taken, to what time they arise, to how often they bathe and how many pillows can be on their beds.

Bruno and some friends settled in the a valley in the Chartreuse Mountains, a section of the French Alps, far from the mainstream of public life. It was an English corruption of the name, "Chartreuse," which resulted in Carthusian monasteries becoming known as "Charterhouses" thereafter.

Most tellingly, the Catholics say of the Carthusian order, "Cartusia numquam reformata, quia numquam deformata." That is, "The charterhouse has never been reformed, for it has never been deformed". Which is to say that in nearly 1000 years, nothing much has changed inside the monastery.

We meet our five protagonists prior to their entry into the order as postulants, (from the Latin, postulare, to ask) or candidates. One was in seminary, another was nearly married, a third was Peck's Bad Boy. The group is as different as any five young men chosen at random.

And we follow each of them into the monastery, hearing the door to the outside world swing shut on them, watching as their hair is tonsured (cut in the traditional fringed bowl cut of the monk), and bearing with them as they struggle with cold, hunger, loneliness, and a crabbing pettiness that comes from too little socialization in too tight quarters.

Each monk lives in the equivalent of a roomy (1800 square foot), two-story condo. The lower floor comprises a work room, a wood room (where the monk's store of firewood is housed), and a bathroom (at the time of the story, only cold running water was available). Off this floor is a garden of approximately 1200 square feet, where each monk has a degree of autonomy, depending on what he can beg and borrow to grow.

The upper floor consists of the cubliculum (cell, or main bedroom/study),and ambulatory, a kind of entryway that includes a prie-dieu (kneeler) for special devotions, and a small shrine to Mary.

Most of the monk's day is spent in this "cell," praying, working, studying, and tending the fire in his small - ok, tiny - wood burning stove. The days are punctuated by the keeping of The Liturgy of the Hours, a system of prayer in which the hours of the day (and night) are marked by prayers or devotions; by solitary meals delivered by a brother (a lay monk, which group perform most of the day to day housekeeping of the monastery); by study; and by assigned manual labor (one monk might make clothing, another might work in wood, a third might cobble shoes).

But by far the biggest part of the monk's existence is taken up by an ongoing conversation with God - which, if the monk is lucky, is two-sided.

We follow our young monks through their acclimatization, which oddly enough, is not as strenuous spiritually as we might expect. While one young man does experience panic as the door shuts behind him (interestingly, it's the one who was able to say to final vows), most of the men are seeking a remove from the world, solitude, an inner quiet they cannot find in the "world." It is not until the days slow down to the timeless rhythm that marks the Carthusian order that the small crises of Faith and vocation begin to crack the smooth patina of the novices' religious life.

Novices are also known as "first professed," a state in which they agree to stay for a prescribed period of time. Eventually, should both they and the order agree, they will make "final vows," which promises a lifetime of fidelity to the order.

For the monks, the objective is to live in a constant state of "now" and "with God."

And as it turns out, this is not a particularly easy challenge.

One young monk is plagued by physical discomfort:he is cold, he is hungry, he is not sleeping. So zealous that he adds extra privations to his already deprived life, he ends up hospitalized repeatedly. Eventually, he cannot survive the rigors, and must leave.

For another, the era's change in thinking about homosexuality assures him he is not a sinner, but "disordered." As such, he need not lock himself away, and it is probably not prudent for him to do so in a community of men. He, too, must leave.

Yet another monk simply breaks down under the strain of solitude, and is escorted out.

There is something both infinitely appealing about the monastery (its slow, even timeless pace, its measured hours, its simplicity, its changelessness) and something infinitely frightening (the petty issues that can break a soul, the deliberate deprivation - the monks are given 2 sets of clothing, and 1 bath in two weeks, and they smell bad, the complete lack of diversion, save a 4 hour walk once a week).

And this is the best thing about Maguire's book - her ability to bring to life the power of the monastic existence to both edify and terrify.

Not so successful is the interminable amount of time she spends transcribing the singing of the hours. Because it is a communal activity, because it is prayers written 1500 years ago (in many cases) and meant to be sung in Latin, because it is part of a bigger rhythm which must be lived to be appreciated, simply reading these rites, page after page, doesn't suffice. And since we can't really feelthem, the many pages they take up seem to waste both the writer's time, and ours.

She is also clearly not fully sympathetic with the impulses that would move a young man towards such a life, and the one thing she cannot do with her typical careful observer's accuracy is guess at the interior life of her subjects. She does report some of what they told her (her story is constructed from records, letters, and first-hand accounts of the monks who mustered out, as well as some of those who remained)but while she does seem able to imagine some of the internal struggles of the monks, she is not able to imagine the rewards that surely must also be there, that would keep a man living, hic et nunc (here and now), day after day, year after year.

Still, this is one of those books that, once started, absorb the reader in a world quite unlike any other, and from which one is almost - but not quite - reluctant to return.


Anonymous said…
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