And Then There Was One

Book cover
An Infinity of Little Hoursby Nancy Klein Maguire

PublicAffairs. 258p $26


One might not expect a book about Carthusians, “the Western world’s most austere monastic order,” to be a page turner, but this sensitively written volume is just that. The author reconstructs the pre-1965 Carthusian way of life so vividly that the reader nearly shivers with the monks in their barely heated cells and struggles to overcome drowsiness during the 2 a.m. recitation of Lauds. The exclusive goal of Carthusians: to seek God alone, “Soli Deo.” In this effort they submit to every kind of privation and take great pride in the continuity of their practices from their founding in 1084; “Never reformed because never deformed” is their boast.

Nancy Klein Maguire’s interest in the Carthusians was piqued not only because of her intellectual background as a scholar, but also because of personal connections through her husband, an ex-Carthusian. Through him she was led from one monk to another, who willingly shared the depths and heights of their intense journeys into the spiritual life. For several years the author communicated extensively with some 30 Carthusians or ex-Carthusians in order to recreate their daily life in a comprehensive way. Eventually she was in touch with the Prior of Parkminster, the Charterhouse (Carthusian monastery) in West Sussex, England. He was a classmate of many of her sources, who were in the novitiate there between 1960 and 1965. The prior extended to her an invitation to visit Parkminster, where she spent 20 hours in conversation with him and another monk of the same era.

With just enough Carthusian history to whet one’s appetite and provide a foundation for understanding the context of this life, An Infinity of Little Hours concentrates on five young men who become novices in 1960 and 1961. Their aspirations and endeavors reveal the demanding, tortuous pathways that move them toward the final goal of turning their hearts entirely to God. Coming from Germany, Ireland and the United States, their remarkable recollections of being plunged into a world of solitude, “the order’s signature contribution to spiritual exploration,” the fasting, hair shirt, sleeplessness, and life in “the cell” makes one wonder how they endured the first month. Many others who tried did not. As the weather got colder and damper, the stress of “keeping to the cell” became a significant challenge for the newcomers. Some were overcome by illness and fatigue. The “demon of sameness,” the unchanging routine, tormented them “today, tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.” Yet the desire “to see the face of God” gave them the grace to persevere, at least for a time. Those who left simply disappeared in the middle of the night, having no chance to say their good-byes.

No wonder the weekly Monday walk became a much-loved excursion that broke the routine for the neophytes. The once-a-year long walk, in mid-May, a tradition eagerly anticipated by the novices, took the monks beyond the gates of the Charterhouse. This rejuvenating routine was one of the few opportunities the monks had to learn about one another, but through the years amazing camaraderie developed in the midst of the solitude. The poignant recounting of a burial service illustrates the depth of feeling that had developed between two very frail elderly monks. “At the foot of the grave, Dom Humphrey held the large candle. He and Dom Hugo-Maria had been monks together for a long time, and tears streamed down his face. In this time of grief, he remembered their weekly conversations and Dom Hugo-Maria’s courage in helping people who had suffered under the Nazis.” A wooden cross without name or date marked the grave. “To alleviate sadness, the monks always got an extra evening meal on burial days; otherwise, death scarcely interrupted the Charterhouse’s routine.”

Beneath the extraordinary structure that “allowed, even forced, minute-by-minute attention to God alone,” powerful personalities emerged, making manifest the human dimension of life at Parkminster. The novice master was often at the center of the vortex, with exceptional authority to shape the novices and the future of the Charterhouse. The feuding between past and present masters at times cost novices their vocation; then again, the novice master would lobby the solemnly professed for a vote in favor of a novice friend, one of whom “caused Parkminster more trouble than any other monk.” It was the off-key singing of the Divine Office that eventually drove a promising, musically talented novice away, but the change in novice master was a most unsettling experience for the whole monastery.

From the beginning the author reveals that only one of the five novices will persevere. We see signs of their struggles and recognize that each seems to have a “fatal” flaw that will drive him away—unrelieved dryness in prayer, the almost total Friday fasts, the penetrating cold, the need for diversion, the confinement of the cell or the chapter of faults. Yet each finds reason to persevere—breakthroughs in prayer, an experience of coming face-to face with God in “the intoxicating solitude,” the certainty of being in the right place, the warmth and security of companionship.

The many changes introduced after the Second Vatican Council delighted some and dismayed others. The one novice who persevered became prior, an office he held until 2001. He continued making changes until some German monks, the strictest in the order, came to visit. They reported “shock” at the laxity they found and saw to the prior’s removal. As Ms. McGuire notes, his successor has ended the “shift from a liberal movement in the order to the original conservatism.” The effects on the Charterhouse suggest that even the Carthusians have not escaped the tensions felt in the rest of the church today.

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