Issue Date: July 28, 2006
Reviewed by WENDY BECKETT
If you remember 1948, you may recall Thomas Merton and his Seven Storey Mountain. It was an autobiography of sorts, but Mertons whole purpose was to share with the world the wonder of his recently discovered vocation to the Order of Trappists. The contemplative life is a deeply romantic subject, and Merton was a romantic writer of genius. All who read the book were thrilled, a thrill that I know well and that I recognize as having energized the five young men whose time in a contemplative order Nancy Maguire follows in her fascinating book An Infinity of Little Hours.
Merton became disenchanted with the Trappists and began to yearn after that still more romantic order, the Carthusians, and we find the same trajectory in two of Ms. Maguires subjects. Paddy from Ireland left his Irish Trappists and Bernie from Brooklyn left his Massachusetts Trappists and made for the only English-speaking Carthusian house, the famous Parkminster in Sussex, England. This was in 1960, and they were joined in the novitiate by two young aspirants who had left their seminaries, Dave, a golden boy from Chicago, and Hans, whose family had escaped from East Berlin and who had been trying his vocation with the White Fathers in London. The fifth of the group, Chuck, from a town outside Philadelphia, had come straight from junior college, convinced that he wanted to spend his life praying. He was less prepared intellectually than the others but equaled them in the burning certainty of his faith.
What Ms. Maguire has set herself to do -- and she does it brilliantly -- is to make real to us what one might call the Carthusian experience, but the experience of an order that, in 1960, was still almost exactly as it had been in the 11th century, when St. Bruno built his hermitages on the mountain of the Grande Chartreuse. She describes it as a slice of history frozen in time for nearly 1,000 years that was, as the church enforced modernization, about to drop into oblivion.
Ms. Maguire takes us through every element of this strange and wonderful life, where the sole aim is to live for God alone. She makes no judgment on whether the means used are the wisest, though there is perhaps an implicit judgment in the actual life stories of her five novices as they struggle to meet the challenge. This is the other theme of her book, the development both spiritually and psychologically of Paddy, Hans, Bernie, Chuck and Dave. All five are immensely impressive, beautiful, intelligent, idealistic young men, sons of whom any family would be proud. (The families too come out well, especially perhaps Daves father, completely at a loss as to what his son is about but determined to support him.)
The tension in the book comes from the information, slipped in early, that only one will persevere in the order. As we follow each young man through his early days and then into the novitiate and first (three-year) profession, the tension mounts. Most readers will have their favorite candidate for final vows. Mine was Chuck, the sweet, earnest fellow with the huge and loving family, but I shall not spoil the book for you by revealing which of the five makes it. They were all exceptional. What happened? Why did they fail?
It becomes clear that the austerities mentioned in the subtitle are basically cold, the weight of a nearly constant immersion in the divine office with its chant, and loneliness. My one surprise was to find that although there are plenty of days of bread and water, the monks generally ate well. As Hans observes, the food is much better than that of the White Fathers. But the intensity of the damp chill is such that it defeats physically one of the novices, who finally cannot even leave the monastery under his own steam: His father has to fetch him. Another is defeated by the chant. Thomas Merton writes of the stress endured by a musician who must cope with the pressures of the plainsong, but Ms. Maguire makes this pressure even more understandable than Merton himself. The three hours of the night chant, from about 11 p.m. to 2 a.m., become very real to the reader.
Finally, one more novice cracks. Another leaves because he discovers his homosexuality; the fourth, having made it to solemn profession, then has a complete breakdown. (Loneliness?) We are left with only one, who has since gone on to act as prior and novice master. He has used his office to actively pursue modernizations that will make it possible for men to achieve their desire -- total surrender to God -- without extraordinary endeavor. He is not popular in the order.
Leaving aside whether it was the difficulty of the life alone that defeated four of these men, two things become clear about vocation. First, it must be because of a need, not just because of a desire or resolution. One of the young men said, If prayer is real, why would anyone want to spend their time not praying? and so he entered. But this is dangerously close to thinking that this is the finest way of life, therefore I want it. It may not be for you: An intellectual preference, even a fervent desire, is not vocation. Do these five need the life? It turns out that though they yearn for it, they will in the end go on to manage well in the world outside Parkminster, three marrying and one living in love and fidelity with his same-sex partner. The second criterion for vocation is whether you grow in the life. On this standard, it is clear that the four who left were not maturing, either in spirit or mind. So then no vocation, and yet all treasure their time as Carthusians and all live lives of deep faith: daily Mass, hours of prayer. If their faith was tried, it emerged shining bright; it was only their vocation that was mistaken.
Art historian Sr. Wendy Beckett lives as a hermit near the Carmelite monastery in Quidenham, England.
National Catholic Reporter, July 28, 2006
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