Vivificat! - News, Opinions, Commentary, from a Personal Catholic Perspective ^ | 29 January 2008 | Teófilo
Posted on 2008-01-29, 6:28:29 PM by Teófilo
Reality, not hagiography. This is the best way to describe An Infinity of Little Hours: Five Young Men and Their Trial of Faith in the Western World's Most Austere Monastic Order, by Nancy Klein Maguire. I think it is appropriate to begin this review by stating from the start what this book is not. This is not the story of five "conventional" holy men although each one was "holy" in a particular and peculiar way. The author did not set out to inspire people to pray, to excite the faith of believers nor to draw a recruiting poster for the Carthusians – although it may indeed increase the faith of some and move them to pray more or to seek admission to this strict order—and that is always good. Nor is this book about the "technique" of contemplative prayer a la Chartreuse, nor a narrative of mystical, ecstatic events.
An Infinity of Little Hours could be construed as an attempt at dispassionate, anthropological observation but without the jargon that accompanies this science. Nancy Klein Maguire has an obvious interest to find out what makes this tribe of men "tick" and how they coped with their unique circumstances during their travails at the Catholic Church's "most austere monastic order." She relied heavily on personal interviews which she coupled with her extensive research material and exceptional access to the Carthusian Charterhouse in Parksminster, England and her own observations, memories, and imagination to reconstruct for her readers the settings in which the eremitic lives of these five men took place in the early 1960's. As a child born in the mid-1960's who did not witness first hand most of the pivotal events of that decade, I find her reconstruction vivid and credible. She certainly held my attention.
The five men whose monastic adventure the author narrates came from different backgrounds in Europe, Britain, Ireland, and the United States. Each one brought with them a passion, an idea, a budding vocation, and their own temperament to the task. Of the five, only one remains a Carthusian today but all of them, each in his own way and like former U.S. Marines, remain "Carthusians" to this day, forever marked by their experience.
I found fascinating Klein-Maguire's description of the inner politics of the Charterhouse. She answered several pedestrian questions I had regarding the relationships forged and the conflicts that arose between men in this rarefied environment. If one is "silent" most of the time, what does one think? What does one do? How does that affect our perceptions of others? The author's findings were very illuminating: worldly concerns, the bread-and-butter issues of lay people, even those with a contemplative bent in the world, disappeared, subsumed in an environment focused on the pursuit of God. "Little things" such as singing in tune in choir, a careless gesture, a sustained, casual gaze on something or someone, a gruff answer, all acquired rich overtones often leading to misinterpretation, ill-will, factionalism and even spiritual, mental, and emotional disaster. Many vocations shipwrecked on these very human stumbling blocks.
Her description of environmental stresses also caught my attention. The Charterhouse was a cold, damp place most of the year; the clothing and apparel often more a hindrance than an aid to prayer – although I freely concede that my perception is due more to my very American penchant for "improving efficiency" of all things material and spiritual and not from the just appreciation of ascetical practices in the Carthusian context. I mean, if a cell is so cold that it distracts one from prayer, why not get a more efficient wood stove and do away with the 14th century model? If manually cleaning a toilet distracts one from prayer and work, why oppose the installation of flushing toilets? Again, the author proves that when worldly concerns are removed from one's psyche, the mundane is amplified beyond size and reason in one's mind. The lesson I learned was that only those who are able to set aside even the little mundane things can succeed in their Carthusian vocation. Those who cannot will leave sooner or later; no matter how advanced they may be in the ranks of the order. Their subconscious distaste for their lives will burst forth unexpectedly, overtake them, and force them to leave. Finding that out was sobering to me, as I discover the repercussions of that insight in my own non-eremitical quest to seek the face of God...