Solitary men

Solitary men: An Infinity of Little Hours

Solitary men

Issue Date: July 28, 2006

‘An Infinity of Little Hours’ puts readers inside an obscure ascetic order
By Nancy Klein Maguire
PublicAffairs, 258 pages, $26

Reviewed by Sandi Dolbee

Who among us has not fantasized about chucking it all and becoming a hermit?

No more multi-tasking. No more traffic jams on the I-15, I-8, I-Whatever. No more bills and IRAs or 401(k)s. Just reading and reflecting and contemplating. Utopia, right?

Not exactly.

At least not for all the would-be monks of St. Hugh’s Charterhouse, Parkminster, in England. The monastery is home to the Carthusians, a Catholic monastic order that saw little change between its 11th-century founding and the 1960s reforms of Vatican II. For the men of Parkminster, solitude is difficult work. The discipline is arduous, the conditions primitive and the rules unrelenting. The routine can drive some men mad.

Nancy Klein Maguire immerses us into the mysterious world of this ascetic order with admirable detail and clarity. She wraps her story around five Carthusian novices from the pre-Vatican II era, who she tracked down with Nancy Drew determination, and puts us back in time with them from when they first rang the bell to enter the Charterhouse and put on their hair shirts.

An Infinity of Little Hours” follows these five men as they sought to find God by shutting out the world and living alone in locked cells, coming out for communal prayers, occasional walks and other prescribed events. There was little conversation; all energy was devoted to work, prayer, study and their individual pursuits of the divine.

“At Parkminster, Dom Philip could pull his cowl over his head and almost hear the whispers of God,” Maguire writes. “He treasured being in one of the few places on earth quiet enough to hear God’s gentle whisper.” His solitude was intoxicating, “like plunging into a cold lake. Once you got used to it, you didn’t want to get out.”

Maguire’s interest is personal. She is married to an ex-Carthusian, and one can only imagine her own quest to understand what makes her husband tick.

Who leaves and who stays to take their final, solemn vows? Let’s not spoil the fruits of Maguire’s fascinating labors. Besides, the destination isn’t nearly as interesting as the journey. You can almost smell the candles burning inside the chapel, feel the damp chill of the stone walls and hear the impenetrable silence of the cells.

At the end, she convenes a reunion, of sorts, of men now grown old, who continue to marvel at many of their experiences there. Each sought to live out his dream, she writes, “of stretching the limits of human spiritual experience, to live for God alone in solitude.” Anyone wanting a glimpse of what that would be like need only travel as far as the pages of this book.

Sandi Dolbee writes about religion and ethics for the Union-Tribune.

Review Date: March 12, 2006