Life in English monastery revealed in novel
Author Nancy Klein Maguire called Sun Prairie home as a youth
By Autumn Drussell, Associate Editor
The Star, April 20, 2006.
With her hair newly cut short, wearing an oversized gray, hooded sweater and baggy pants, no traces of makeup or jewelry — of all traces of femininity erased — Nancy Klein Maguire stood nervously waiting to do what even England’s Queen Victoria needed permission from the Pope to do prior to 1965: enter the grounds of a Carthusian charterhouse, where monks have lived the same life since the 11th century.
It was February, 1999, and Maguire, a native of Sun Prairie, had been invited by the Prior of the Parkminster Charterhouse to the grounds — one of the few women allowed to step foot inside the Carthusian Charterhouse — to have access to the library on the grounds for her research for a book she was planning to write.
Not knowing exactly what she would find, Maguire wanted to know what it was like to enter the Charterhouse, live as a monk in one of the cells, and why some of the men left, while others remained.
“My husband, who is an ex-Carthusian monk, told me it was impossible to do this; to capture the flavor of life inside the charterhouse,” Maguire explained. “I find the things I get involved in tend to be the ones no one thinks I can do.
“The difficulty of writing the story was that nothing was in print,” said Maguire. “A story like this hadn’t been done before because records weren’t readily kept and there was limited access to the inside of the Charterhouse.
“The Library of Congress is a threemile walk from where I live now in Washington and it had nothing but maybe 10 turn-of-the-century short articles on the subject.”
The Carthusians, she said, had been an extremely large order in England prior to Henry VIII, who executed 18 Carthusian monks in London, and exiled the rest. England wasn’t Catholic then, but mostly Anglican.
“That’s partly why I focused on this particular charterhouse — because it had been one of the largest and was one of the only English-speaking ones,” said Maguire.
The entire process of collecting research, tracking down and interviewing some 30 Carthusian monks, finally putting the pieces together to write a story, took Maguire a painstaking seven years to complete — nearly to the date: The book’s publishing date was Feb. 22, 2006.
“Tracking down the monks was the most difficult because the charterhouse itself keeps no records,” explained Maguire. “When people leave, they leave — no one knows where they end up. So it was a matter of finding one, finding another.
“Once they leave the former monks still tend to be private people,” she added. “In other words, they aren’t jumping out of the woodwork to talk to you.”
Ironically, tracking down members of an order that still followed 11th century customs was done using modernday technology. “It took tons of googling stuff and phone calls,” said Maguire. “I had the names of the monks who came in between 1960-65, because Dom Ignatius kept notes, which was totally against the rules of that time.”
And even the ones she did find, not many wanted to be interviewed for Maguire’s book. “What’s interesting now is when I need them no longer and the book is out, more of them have contacted me,” she said, laughing.
Knowing this was an unusual topic to sell as an author, Maguire said her initial idea was to do enough research to write a good story for The New Yorker.
“Writing for a general audience is a lot more difficult because you don’t exactly know who’s going to read it,” said Maguire. “But the book just took on a life of its own.”
Already a published author, Maguire has been a Scholar-in-Residence at the Folger Shakespeare Library since 1983. The author credits her youth in Sun Prairie with providing her with a foundation for a creative spirit.”I found Sun Prairie an incredibly rich environment to grow up in,” Maguire said. “I think I can say that if I hadn’t grown up in Sun Prairie I might never have written this book.”
Having graduated from Sacred Hearts High School, Maguire is the sister of Historical Library and Museum curator Peter Klein.
“When I was growing up there were three really important things in my life,” she said. “Girl Scouts was one of them. The second major thing was my grandmother’s 500 acre farm, located two miles from Sun Prairie.”
Being able to ride a bike to their grandmother’s farm was a rite of passage for the Klein children, she said, adding it meant independence.
“She always had these incredible sugar cookies in the cookie jar. And you were really independent if you could walk along the railroad tracks to get to the farm.”
The other important facet of Maguire’s life, she said, was the Sun Prairie library.
“I think I was probably there every day,” she recalled. “Because I was there so often, I got to know the librarian.
The adult books were all locked behind these big glass cabinets and when I was there alone the librarian would give me the adult books to take home and read. I’m sure I had no idea what I was reading about, but it always mademe feel like I was a very serious reader.”
Maguire recalled receiving a writing desk from her parents while she was in first or second grade — a desk she has to this day — spending her free time pretending to be a writer.
“Then when I was in fourth or fifth grade, my mother bought a set of encyclopedias — and that put me off the charts,” said Maguire, laughing. “I could find out anything.” Throughout her life, Maguire said although she’s explored many opportunities, she’s always led back to writing.
“It’s validating for me,” she said. “When I am writing, that’s when I feel real. It’s who I am. It’s like a narcotic.” That drive is what helped Maguire sift through all of the information she collected throughout the years and find a focus for An Infinity of Little Hours, Maguire’s story about five men who joined the Carthusian Monastic Order at Parkminster, England.
Maguire said she started her book following the lives of 10 men, but found that it made for too many characters for readers to follow without it getting confusing. She selected five individuals based on their willingness to talk.
The role of a Carthusian monk is to meditate, pray and participate in some sort of manual labor twice a day. “The monks do nothing and the brothers help them do it,” said Maguire, laughing. “The brothers cook for them. The monks are extremely intelligent people — I thought they would all be these wimps; people who couldn’t cope with the outside world.”
In fact, Maguire was surprised to learn monks who entered the charterhouse in the 1960’s included an international lawyer, a medical doctor, the heir to German dukedom, a member of the first Polish parliament who survived a concentration camp, a professional opera singer and a member of a New Zealand rugby team, among others. “These weren’t men who couldn’t do anything else,” said Maguire. “They were converts.”
Maguire said many of these men were searching for a new way to practice religion, or a way to find God.
“It was like getting to the end of the Internet and looking for something beyond,” Maguire added. “These weren’t people who doubted their abilities — they had nothing left to prove.”
Maguire explained the significance of being invited inside the gates of the charterhouse: “There was a time . . . women were not allowed in for any occasion. One time in the middle of the night one of the monks had dropped to the ground in pain from appendicitis, and the ambulance was called to bring him to the hospital. When the Prior (head monk) met the ambulance at the gates, he sent it back out because there was a nurse.
“So the ambulance had to go back out, drop the woman off at the highway and then come back,” said Maguire. “Queen Victoria on her Golden Jubilee wanted to visit the Charterhouse, but she literally needed permission from the Pope to visit.” But after Vatican II occurred, some of the rules were slightly relaxed, allowing a woman to enter the grounds if it were for professional reasons. Based on that concept, Maguire was permitted to conduct research for her book.
“It was like being on a different planet,” Maguire said of being at the charterhouse. “There were 12-foot high walls with four tiers of barbed wire. Then you get inside and they have these gardens… “The cells (the Monks living quarters) are 1,500 square feet with a 1,200 square foot garden each. And they are built in such a way that hey can’t see any other person or another cell.
“I thought it was a lot of space for one person. Each cell has a coal burning stove, which, by custom can’t be used until Nov. 1, and they have no central heating. The great difficulty was the church, which had four-foot thick masonry walls that just sucked up the damp. So between 11:30 p.m. and 2:30 a.m., it gets incredibly cold.” Even while in church, the monks pray in individual box like devices so that they are faced straight ahead and can’t see who is next to them.
“The only time they have much social interaction is during a three to four hour walk they take every Monday,” said Maguire. “They walk two-by-two, and change partners every 20 minutes or so.”
Even the monk’s attire was like looking at history. “Nearly nothing had changed in the more than 1,100 years,” Maguire recalled.
“They still wore what resembled what an 11th century mountain peasant would have worn. Their socks . . . were like a long tube of cloth with no bottom but in place a stirrup around the bottom to kept in place a flat, felt slipper — and then they stepped into a shoe.”
Maguire said from her interviews with the monks, she learned no one really left voluntarily. “Those who stayed were the ones who were able to cut themselves some slack,” said Maguire. The monks were allowed a hot bath every couple of weeks, and the ones who jumped in and out so as not to enjoy it too much — versus the ones who took the time to enjoy it — those were the ones who lasted.
“The ones who could enjoy the baths; the ones who had an incredible sense of humor,” she added. “If they learned to stay in the present, they could remain. Once they entered the charterhouse, they had no past and no future. Every day was like every other. They had to learn to take pleasure in the little things, because all they had was time.”
Maguire said during the writing process, one of the monks who tracked down Maguire told the author she wouldn’t be the same after writing the book. “He was absolutely right,” Maguire added. “I think as a result of writing this book, I learned what it means to live intently in the moment, like enjoying a sunset and making the most of every single moment.” A version of this article appeared in The Star, Sun Prairie’s newspaper, in the publication’s April 20, 2006 edition. Nancy Klein Maguire