Monday, March 31, 2008

BOOK REVIEW - Nancy Klein Maguire - An Infinity of Little Hours

Nearly fifty years ago, five young idealistic men each walked alone down the same path, towards a gatehouse, and rang the door bell. A rectangular peep hole opened and two curious eyes looked quizzically out. Each man introduced themselves, the bolt slid back, they were expected. As they entered this doorway they were willingly saying good bye to the material world, and devoting themselves to know God, with an ever increasing intimacy. They were entering Parkminster Charter house, a Carthusian monastery in Surrey.

The rule governing a Carthusian monastic life has remained substantially unchanged since St Bruno formed the order 900 years ago. What we read about in 'An infinity of little hours' is how these five 20th Century men fare in this 11th Century monastic lifestyle. They leave the materialistic world, to enter this brutally simple cloistered realm. Apart from half the daily services (mostly in the middle of the night) and a weekly walk outside the grounds, there is little that is communal about this experience. Each lives and practices alone, in silence, within their 'cell'. Here they study theology, pray, meditate on God, garden or carve things in their workshop. The 'cell' is sparsely furnished, with little by way of heating, which is considered a luxury. Twice a day someone knocks on a hatch in the wall, and you open it to find a meal. Human contact is minimal, just enough to be a blessed release, and to stop you going crazy.

The narrative follows each of these five men, through their personal trials and tribulations from 1960 & 1965. In this period they move from being novices, to being accepted into the order. After five years their final profession approaches, where they may take final vows. Only at this point, when they are about to devote the rest of their lives to the Carthusian life, is their spiritual aspiration realistically tested. Not everyone who enters Parkminster finds the lifestyle suits them. Sometimes the Order has to refuse entrance to the order, if it considers someone to be temperamentally unsuited. You cannot survive here on idealism alone, this would only make you ill. If you cannot fully surrender to the solitude, whilst remaining at peace with oneself, you may be encouraged to leave. Some are even told to get married, to go and live an ordinary life. Of the five men, whose story is told here, only one made it to his final profession, and is still a Carthusian. Of the others, one realised he was unsuited, one was asked to leave, one realised he was a homosexual ( denounced in the rule), another became severely ill as a result of his earnest, but misguided devotion to privations. This lifestyle is not easy by any measure, conventional or unconventional.

'An infinity of little hours', is a richly detailed and fascinating book. It is very well compiled, from numerous interviews with monks, done over several years. It re-tells the small, intimate facts about the daily routines of monastic life. Nancy Klein Maguire writes to inform you, she' doesn't come across as remotely polemical or biased in her viewpoint. She simply presents, as best she can, an actual persons experience, cleanly and without comment. Leaving you to interpret and make up your own mind. It revealed much to me, about what happens when ardent religious aspirations meet the frailties of human nature. The psycho/physical responses which can manifest when one renounces something naively or prematurely. What she describes here are very human responses, and these are often deeply moving. Each of the four men who left, decades later ,do not regret their time at Parkminster. They see it as the most important event in their lives, one that changed them irrevocably. So much so, that even though they now have quite secular lives, they still feel as if some part of them remains removed and distant from it. Their hearts have been so permanently reorientated by their life as Carthusians, they have been unable to deeply re-engage with the ordinary world thereafter. Though this was obviously written about a Catholic religious movement, I think it does have something more universal to say concerning the nature and manner of a spiritual quest, how the challenges of the simple life, have to be tempered with sensitivity and growing self- awareness.

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