On the final page of his memoir, my father wrote, “There have been times in my life when I wondered whether I couldn’t make a good monk.” An athlete, a war veteran, a businessman, a sociable person, Dad didn’t figure for a contemplative. But I understand. I thought I could have been a monk too, at least until I read An Infinity of Little Hours.
I felt the tug of monasticism well before my conversion in 2008, but marriage children made monastic life something only to imagine. But after being received into the Church three Easters ago, one of my first adventures as a newly fledged Catholic was to sign up for a retreat at a Benedictine abbey an hour from my home. I had been praying the Liturgy of the Hours pretty faithfully for several months, and the retreat offered an entire weekend’s study of the Divine Office. It was a natural for me. Introduced to the monks, I felt instantly welcome, and by the Sunday morning of retreat weekend I felt that the liturgy was praying itself through me. Soon, I was singing with the schola for Sunday masses, and commuting two hours round-trip both Sunday morning and Thursday evening, rehearsal time.
Soon, however, I began to feel a conflict between this glancing contact with monastic life and a deeper commitment—full participation in the life of my parish. So I withdrew from the schola, intent on giving my best back home. I began reading An Infinity of Little Hours, which I bought at the abbey bookshop as a going-away present to myself.
The subtitle explains the content: Five Young Men and Their Trial of Faith in the Western World’s Most Austere Monastic Order. The order is the Carthusians; the monastery is Parkminster, the only Carthusian house, or charterhouse, in present-day England. The five young men are novices—three Americans, an Irishman, and a German—who entered in 1960. Early in the book you learn that only one of the five became a fully professed Carthusian following the mandatory five-year trial period. This injects suspense: Who will it be and why?
The Carthusians are the Navy Seals of monasticism, except that once fully professed, they are enlisted forever. They live in individual hermitages around a central courtyard and only emerge in silence two or three times a day for mass, prayer, and occasional meals taken in community. Their “major work,” according to the author, is Night Office, said between 11 pm and 2 am. The monks feel “the special responsibility of being awake when everyone else is asleep,” which means that they don’t get as much sleep as you or I. Once a week, they take a walk together, known as spatiamentum, promenading two by two through the countryside and changing partners on command every five minutes so that they do not become too attached. They are never to make eye contact with one another. Carthusians do not minister to the surrounding community; they do no missionary work. Carthusians pray. Their motto is Soli Deo, God alone. They wear hair shirts. They take cold-water baths (or did until recent changes). From September 14 (The Exaltation of the Cross) until Easter, except Sundays and feast days, they undertake “the great monastic fast,” one meal a day and a sparse meal at that. For lent, they also give up dairy products. And so on.
The author is a woman, Nancy Klein Maguire. Women cannot enter a Carthusian monastery under any circumstances, but Maguire had an ace up her sleeve: Her husband is a former Carthusian novice attached to Parkminster. Maguire married one of the four 1960 novices who didn’t make the cut. Dave, or Dom Philip, as he is known in the book, “had weighed the difficulty of solitude before he came to the Charterhouse. He had not weighed the difficulty of the other monks.” What drives Dom Philip out finally is the tone-deaf singing of his fellow monks in choir. In Maguire’s on-line biography, her husband is described as “an ex-Carthusian monk, who hadn’t minded hair shirts, sleepless nights, 48-hour fasts, and total solitude, but who couldn't tolerate the monks singing off pitch during the Divine Office.”
The meaning of the cell to a Carthusian is, Get to God or get out. Dom Philip got out, as did three of the other four. One found that he was a homosexual. Another was so severe with fasting and penances that he went bonkers. I forget now the other reason for leaving.
Maguire’s description of life in a charterhouse is vivid. You can feel the cold damp of the cell and the rude comfort of a coarse sheet and blanket on a lonely bed. You feel the hunger pangs from mid-September until Easter. You feel the loneliness. I was not cut out to be a Navy Seal, and now I know that I was not cut out to be a Carthusian either. Number one reason? Celibacy. Number two? Hands down, the hair shirt. When I was a boy, I had to wear wool pants to church one hour per week, and it nearly drove me buggy. I itched so much I cried. I begged my mother to get me cotton pants. A hair shirt against my skin would be lifelong torture.
What is it about monastic life that attracted me and attracted my dad? Dad was attracted by the discipline. His memoir concludes: “I believe strongly in discipline . . . I believe that if you’re going to do something you should try to do it as well as you can and work at it. I believe that satisfaction comes from the struggle of trying to do things well.”
Monastic discipline appeals to me too, but I am attracted by the solitude and the silence: the chance to bring the rest of life to stillness and “know that I am God.” But monastic life is not even something I fantasize any longer. After my brush with the Benedictines, I have gone on other monastic retreats, but now that I’ve read this Infinity, I realize for certain that my time is limited, and I am best at home.
Footnote: You may already have thought of “Into Great Silence,” the film about the original Carthusian monastery founded by St. Bruno in the Alps in 1084. Perhaps you wonder whether that wasn't equally an influence on me. I couldn’t say. I fell asleep 30 minutes into it. “Of Gods and Men” was a different experience altogether. You can read about it here and here.
[This review is an edited version of one originally posted on my old blog, “Why I Am Catholic.”]