Wednesday, April 04, 2007

An Infinity of Little Hours - Maguire

[ just an ordinary review ]

Title: An Infinity of Little Hours: Five Young Men and their Trial of Faith

Author: Nancy Klein Maguire (see author's web site; her bio)

Copyright: 2006; Published in the U.S. by Public Affairs (tm), a member of the Perseus Books Group.

Length: 264 pages, including a number of appendices

Genre: Non-fiction

Summary: A surprisingly intimate look at the formation process during the early 1960's of five young men who arrive at St. Hugh's Charterhouse in Parkminister (UK) to try to pursue their respective vocations as Carthusian monks. Because the author is married to one of the five individuals in the book, she sought and was granted access (to an unprecedented level) to both current and former members of the order.

The Carthusian Order retains a monastic tradition that has not changed in 900 years, one oriented entirely to the fostering of a unity between a single human soul and the Deity. The two most important buildings in a Carthusian enclosure are the Church itself and the library; the monk spends most of his time in his own cell alone [see this photographic tour of a monk's cell]. The intellectual stimulation of study is one of the attractions of the contemplative life. The monks' daily practices are particularly austere, reflecting those known in 1084 when the order was founded. The eremetical, contemplative life depends on strict solitude, prayer, and silence (aside from the scheduled gathering of the community to say the Divine Office). We follow Paddy, Hans, Chuck, Dave and Bernie through a transformation of their personalities and mental processes; the extreme nature of this particular monastic tradition requires such a complete conversion of life that most modern Christians would challenge the theological and the psychological foundation. Can such isolation and denial possibly be the best way to find God? The book is testimony that it may be the best path for some individuals, certainly not for all.

The writing and the flow of the text are marvellous. Maguire devotes an entire chapter (Chapter 11) to the tension created by some percentage of the community who are casual in their singing of the solemn Night Office and Midnight Mass of Christmas. For two of the monks, musical by training and/or talent, this is a significant challenge to holiness and Maguire conveys their frustration and agony. She describes a battle of sorts between those monks struggling to maintain the correct pacing and pitch of the Chant and those for whom the importance of the Office resides in articulating the words rather than the perfection of the sound. While I recognize that for some readers that the inclusion of such a chapter may sound incredibly dull, I thought Maguire pulled it off. The chapter accurately reflects the magnification of small irritations that strict enclosure would naturally tend to fuel.

Also Relevant: I confess to a fascination with the monastic life. On some level, it appeals to me, although whether that is due to a true desire for God or simply for personal calm in a chaotic society may be up for discussion. Having said that, I am quite sure that the Carthusian Order would never have been compatible with my mental, emotional or spiritual constructs. Such an introspective exploration of human spirituality as described in Infinity of Little Hours is both intellectually and physically challenging for even the healthiest soul.

A brief extract from the narrative at the point of one novice contemplating the final solemn profession of vows: ...he knew how difficult it was to get up in the middle of every night, he knew how hard it was to fast on dry bread and water on the coldest winter days. Above all, he knew the hardness of a life that never changed, that would never change, when every day looked like every other day. (pg. 214)

Another quote: The noonday demon tormented Dom Philip with the unchanging routine to which he was committed--today, tomorrow, tomorrow and tomorrow: to bed at 7:00 pm, up at 11:00 pm to pray, then to church for night office, back to pray, to bed again around 2:30 am, up again at 6:00 am for Prime, then to church for the conventual and private Masses, then back to the cell for Sext and reading, dinner at 11:00 am, manual labor and reading, back to church at 2:45 pm for Vespers, back to the cell for Compline and then to bed at 7:00 pm.

Why would someone embrace this rigorous marathon? Unless you have the psychological strength as well as the depth of faith to believe that this is an effective means for achieving closeness with a living God, you must surely question, even condemn, the process. And yet the men who Maguire follows in the book, even those who fail in the attempt to pursue it for a lifetime, value the time spent in the enclosure. This is a thoughtful exploration of how *some* few human beings pursue union with their God, neither dismissive nor bitter in tone. I loved it.

Update: Sylvia over at Classical Bookworm has also reviewed this book.