A Catholic Monthly Magazine


I have just finished reading a wonderful book, as absorbing as a novel- in fact more absorbing than many novels- An Infinity of Little Hours by Nancy Klein Maguire, the story of five young men who tried their vocation with the Carthusians in the early 1960s. I got hold of it with difficulty. I ordered it from Amazon and for the only time ever was sent something different. I then borrowed it from a friend who lives at a distance and is willing not only to lend me books, but also to post them.

Before reading it, I did not know much about the Carthusians. I knew that they were founded by Saint Bruno in the late eleventh century at Chartreuse, high in the French Alps, and that “Carthusian” comes from the Latin form of this place name. I knew of their boast, “Nunquam reformata quia nunquam deformata” - that is, they have never been reformed because they never needed it. I knew that they lived as hermits and met for a communal walk once a week and that eighteen Carthusians were among the martyrs of Henry’s VIII’s Reformation. I did not know there were any Carthusian nuns; they are few in number, and do not live in individual buildings. One of them, Rosalind, who died in 1329, has been canonised.

The young men entered Parkminister, in Surrey. At the time it had sixteen fully professed monks, drawn from all over the world- the sacristan was from Kerala. All choir monks were priests, and the house was sustained by the labours of lay brothers, a distinction which began when many entrants were illiterate, and has now very largely, in religious life as a whole, come to an end. (For Benedict, it was the exception for a monk to be a priest.)

Each monk lived alone in a ‘cell,’ a four roomed, two storeyed building (the brothers lived above their workshops.) They sang the Divine Office in choir and also recited the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary alone. For much of the year they had one substantial meal a day (at 11.30 a.m.) and never eat meat or poultry. In Lent and Advent they renounced dairy foods as well and on Fridays, fasted on bread and water. Many Carthusians have lived into their nineties, so this regime does not seem to have done them any harm.


Parkminster cells - rear view

Parkminster cells - rear view

They wore a hair shirt all the time, night and day. Parkminster was so cold that some welcomed the shirt as a source of warmth! Each had a workshop, with a lathe, where, for instance, they made wooden egg cups for sale Each had a recreational garden (the brothers grew the vegetables). They could converse during their weekly communal walk (though to most of us, hiking in full length medieval garments of wool would not be much fun.)

It was, to put it mildly, a very difficult life. One postulant left after one night; another rushed out at midnight clamouring for a taxi. But some who wanted to stay were rejected. The community would vote both at first and final profession; one man was rejected after five years as a monk, although he had the support both of the prior and the novice master. He went on to a career of great distinction.
The five young men who entered in 1960 were part of a huge international influx into contemplative orders, which was inspired, to some extent, by the publication of Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain in 1948. One of them had been through three years of formation with the White Fathers. He felt called to be a missionary, and joined the Carthusians following the example of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux.
All five lasted to the end of temporary profession- about five years. One of the three who left then did so in a state of virtual collapse. One who made it to final profession had a collapse later, and was sent, at the age of thirty, to an old peoples’ home. Fortunately, he recovered.

The one who survived, ultimately became prior in 1990. He abolished the distinctions between choir monks and lay brothers; now, brothers could live in cells and sing in the choir, if they wanted to. After final profession, a Carthusian was one forever, in no risk of expulsion for catastrophic illness. In 2001, many of his changes were reversed, in the name of consistency with the past.
Like all monastics, the Carthusians live by a most profound leap of faith, what T.S. Eliot called
The awful daring of a moment’s surrender
Which an age of prudence can never retract.

But even for monastics, this enduring oblation is difficult. The Australian Cistercian, Michael Casey, writes of “wistful thoughts” of family, career, holidays, and hobbies, which can easily erode contentment.
The Carthusian vocation is as absolute as martyrdom. As one of the five said to himself, as he entered, “If God exists, being a Carthusian makes sense. If God does not exist, then I am a fool, a victim of a self-destroying illusion.” This is much what Saint Paul said, “And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.” (I Cor 5:14)

I was absorbed in this book partly because I was curious about an unfamiliar form of monastic life but I also related to it in two particular ways. In 1960, I tried my own vocation with an enclosed order. I did not last long. At the time, I was heartbroken, but in time, as the once crowded novitiate emptied, and as at least some of those who survived went through profound crises of adjustment and identity, I came to feel that I had had a lucky escape.

Like Maguire, I am a married woman who has interviewed monks and written about them. In 1980, I published a biography of Michael Tansi, a Nigerian who after arduous years as a devoted and beloved parish priest, ended his days, in 1964, in a Cistercian monastery in Leicestershire. He was later beatified, - I had nothing to do with his Cause.

Tansi was a first generation Christian who saw the Gospel as a guide to follow, literally. Cardinal Francis Arinze was once a village school boy in one of his parishes, and became a priest, following his example.
I interviewed many of Tansi’s former parishioners, who still remembered his teachings. He would tell them, “If you are going to be a Christian at all, you might as well live entirely for God.” I called the book, Entirely for God.

Carthusian cell

Carthusian cell

Whether researching the life of Father Tansi, or reading about Carthusians, I was, above all, confounded by the way in which they lived out the leap of faith, and the way in which I do, or fail to do. I wrote in the late 1970s, “Christians are called above all to live the devout life, and not write about it. This is a book about a way of life I cannot begin to imitate.” I went on to quote an Igbo proverb, which refers to religious sacrifices,

“The poor man’s fowl is his cow”, - that is, a poor man can only afford a fowl for sacrifice
I went on to say that my own book was the poor man’s cow.
Thirty years later, the question still remains- am I, in any real way, living out the leap of faith, in my comfortable retirement by the sea? How come, when eternity is getting closer, I spend so much time reading detective stories?

Ernest Dowson was a Catholic poet who died of alcoholism at the age of 32, in 1900. The phrase ‘days of wine and roses’, comes from one of his poems and this kind of thing is the theme of his best known, and best, work. But he also wrote a tribute to the Carthusians, contrasting, as I do, their lifestyle with the shortcomings of his own.

I suppose that for Dowson, as for me, writing was the poor man’s cow.

Books referred to:-
Nancy Klein Maguire,
An Infinity of Little Hours.
Elizabeth Isichei,
Entirely for God, A life of Michael Iwene Tansi
Michael Casey,
Strangers to the City, pp194-5.

Tagged as: , ,

Comments are closed.