By McLean Robbins
In An Infinity of Little Hours, Washington author Nancy Klein Maguire follows a group of men through their journey into the Carthusian order of Catholic monks during the swinging ’60s, when most young people seemed more into sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll than spirituality.
Unlike Trappists or Benedictines, who live in communities, Carthusians dedicate their lives to solitude and living hic et nunc —Latin for “here and now,” or in the present with God. They spend almost all of their days in individual “cells,” two-story dwellings where each sleeps, prays, eats, and works. Life isn’t easy—monks wear hair shirts, perform self-flagellation, and keep a daily prayer vigil called Night Office between 11 pm and 2 am.
In the 1960s, the order existed much as it did at the time of its creation by Saint Bruno in 1084. Members of the order often quote a Latin saying, “Cartusia nunquam reformata quia nunquam deformata” —”Carthusians have never been reformed, because they have never been deformed.”
Maguire charts the lives of three Americans, one Irishman, and one East German in their journey to become brothers at Parkminster, England’s, only Carthusian monastery. The result is a highly detailed and heretofore unseen depiction of intensely private monastic life.
We see ordinary young men—several of whom were once doctors, lawyers, or military personnel—experience the transition to a life of solitude. At times, that life seems unbearable. “As a mortal being,” Maguire writes, “the monk faced eternity every day. Today, tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow were all the same. Nothing ever changed. In the face of the vastness of eternity, Dom Philip began to understand his powerlessness and insignificance. He was not in charge of what was happening; his own resources could not help him.”
Some adapt to the journey better than others, but all reminisce about their previous lives. One reflects often on a woman he met on the Mauretania on his way to Parkminster, while another misses golf, a favorite hobby. Another, determined that self-deprivation will bring him closer to God, forgoes even the one meal a day permitted during fasts and winds up in the hospital.
Each chapter details a specific segment of the monks’ lives, somewhat like a history book. At times, the breadth of detail can be overwhelming, particularly for those unversed in Catholicism. Descriptions of single days in chapters such as “The Noonday Demon” can stretch on for what seem like hours of reading.
Despite the more than 200 pages Maguire devotes to these men, I felt a strange detachment by the end. Their transition from initiate to novice is marked by name changes that often left me flipping back and forth to figure out who, say, Dom Ignatius was or who Paddy O’Connell became. Individual experiences within Parkminster’s walls, although meticulously documented, at times ran together.
Yet where one chapter’s minutiae become tedious, another’s rich detail brings the story alive. The overall effect in a way mimics the monks’ own journey—at times blissful, at times causing them to wonder if it’s all worth it.
Maguire holds the trump card high until the end—in the final pages, we learn which of the monks made it the five years to “solemn profession” and which were asked to leave or left of their own accord. (Skip the photos in the center if you’re not looking for a spoiler.)
The depth of Maguire’s research—including more than 5,000 pages of e-mails, personal interviews, and a reunion with the five in France—lends credibility to a narrative of events that are four decades old. Her interest in history comes as no surprise: She has been a scholar at DC’s Folger Shakespeare Library since 1983. Her interest in the subject has a personal aspect, too: She’s married to one of the men who left the Carthusians.
An Infinity of Little Hours is a worthwhile read for those interested in what really goes on behind a monastery’s walls. But this isn’t The Name of the Rose. Its intrigues are less mysterious and more contemplative.