Carthusians Kick Monastic Butt10/15/2007
An Infinity of Little Hours by Nancy Klein Maguire. PublicAffairs, March 12, 2007, $26.
The Carthusians, known as the toughest monks in the world, have lived under the same rules for 923 years. Founded in 1084 by seven men who built hermit huts in the French Alps, they've been devoted ever since then to one pursuit—prayer. They wear the same garments they wore in the 11th century. They live a life of maximum solitude and isolation, as they did in the 11th century. When they write anything, they do so anonymously. They shun the outside world. They shun publicity of any kind. They're so unsentimental that a novice seeking to join is expected to live in his cell for five years before he is allowed to make a formal profession, and while he's there the lifers basically do everything they can to make him leave.
The dropout rate is about 95 percent. If the novice were to be so foolish as to complain—about the cold, the two-day weekly fast, the 12:30 a.m. service that by design interrupts every night's sleep, the silence, the loneliness, the inability to get much help when he's sick—he would probably be answered with one of the monks' favorite sayings: "Either get God or get out." The "solemns," as the senior monks are called, are not entirely heartless. When a novice starts to actually go insane, or shows acute medical symptoms, a psychiatrist or an ambulance will be called. And as soon as the novice recuperates, he'll probably be asked to leave, often with the parting counsel that he should "get married." A lot of ex-Carthusians are startled to find out that, once they're ushered out, they're often asked back to visit on the rare days when guests are welcome, and they're inevitably greeted with a warmth and affection that didn't exist when they were training for the brotherhood. The Carthusians are not devoid of human feeling, they're just about a business that has nothing to do with stroking human egos.
Given that the Carthusians are regarded by outsiders as the shock troops of contemplatives, they tend to attract very vigorous men, the kind who might have joined the Marines or played professional sports if they hadn't been monks. That's why much of the Carthusian discipline is devoted to slowing these men down. Even the chanting, which is based on the original Gregorian chants, is supposed to be done at as slow a pace as possible. And because the senior monks know that young men show up because they're trying to win the Super Bowl of contemplation, they are especially hard on the sin of pride. Anyone who glories in being a Carthusian is drummed out pretty quickly. The goal is to bring every single monk into the present moment—"hic et nunc," they say (everything is in Latin), here and now, "nunc et nunc et nunc." There is the now, and there is death. Their cloister is dominated by a cemetery of unmarked graves, the anonymous monks who have gone before. Their burial rites avoid recall of the monk's life, since it's his death that they regard as God's ultimate purpose. (In one case described in this book, the prayers of the monks for one of their almost comatose elderly members kept prolonging his life, so in church one day a monk suggested that they stop praying for his life and pray instead for his perfect death. They did. He died shortly thereafter.) A Carthusian is never in doubt about what to do, because their rules and regulations have been unchanged since medieval times. The only way they boast is to say "Cartusia nunquam reformata quia nunquam deformata"—the order has never been reformed, because it was never deformed. (When Popes have attempted to reform the order, they've failed. In the 14th century, Pope Urban V decided to ease the Carthusian rules—to, in effect, "modernize" them so the life wouldn't be so onerous—and the Carthusians immediately sent an ambassador to beg the pope to reconsider, as relaxation of the rules would destroy the order. He relented, and agreed to allow them to continue "their primitive observances.")
As you might imagine, it would be virtually impossible to get inside a Carthusian monastery in order to write a book about it, and the Carthusians themselves would never write about the order for the general public, even though these book-loving monks are able to avail themselves of about 30,000 volumes in each library of a charterhouse (the Carthusian term for monastery). But somehow Nancy Klein Maguire did the impossible. She had some natural advantages. For one thing, she's married to an ex-Carthusian (one of the dropouts who apparently followed the usual parting advice). For another, she's an historian familiar with old manuscripts from her work as scholar in residence at Washington's Folger Library. She's also female, and Carthusians, she admits, tend to idealize women. But her main advantage, stoked by her husband's occasional reminiscences, was an unremitting zeal to tell the whole Carthusian story. It took her seven years, but she eventually found five Carthusians willing to correspond with her. One of them was a former classmate of her husband who had become Prior at Parkminster Charterhouse in England, and amazingly, he let her inside the monastery for about 20 hours—ostensibly to use the library, but she was also able to sneak peeks at the rest of the place.
The result is a riveting book about a monastic order that at first seems almost outlandishly cultish, but eventually comes to resemble nothing so much as a flawed, struggling, but ultimately faithful family of believers. (You'd be amazed at how many political problems can arise among men who technically never speak directly to one another.) She sets most of the story in the years 1960 to 1965, the last years before the Vatican II reforms changed (rather slightly) the Carthusian discipline. There are 34 cells at Parkminster (17 for solemns and 17 for novices—of course, the 17 novice cells tend to be used and reused pretty frequently), and this period was the last time the monastery was full. She follows five men in their early twenties—three Americans, one German, and one Irishman—who showed up during those years and sought to become Carthusians. And despite the fact that they did virtually the same thing, at the same time, every day of their lives there, the narrative is full of high drama. Only one of the five remains there to this day, but the rest have never been able to forget the experience. Prayer, they discovered, can be dangerous.
By John Bloom