Requiem For ‘The Life’
Elizabeth Thecla Mauro
An Infinity of Little Hours: Five Young Men and Their Trial of Faith in the Western World’s Most Austere Monastic Order
Nancy Klein Maguire, Public Affairs Press, $26, 258 pages
Monks should always be given to silence.
—Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 42
There are no accidents. God’s just trying to remain anonymous.
In a world that is increasingly given to distraction and mindless noise—where televisions blare from storefronts and family restaurants, where pedestrians and subway riders alike are plugged into iPods and tuned out—silence is fast becoming the rare and too-often unappreciated treasure of our time.
In Europe, this season’s block-buster is the three-hour documentary Into Great Silence. Filmed at the Grand Chartreuse Carthusian Monastery near Grenoble, it contains no music beyond the solemn Gregorian Chant; it has no dialogue, only prayer, and it has been selling out theaters wherever it plays. And now (there are no accidents) the first great nonfiction book of 2006 takes us to St. Hugh’s (Parkminster) Charterhouse in West Sussex, England, where again we meet Carthusians—in a different way—in Nancy Klein Maguire’s An Infinity of Little Hours.
It is perhaps mere coincidence that these two wholly unconnected projects, focusing on this most austere, nearly unknown religious order, are being released almost simultaneously, and at a time when progressive religious orders are dying and more traditional orders are experiencing solid growth. Perhaps these thoughtful expositions of extreme renunciation are appealing in these rather extreme times. Or perhaps an era of rampant materialism is revealing more convincingly than any philosophy ever could this great paradox: The fullness of the world is emptiness, and the emptiness of a denuded life carries with it a great and surpassing fullness.
Cartusia nunquam reformata quia nunquam deformata—”Carthusians have never reformed because they have never deformed.” In An Infinity of Little Hours, we readers become displaced time-travelers. We move to 20th-century England (circa 1960) when five young men ring the bell of St. Hugh’s to try their vocations as Carthusians in this historic house. These young men—from Germany, Ireland, and the United States—are the last men to enter before the Second Vatican Council will bring changes even to this formerly unchanging place. They are the last men to embrace a life—and a world—specifically unreformed since the 11th century, where the Carthusians, who report directly to the pope, had resolutely remained. They step through the iron gateway and travel back almost 900 years, and we go with them, grateful to glimpse a world whose memory—upon the deaths of the last monks of that era—will be forever lost.
Maguire, who is married to a former Carthusian monk, spent six years researching and writing this book, hunting down former Carthusians from around the world who had experienced what they call “the life” both before and after the Second Vatican Council. She was given—for any outsider, let alone a female—extraordinary access to Parkminster, and her descriptions of the church, library, chapter house, and cells are vivid and immediate. The reader sees the bare two-story cells in which the monks spend the bulk of their days, in silence and solitude. We see the discipline, the hair shirt, the cupboard bed, the interconnected gamelles from which they eat the meatless meals delivered by unseen, unmet claustral brothers. We hear the fluttering of the bats flying overhead at Compline and the slap of heavy boots (made from discarded rubber tires) upon the Belgian flagstone of the cloister walks. We smell the mustiness of damp, ancient books and old, woolen habits.
Likewise, the individual journeys of these last five “pre-1965” monks, and their fears, hopes, frustrations, and prayers, are masterfully rendered. The hours and years Maguire spent tracking down, e-mailing, interviewing, and finally meeting these reclusive men have borne a deliciously intimate fruit; the book reads like the very best sort of psychological novel. We meet the Irish American who, sailing the Mauritania toward his vocation, falls deeply in love, and we watch with sympathy his years-long, quintessentially Irish-American effort to resolve the conflict through signs and wonders and punishing physical labor. We come to know the German scholar, a bookworm and brilliant multi-linguist, whose search for God introduces him, at long last, to himself. We learn early on that of the five men pulling on the Charterhouse’s bell cord, only one will remain there for life, but will it be the Dubliner, a former Trappist with a habit of sticking his nose where it doesn’t belong? Or will it be another Irish American, the one who seems so very sure of his calling, but who wonders almost immediately how long he’ll have to stay in order to have a good yarn to tell on the golf course?
“It’s no good,” one long-ago novice master had said, “the Irish never make it.” The older monks tell amusing stories about men who had believed themselves to be perfect candidates for the hermit’s life, only to find—once the cell door closed and they were “alone with the Alone”—that twelve hours was indeed quite enough of a good thing, after all.
The five men chronicled here give it a good go. We readers, in following them in and out of centuries, get a glimpse of the mystery of grace; we see that—both in the silence and in the blaring noise—God works in our lives as we work with Him. That we need not be hermits to leave pasts and futures apart and live here. Now. At its core, even the most public of lives is lived anonymously, and yet somehow, there are no coincidences.
(Note: St. Hugh’s Charterhouse at Parkminster has a well-designed site at parkminster.org.uk. The Web site for Into Great Silence, which is not yet scheduled for release in the United States, can be found at diegrossestille.de/english.)
Elizabeth Thecla Mauro is a Benedictine Oblate and freelance writer. Her current project is a book on care of the dying.