Maguire, Nancy Klein, An Infinity of Little Hours: Five Young Men and Their Trial of Faith in the Western World's Most Austere Monastic Order. New York: Public Affairs, 2006.
The subtitle of An Infinity of Little Hours reveals this book as a mystery story. We are presented with five young aspirants and wonder whom among them will successfully persevere through postulant to novice to solemn profession as a Carthusian monk.
The characters (dramatis personae, as listed in the appendix) are carefully, even meticulously, followed in their daily habits, thoughts, and feelings. The time is 1960 to 1965. The setting is St. Hugh's Charterhouse in West Sussex, England, known as Parkminster, ten acres of enclosed gardens and some seventy buildings, a series of cells attached to the cloister -- a magnificent and atmospheric world. Writes Maguire:
The sheer size, the scale, of Parkminster grabs the soul. Walking through the cloisters gives an unbearably exhilarating, breathless feeling of being in another world, on another planet, in a different reality. The Charterhouse exudes a sense of limitless space and chill. Everything, including its ceremonies, is simple, stark, and austere.
And hovering over the early sixties of our setting is the potential for reform from the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). The Carthusian order, founded in 1084, had remained virtually unchanged since the beginning, in terms of content, authority, and ethos. Thus can the author speak of "pre-1965" Carthusians.
Because the Parkminster ex-monks the author communicated with were brought together under her auspices for the first time since being novices, it is difficult to gauge the pre- or post- prism through which they observed the past and through which they construed the information they volunteered. Is it nostalgia, reminiscence, unvarnished fact? The author only admits to rearranging the chronology a little and to changing the names.
Add to this the martial-like relationship among the former monks observed by the author ("Carthusians are like the U.S. Marines -- once a Carthusian, always a Carthusian ...") plus the fact that the author herself is married to an ex-Carthusian, and our perspective on the hermit-monks takes on a more subjective and ambiguous sense. We are dealing with a portrait of a culture frozen in the fifties, on the cusp of a transition, looking at a handful of representatives of that culture who go from aspiring hermit-monks throughout the book to a handful of wistful old men unsure of what it all meant.
The mysteries and paradoxes deepen. Not much is widely known of the history and spirituality of the Carthusian Order, especially at the time these five young men decided to enter it. As tantalizingly mysterious as pre-1958 Buddhist Tibet glimpsed occasionally by outsiders like Alexandra Daivid-Neel, the Carthusians of Parkminster are glimpsed here by Nancy Klein Maguire.
Everything seems paradoxical. The "solemns" or professed monks live apart from the postulants and from the brothers who do their labor. But while professed to emphasize solitude, the monks do spend a lot of time with their fellows, communicating constantly if not verbally. Their tradition of prayer and chant is really not so very mysterious after all, much of it Benedictine, consisting of Gregorian chant, Office (recitation of Matins, Lauds, Prime, etc.) and the like. There seems a lack of consciousness of the special spirituality represented by the Carthusian's hybrid eremitism. For example, the prior confesses to not liking John Cassian. And, like a beneficed medieval monastery that Bruno could not have imagined, Parkminster's economic model is feudal, and the grand artificial setting does not seem conducive to solitude.
"Never reformed because never deformed," ran the order's proud motto. This pride in longevity and tradition is like that of a successful climber to a cool mountaintop; those who would ascend the mountain must give themselves up entirely, doggedly, in a bargain that calls for a clear head and a strong constitution.
The true mystery in this book is what happened to those who went so far and did not make it. What motivated them in the first place and why did they fall, slowly over the course of years, to the point of quitting?
Because the author's sources are (initially) the ex-monk's correspondence, little background on the intended spirituality of the Carthusian order is explored, and little of its impact on its subjects. Bruno, founder of the order in the twelfth century, was inspired by the classic example of the desert hermits of early Christianity and, perhaps, Romuald of Ravenna, the eleventh-century founder of the Camaldolese Order who personally established hermitages in Spain and Italy (though Maguire does not mention him). Under these models, the hermits lived separately but came together weekly for liturgy and a common meal, perhaps a brief period of fellowship during which they might check on one another's physical and emotional state of being. But the life of solitude with God reigned in their hearts.
The coenobitic model of the Benedictines and their successors had long deviated from eremitism, though it wisely considered being a hermit the pinnacle of spirituality and not the beginning. Bruno tried to integrate being a monk and being a hermit (again, Romuald's example is a precedent). Bruno placed his followers in detached huts within communal grounds, attempting to safeguard the classic solitude of the desert with the minimal survival benefits of a community. What Bruno bequeathed was a stark and rigorous psychological desert fit only for the strongest.
The author tells us that
While acclimating to eleventh-century life, the novices also had to adapt to the most rigorous monastic regime in the Western world; by modern standards, the early monk founders appear to have designed the regime for the purpose of discomforting and disrupting. From the founders' perspective, however, they created customs designed to encourage a life of prayer and meditation.
The regimen was not contrived by its founder to inconvenience. The provision of room and board, tranquility and security would have been a godsend to the intelligent young male of the eleventh century. The cubiculum of the 1960s monk would have been a virtual luxury to millions around the world, certainly today let alone in the Middle Ages. Not bathing for a fortnight, no running water, even two meals a day, are not hardships to many in the world less ascetically inclined. One may daresay that to the solitary they ought not to be even now. But, "by modern standards" this was all new and challenging to the five young men, and the changes of the Vatican Council discussed at the end of the book (hot water any time, etc.) missed the point.
Several of the postulants cited Thomas Merton's Seven Storey Mountain as a strong influence in their decisions to become solitary monks rather than parish priests (all the Parkminster monks were expected to be ordained at their solemn profession). Ironically, Merton himself wanted to leave the too busy Trappists for the more austere and solitary Carthusians, but the public did not learn of this in the fifties.
The five postulants brought their collective culture, socialization, values, and personalities -- in short, their baggage -- into the monastery with them. And perhaps the baggage was too much to successfully leave behind, as in the story of one of the five, Bernie. Bernie, Maguire tells us,
quit college and joined the Trappists in Spenser, Massachusetts. He thought the Trappists had a marvelously balanced life; he had almost everything he wanted. Yet he could not suppress a desire for greater solitude, and after nearly two years, he decided to join the Carthusians.
However, on the voyage to England, Bernie enjoyed a Hollywood movie on shipboard and "fell in love with a glorious young woman" who was a fellow passenger. When he left Parkminster years later, he looked up the woman -- too late, for by then she was married and with children. Who can be convinced that Bernie had a mature "desire for greater solitude," as the author puts it?
The other postulants -- all of them survived the two-year vote by the established monks, entitling them to a simple profession of three more years -- are Paddy, Hans, David, and Chuck. More clues to the postulants' characters are to be discerned along the way: the banal content of letters from home, their tenuous intellectual depth, their undistinguished world view, their physical strength, their degrees of austerities, what makes them peevish, their self-reproaches and haunting memories, their struggles to define God and the spiritual life. All of these factors amounted to baggage that Carthusian spirituality could not overcome.
Was something intrinsically missing in the postulants or in the Carthusian regime? Or does it just take a different psychology, one absent the baggage of superficial society, popular culture, and false expectations? Is psychology more important than spirituality? Is spirituality always beyond the reach of those with psychological impediments? Or were the postulants normal young men who simply lacked an understanding of themselves and their true capabilities? Did their misconceptions about solitude, community, or religious belief fall short? Was the institutional setting that attracted them with its vision of a corporate solitude, its compelling version of spiritual logic, something that failed them or that they failed to understand?
These are the real mysteries, but the author does not really explore them, perhaps not to offend the men she collaborated with in creating the book. One cannot demand that the book to be other than it is, of course. Perhaps these essential questions can be explored in a sequel. In any case, the reader will suspect that the young men who did not make it did not explore the questions, either.
In an ironic way, then, the book is a testimony not only to the five men but to the fate of the Carthusians and the Church at large since the reform of the 1960's. Parkminster's monks numbered one hundred at the beginning of the twentieth century, but the number had dwindled to just sixteen during the period covered by the book. There are doubtless fewer today.
The humane concern over those of the five who left the monastery is touching but sad.
The price of failure ... was high. They found isolation in the world much worse than in their cells. Secular humans felt remote to them, and they were remote to others. They had staked their lives on their dreams of being a Carthusian monk. They had no other dreams, no other ambitions. ...
They had been living in monastic time for five years, but secular time had not stood still for them. While they were in the Charterhouse, the world had changed, mores had changed, even the Catholic Church had changed. Like Rip Van Winkle, they awoke to a foreign world. ... They could talk to no one. They were alone, suffering the very harsh price for leaving the Charterhouse.
Yet for those postulants who remained, something obviously worked. Their voices will remain silent and their secret to "success" probably unavailable. So the mystery lingers, on both sides of the Charterhouse walls.
An Infinity of Little Hours is a compelling book to read. Though the format is sometimes weak and redundant, the story is crafted to keep the reader engaged, intrigued, and wondering, long after the book is finished.