On the last page of his memoir, my father wrote, “There have been times in my life when I wondered whether I couldn’t make a good monk.” An athlete, a war veteran, a businessman, a sociable person, Dad didn’t figure for a contemplative. But I understand. I thought I could have been a monk too, at least until I read An Infinity of Little Hours.
I felt the tug of monasticism well before my conversion in 2008, though my marriage in 1984 and the two children who followed made monastic life something I could only fantasize about and never did. But after being received into the Church two Easters ago, one of my first adventures as a newly fledged Catholic was to sign up for a retreat at a Benedictine abbey south of Boston. I had been praying the Liturgy of the Hours pretty faithfully for several months, and the retreat offered an entire weekend’s study of the Divine Office. It was a natural for me. Introduced to the monks of Glastonbury Abbey in Hingham, Massachusetts, I felt instantly welcome, and by the Sunday morning of retreat weekend I literally felt that the liturgy was praying through me. It was a blessed experience. Soon, I was singing with the schola for Sunday masses, and commuting two hours round-trip both Sunday morning and Thursday evening, when rehearsal was held. One Thursday evening before rehearsal, the monks invited me to dine with them, a kind gesture of hospitality that they must share with many others. But it made me feel special and loved.
Within about three months, however, I began to experience a conflict between this fascinating brush with monastic life and a deeper commitment: full participation in the life of my local parish in Beverly, St. Mary Star of the Sea. I have a habit of overcommitting myself, and boy, was I ever! I had begun attending meetings of Communion and Liberation at the St. Mary’s rectory on Friday evenings. When Eucharistic Adoration was instituted that summer of 2008, I signed up for one hour a day, five days a week. Then I volunteered to start a parish newsletter—either before or after I agreed to be a lector. I joked to Father Barnes that I was like his dog, a puppy named Finbar, who was dashing around the rectory yard eating everything. Flushed with the excitement of being a Catholic, I was madly snapping up everything in sight.
Sobered by my own drunkenness, I withdrew from my commitments to the abbey, intent on giving my best to St. Mary’s in Beverly. This is the parish Katie grew up in. Moreover, it is literally across the street from our publishing office. In significant ways, St. Mary’s is the spiritual heart of Beverly. And my confidence in Father Barnes as pastor and guide was growing by the week. It made sense to put my eggs in this one basket, and I have never regretted the decision, although I still miss the abbey.
At about this time, I began reading An Infinity of Little Hours, which I bought at the Glastonbury Abbey bookshop on one of my last Sundays there. The subtitle explains the content: Five Young Men and Their Trial of Faith in the Western World’s Most Austere Monastic Order. The order is the Carthusians; the monastery in question is Parkminster, the only Carthusian house, or charterhouse, in present-day England (check out the high-tech Web site); and the five young men are novices—three Americans, an Irishman, and a German—who entered in 1960. Early in the book the author writes that of the five only one became a fully professed Carthusian following the mandatory five-year trial period. This injects an element of suspense into the reading: Who will it be and why? Or conversely who will fail to make the grade and why?
The Carthusians are the Navy Seals of monasticism, except that once fully professed, they are enlisted forever. They effectively live in individual hermitages around a central courtyard and only emerge in silence two or three times a day for mass, prayer, and occasional meals taken in community. Their “major work,” according to the author, is Night Office, said between 11 pm and 2 am. The Monks feel “the special responsibility of being awake when everyone else is asleep.” Which means, of course, that they don’t get as much sleep as you or I. Once a week, they take a walk together, known as spatiamentum, promenading two by two through the countryside and changing partners on command every five minutes so that they do not become too attached. They are never to make eye contact with one another. Carthusians do not minister to the surrounding community; they do no missionary work; Carthusians pray. Their motto is Soli Deo, God alone. They wear hair shirts. They take cold-water baths (or did until recent changes). From September 14 (The Exaltation of the Cross) until Easter, except Sundays and feast days, they undertake “the great monastic fast,” one meal a day and a pretty sparse meal at that. For lent, they also give up dairy products. And on and on.
The author is a woman, Nancy Klein Maguire. Given that women cannot enter a Carthusian monastery under any circumstances, you’d think Maguire must have had three strikes against her before even starting to write. But she had an ace up her sleeve: her husband is a former Carthusian novice attached to Parkminster. In fact, if you put two and two together, it seems that she is married to one of the four 1960 novices who didn’t make the cut. Dave, or Dom Philip, as he is known in the book, “had weighed the difficulty of solitude before he came to the Charterhouse. He had not weighed the difficulty of the other monks.” What drives Dom Philip out finally is the horrible singing of his fellow monks in choir. In Maguire’s on-line biography, her husband is described as “an ex-Carthusian monk, who hadn’t minded hair shirts, sleepless nights, 48-hour fasts, and total solitude, but who couldn’t tolerate the monks singing off pitch during the Divine Office.”
The meaning of the cell to a Carthusian is, Get to God or get out. Dom Philip did just that, as did three of the other four. One found that he was a homosexual and decided to live an openly gay life outside the cloister. Another was so severe with fasting and penances that he all but went crazy as a monk. I forget now the other reason for leaving.
Maguire’s description of life in a charterhouse is so vivid, you can feel the cold damp of the cell and the rude comfort of a coarse sheet and blanket on a lonely bed. You can feel the hunger pangs from mid-September until Easter. You can feel the terrible loneliness. I was not cut out to be a Navy Seal, and now I know that I was not cut out to be a Carthusian, or perhaps any kind of monk. Number one reason? Other than celibacy, it has to be the hair shirt. When I was a boy, I had to wear wool pants to church one hour per week, and it nearly drove me buggy. I itched so much I cried. I begged my mother to get me cotton pants. A hair shirt, for this pampered guy, would be a lifelong torture.
So what is it about monastic life that attracted me and attracts me still? What is it that attracted Dad? It is the silence, the chance to bring the rest of life to stillness and “know that I am God.” Next month I am going on a four-day retreat with two friends at St. Joseph’s Abbey, a Cistercian monastery in Spencer, Massachusetts—another brush with monastic living. I’m sure I’ll come home with new impressions. Maybe I’ll even report on them. But one thing I know for certain: I’m coming home.
Footnote: Some may already have thought of Into Great Silence, the film about the original Carthusian monastery founded by St. Bruno in the Alps in 1084. Perhaps you wonder whether that wasn’t equally an influence on me. I couldn’t say. I fell asleep 30 minutes into it. It was just too—silent.