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Posted January 15, 2007

Book: An Infinity of Little Hours: Five young men and their trial of faith in the western world’s most austere monastic order
Author: Nancy Klein Maguire
Public Affairs, New York. 2006. Pp. 258

An Excerpt from the Jacket:

This is the story of a five-year journey taken by five young men inside the largest center of the most rigorous and ascetic monastic order in the Western world: the Carthusians. When the five young men arrived at the imposing gates of Parkminster in 1960, they enter a world virtually unchanged since its founding in the eleventh century.

As well as being a uniquely intimate portrait of the customs and practices of a monastic order almost entirely unknown until now, An Infinity of Little Hours is a drama of the struggle faced by the young men. After five years, each faces a choice: if he stays to make “solemn profession,” he will never leave. But if he leaves he must turn his back on a journey to find God – his life’s ambition. Like a team of mountaineers, each searching for a spiritual summit, the novice monks’ lives are followed as they climb out of their own age and into a spiritual world of their own making.

A remarkable investigative work, the book combines unique source material — including personal interviews with the monks themselves, and their handwritten notes, journals, and other correspondence — to describe first-hand the Carthusian life. In the final chapter, describing a reunion forty years later, Nancy Klein Maguire reveals which of the five made it to the top of the mountain, and how the others incorporated their monastic experiences as they rejoined the world outside.

An Excerpt from the Book:

Dom Philip had come to like the Carthusians’ stark simplicity. He liked their single-mindedness — the radicalness of the life — the rhythm and harmony. After his first months, Dom Philip was reveling in the solitude, in the freedom from other people’s expectations. As an only child, he already knew how to live without any emotional dependency on other people. Most of the novices nearly went crazy without conversation, but Dom Philip was glad not to talk to anyone, to be away from all the mess of monks and human stuff. Dom Philip was able to sense the mood of a group, even if it was never articulated. This was a mixed blessing: On occasion, he felt every discord, discontent, and conflict in the group, and he found this very painful. He knew one thing for sure, and nothing would ever shake his belief that God loved him. God love Dom Philip. He went toward God as if he were pulled by an irresistible magnet. Looking straight ahead at God, he could be totally oblivious of everyone and everything else. Except when they were singing off pitch, he was barely aware of the other monks.

But by September 1961, after Dom Philip had adjusted to the externals of the life, his mind had gotten very noisy. Dom Philip suddenly realized that the monk lives in solitude — he doesn’t just do solitude for a few days of retreat. Devout Catholics go on weekend retreats when they don’t talk to anyone for a few days, when they don’t have the release of a movie, a joke, a favorite television show, but then they return to their ordinary life. A Carthusian monk is on retreat all the time — he isn’t taking time off from his normal life. His normal life is solitude, living alone without any supports from the outside world. His emotions are under pressure, the solitude weighs on him, not momentarily or for a semester or the duration of a tour of duty but for life. The more the life works on the monk, the more total his detachment. It took almost a year for Dom Philip’s mind to reach what St. Bruno Until called quies, in Bruno’s words “leisure that is occupied and activity that is tranquil.” At all times, the monk was supposed to listen to his heart and allow God to enter through all its doors and passages — to find God in solitude and silence. Essential to Bruno’s concept of the contemplative life, active and dynamic quiet was also essential to monastic survival. Until the monk got to quies, he flailed around a lot.

Table of Contents:

1. Arrivals

2. The Order

3. Parkminster

4. Inside the Charterhouse

5. The last novice

6. The novice master

7. The long walk

8. Alone

9. Desire

10. Profession

11. Monks off pitch

12. The noonday demon

13. Outside the walls

14. Perseverance

15. Togetherness and warmth

16. Monks disappearing

17. Monks dying

18. Solemn profession

Epilogue Later