1. What inspired you to write this book?
For twenty years, I had been obsessed by the execution of Charles I, the king of England. I desperately wanted to go back in time and actually see what happened. How did the scene look? Was Charles really fearless? How did the crowd smell? One of the crowd recorded hearing: “a Grone by the Thousands then present, as I never heard before & desire that I may never hear again.”
I really wanted to know how the people felt. In fact, after I finished my dissertation, when I was taking a cab from Heathrow to London, I kept asking the cab driver as we drove down Cromwell Road, “But how do you feel about the execution”? I probably expected him to burst into tears or something, but he just muttered, “I don’t think much about it.”
Twenty years later, I saw a real opportunity to go back into history, not into the 17th century, but into the 11th century. When I found out that the Carthusian order hadn’t changed in nearly a thousand years, I had a new historical obsession. I had found, by sheerest accident, a slice of frozen history, an unopened window into the eleventh century. Not only the monks’ liturgies and customs, but even their garments, were those of the eleventh century. History had frozen there. I found practically nothing in print about the Carthusian order, but I was hooked. My twenty-five years of research at the Folger Shakespeare Library took over, and I determined, whatever it took, whatever it cost, to discover the secret life of these monks.
Writing a cultural history of hermit monks who don’t speak presented an irresistible challenge. Tracking down ex-monks of the pre-1965 era became a daunting research project. The quest became an historical obsession which lasted for over six years during which time I deciphered tiny handwritten letters and notes as well as digressive and thoughtful e-mails. The process was endless and energizing, leading from one monk and ex-monk to another. My network and archive kept expanding.
2. Can you describe what you do at the Folger Shakespeare Library?
I do research and write about various topics. Depending on my topic, which until now has been the relationship of politics and theatre in the later half of the seventeenth century, I would give papers at various conferences. Another historian and myself organized an international conference when my scholarship related to England and Europe. Because the Folger is not a theological library, for An Infinity of Little Hours I used other sources, see “Sources” in the book as well as the “Acknowledgements.” The Folger has continued to be a source of encouragement, basic resources, and readers willing to read early drafts.
3. Being a scholar, did you identify with the monks’ desire for solitary study?
Yes. I find that being a scholar requires a tremendous amount of solitude and concentration. I can only write in solitude. I find it a lonely business, but one to which I am addicted. I wrote most of the book on an 80 acre piece of the Virginia mountains. I found that I thrived on solitude while writing this book. I also learned how difficult it is to keep a sense of stability and self-worth in isolation.
4. You’re a scholar of the 17th century. How did your knowledge of those times prepare you to write about a religious order that’s nearly 1,000 years old?
Mainly, the discipline of scholarship. Twenty-five years at the Folger taught me to evaluate documents. Who wrote the document? Why? Who influenced the writer? Is the writer a reliable witness or trying to persuade the reader to adapt a particular political stance? I learned to make informed judgments on what was true or false.
5. The Carthusians are a reclusive order. How did you gain access to Parkminster, and how commonplace is it for outsiders to be allowed inside the monastery?
My husband is an ex-Carthusian; I learned that the Prior of Parkminster, the English Carthusian monastery, had been in the novitiate with him. I called the Prior. The answering machine requested that all communication be by fax. After endless revisions, I faxed an introductory letter. To my utter amazement, the Prior responded the next day, extending an invitation to visit. I had hoped, at best, for a very formal hour of conversation. The Prior had said that if I were discrete, I could use the library on the grounds of “a professional person in the execution of her duties.” I was very nervous. I wasn’t sure what discrete meant, but I cut my hair to Marine length, wore a gray hooded baggy sweater, baggy slacks, no jewelry, and no makeup. The Prior was a quick read; he interviewed me in about five seconds. I knew that, in some sense, he had accepted me. When all the monks were in their cells, the Prior’s representative led me into the monastery by a side entrance. Out of my mind with excitement, bogged down with two tape recorders, hours of tape, and film, I entered another world, another century. I surreptitiously took pictures as rapidly as I could on the longest possible route to the library. During this visit, instead of the expected formal hour, I talked to the Prior and another monk from the 1960-65 class for about twenty hours.
I visited Parkminster again in 2003 and talked to the new Prior, and again with the former Prior, and the other monk from the 1960-65 class.
Before Vatican II, it was nearly impossible to get inside the monastery unless you were a male relative of one of the monks, and then you were only allowed a bi-annual visit. Women were simply never allowed inside. For example, one of the monks in An Infinity of Little Hours tells the story:
“In Church, last year, I got appendicitis. I turned orange and was feeling a real wrench in my gut. I collapsed on the floor, all two hundred pounds of me. Father Prior stopped the prayers and called for an ambulance. So, imagine me stretched out on the floor of the cold church. I heard the sirens blaring as they came down the road into the Charterhouse. I heard the brothers open the gates to the entrance. I calmed down a bit. Help was on the way.” He raised his voice just a bit, continuing in an understated way, “But, then, I heard the ambulance leaving. Father Prior had seen that a nurse, a woman, was in the ambulance! The ambulance had to back out, and leave the woman outside the Charterhouse. Then it returned for me.” He thought about it for a minute and said rather cheerfully, “at least they did come back.”
A Queen has the right to enter a Charterhouse in her own country, but Queen Victoria, on the occasion of her Golden Jubilee, needed a letter from the Pope to visit the Grande Chartreuse. Since Vatican II, women are allowed inside for professional reasons. For example, a female nurse took care of Dom Guy, one of the monks in Infinity, when he was dying. Women are also allowed inside to evaluate books in the library or to do various kinds of repair work.
6. How were you received by the monks – both as an outsider, and as a woman?
The monks received me as one of themselves. I never felt that being a woman barred me from access to them, nor did being an outsider. I found them emphatic, generous, and in an odd sense, kindred spirits.
7. What did your husband say upon hearing you were going to write this book?
“It can’t be done.”
8. What have others said about your husband?
“He’s incredible. You’re a lucky woman.”
9. Your husband is an ex-Carthusian – when and why did he leave the order?
I’m not going to answer that question for two reasons: 1) it will spoil the story for the readers. Many readers have reported what fascinated them about the book was trying to figure out which of the five monks would make it to solemn profession; 2) the agreement I made with the monks I interviewed was that I would protect their privacy. Without their generosity and transparency, I could not have written the book. This agreement, of course, also applies to my husband.
10. You say that ex-Carthusians can be difficult to live with – why?
Once a Carthusian always a Carthusian. A Carthusian who remains for even 4-5 years has learned extraordinary self-directedness. He has lived alone successfully, with almost unlimited time to himself. Monks typically neither need to receive or give attention. They need a lot of solitary time, and, especially in their early days in the Charterhouse, the monk may not have paid attention to other people. On balance, however, an ex-Carthusian is a great husband because his level of commitment and trust is total.
11. The reaction of the Carthusian community has been very positive, and several monks and ex-monks have said that your portrayal of the Carthusian way of life is remarkably accurate. How easy was it to get inside the mindset of the monks?
The entire project was difficult. But getting into the mindset of the monks was the most difficult. I had to learn the monastic language and literature, use their unique Latin vocabulary, and invest nearly seven years communicating with them, via fax, e-mail, letters, and telephone calls. And, even then, only after I met the monks in person, did they become transparent. There was an amazing trust between us. I felt as if they were my brothers.
12. Physically and mentally the Carthusian life is notoriously tough – how does the regime affect the monks psychologically?
The life is very difficult, both physically and psychologically. The necessary quality for any Carthusian is balance. If the monk goes overboard on penance, solitude, or even prayer, he will lose his human balance and find himself in trouble.
13. Do you think the need to live such an extreme lifestyle is partially the result of already having a mental disorder?
No. Those with a serious mental disorder would have been weeded out very early. To the contrary, the monks at Parkminster in the early 1960s included many very successful and resilient men: a Fordham professor, an international lawyer, several Polish resistance fighters, a MP in the first Polish parliament, a physician, a French Cavalry officer with a degree in pure mathematics, a member of the New Zealand National Rugby team, and many others (see pp. 42-44 in book).
14. The popular and critical success of England’s “The Monastery,” a television reality show, and the German film “Into Great Silence” suggest a real increase in interest in spirituality in general, and the contemplative life in particular. Why do you think this is?
After 9/11, I realized at a very deep emotional level that I couldn’t count on physical supports, even on personal supports. The only security I found was in going deeper into myself. I suspect this happened to many Americans, and as terrorism continues, and countries across the world see it on television every night, perhaps we all move inside ourselves trying to find something that is stable.Dom Augustine Guillerand, a famous Carthusian writer, writes, “The true secret of secure and durable peace resides in detachment from superficial realities and events which form the surface of our lives… they leave us empty. We have need of something else, and that durable reality is in the depths of our soul.”
I am available by telephone to answer questions and provide additional understanding of monastic life to your book group.
When your book group reads An Infinity of Little Hours, my publisher will set up a call-in session if you e-mail the details of time and place to: email@example.com.
I look forward to meeting you.
-Nancy Klein Maguire-