Two books take revealing looks at men of the cloth

An Infinity of Little Hours

Two books take revealing looks at men of the cloth

By Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett
Special to The Seattle Times

“The Collar: A Year of Striving and Faith Inside a Catholic Seminary”
by Jonathan Englert
Houghton Mifflin, 320 pp., $25.95

“An Infinity of Little Hours: Five Young Men and Their Trial of Faith in the Western World’s Most Austere Monastic Order”
by Nancy Klein Maguire
Public Affairs, 258 pp., $26

It’s a safe bet that both of these books will soon be tucked inside many a designer tote bag and fine calfskin backpack. Religious life is never more intriguing than in times when materialism is rampant. Perhaps that’s because we secular types naively imagine that the biggest challenge of religious life is its denial of comforts and its greatest reward is separation from worldly worries.

It isn’t that simple of course, as demonstrated by these two very different books, both resulting from extraordinary access to closed communities.

“The Collar,” by Jonathan Englert, which follows men in a “second-career” seminary in Wisconsin, reminds us that divorced, widowed and worldly men become Roman Catholic priests, taking up ministries awash in decidedly earthly concerns.

Englert, a freelance journalist and a convert to Roman Catholicism, was so dismayed by the declining number of new priests, and what he saw as ignorance of the church among both its members and outsiders, that he set out to write a book that would inform, and perhaps inspire.

Some church authorities tried to bar Englert from access more than once, but eventually he was given free rein to track a diverse group attending the Sacred Heart School of Theology in Hales Corners, Wis., in 2002. Englert’s allegiances did not keep him from delivering a balanced account and a sharp contemporary snapshot of these mid-life seminarians.

“The Collar” explores challenges faced by a former Marine; a blind musician; a salesman; a divorced father; and a widower with four grown children. All confront difficulties found in modern secular life, along with some unique to Catholic clergy. One man struggles with his diagnosed ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder); another wonders how to deal with Catholics who defy birth-control prohibitions; all ponder celibacy and the lack of diocesan retirement funds.

Eccentricities abound: During orientation one seminarian wonders aloud if bow-hunting equipment is a violation of the no-weapons rule. Another raises eyebrows by spending an inordinate amount of time in the town’s sun-tanning parlor. Englert doesn’t blink at his subjects’ foibles or failures. On the most serious side, he’s made an important contribution to the historical record by capturing a sense of a seminary in the midst of the clergy-abuse scandals.

He discusses the much-changed methods for screening clergy candidates, and the tricky business of working closely with parishioners when every chaste hug or casual conversation may be minutely scrutinized. There are some odd convergence zones as a result of this evolution; moments both wrenching and darkly humorous.

The description of the rigorous psychological testing experienced by Dean, one of the seminarians, is one such moment. After sweating through a checklist meant to rate his reactions to photographs of “men, women, children, and lingerie,” he moves on to the written exam:

“One question asked whether he dressed in women’s clothing. Dean had done so once for a pageant in high school, so he answered yes to the question. Later, a psychologist quizzed him on this answer. ‘So what about your cross-dressing?’ ” Eventually the matter is sorted out, and a shaken Dean heads off to seminary.

There, Dean finds himself in a classroom on the day when a stern Sacred Heart priest warns his new students that they must avoid the sort of conspiratorial silence that created the sexual-abuse scandals. He is blunt: “Now it’s not that we want everybody to be spies, but if you know something, you can’t say, ‘Well it’s not my responsibility.’ It is your responsibility.”

Ancient roots
Nancy Klein Maguire traversed a much longer historical timeline in “An Infinity of Little Hours,” about the little-known (and now almost extinct) Carthusian order of monks. She traces the journeys of five men who entered the order’s West Sussex, England, Charterhouse during the 1960s, revealing an existence largely unchanged since the order’s 11th-century founding in the Swiss Alps.

Maguire, who cheerily notes that her husband is an ex-Carthusian who “dried up very quickly” as a source, evidences a kind of raffish charm not expected in the writings of someone who has spent years toiling among obscure documents and interviewing former monks. A longtime scholar-in-residence at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., she has a welcome gift for slipping in some handy summaries of complex church history:

“The small size of Carthusian communities, and their insistence on privacy, encourages a simple chant that inspires the monks to pray and to soberly look into their innermost selves. The roots of the chant are Gregorian, a form of plainchant derived from the Jewish and early Christian chant to which Pope St. Gregory The Great (540-604) contributed. “

Her admiration for the resolute monks is clear. Noting their longstanding resistance to any softening of the order’s austere traditions, Maguire tells of 14th-century Carthusians recoiling at their Pope’s urging that they eat meat when ill. After another round of Papal advice, the monks grudgingly agreed to wear hats in bad weather. The hair shirts stayed on, however.

Earthbound, reaching
Along with their common appeal, these books share one small shortcoming. Getting into the heads of the men they profile is the point, of course, but writers as skilled as Maguire and Englert could have more frequently stepped outside their narratives to remind the reader that these very personal thoughts were told to them, or surmised by them, sometimes long after the fact.

Both of these writers could also be lauded (or criticized, depending on your view) for seeing these men of God as utterly, endearingly human. Maguire has a particular talent for gathering such scraps of humanity:

“Chuck particularly looked forward to ringing the church bell before Mass. … Each monk rang the bell until the next arriving monk took the rope from him. Only the athletic Dom Ludolph could stop the bell from ringing with one arm, with one pull. Chuck found this a marvel.”

Maguire’s years’ of labor bore fine fruit. She preserves the hermetic, harsh life of the Carthusian monks — fiercely defended by adherents; piercingly difficult for those who stayed and those who ultimately left its confines. Laypersons’ imaginings not withstanding, the absence of all creature comforts is not ultimately the hardest part of the monks’ vocation. Complete devotion to serving one’s God at the cost of all other pursuits and passions is an arduous pilgrimage; one that transcends any day’s material sacrifices.

Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett is a writer living in Portland.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company