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Monday, February 25, 2008

RevGalBookPals: Into Great Silence and An Infinity of Little Hours

The NY Times Home & Garden section is perhaps the last place I might expect to find a paean to hermitages in your backyard, but as I browsed the paper last Friday, there it was. A professor, facing the loss of his office with retirement, creates a retreat in his backyard, complete with Internet and cable TV access. As I was at that very moment trapped at home with 5 pre-teens alternately playing video-games inside and having huge snow ball fights outside, the very idea of a place removed from the chaos, to which only I had the key, had an incredible allure. Have you ever fantasized about having a hermitage?

This month the RGBP Book Pals peer into the lives of men who have chosen to wrap themselves in isolation, to live in place to which only they, or perhaps God, has the key. The Carthusian order was founded in the 11th century by Bruno and six companions. It is without a doubt the most austere and reclusive of the cloistered orders. Its monks and nuns (yes, there are Carthusian nuns) keep a silence deeper than that of the Benedictines or the Trappists (the order to which Thomas Merton belonged). Each monk has his own cell, in reality a small house with an enclosed garden – which no one may enter without his permission. Have you ever dreamed of a hermitage? What would it look like? Why would you go? What would you hope to find there? How long might you stay?

Nancy Maguire's An Infinity Of Little Hours follows the paths of five young men in their twenties as they enter the Carthusian Charterhouse St. Hugh’s at Parkminster. Into Great Silence is a film by Phillip Groning that chronicles a single liturgical year at the Carthusian motherhouse Grande Chartreuse. The two pieces complement each other in many ways. An Infinity Of Little Hours is linear, walking with the novices from entrance to solemn profession, while Into Great Silence ends where it began , at the start of another liturgical year. An Infinity Of Little Hours brings alive the personalities of the novices and the other monks who live in the Charterhouse, graces and warts alike; we never learn the names or stories of the monks we see in Into Great Silence. The self-effacing approach of Into Great Silence is Carthusian to the core: you will find no names on the crosses in a Carthusian cemetery, or as Pope Benedict XIV commented dryly: Non sanctos patefacere sed multo facere (they prefer to make saints, not make them known). If you both read the book and saw the movie, did you find the experiences very different? Did reading the book help you “read” the movie? What order would you recommend to someone else? Why?

We learn in An Infinity of Little Hours that each cell at Parkminster has a Scriptural text on the door, which the monks see each time they enter. Perhaps evoking these reminders, the film is punctuated with occasional verses from Scripture, particularly this verse from Jeremiah: You have seduced me, O Lord; and I let myself be seduced (Jer 20:7). What do you think seduced these young men to try the life? What would seduce you into that life? What quote would you wish to have over your cell door?

Of the five young men who enter, only two persist to make their solemn profession (Dom Leo – Paddy O’Connell from Dublin and Dom Malachi – Bernie Shea from New York). Dom Leo eventually becomes prior, Dom Malachi is ultimately not strong enough to endure the life and leaves three years after his profession. In An Infinity of Little Hours Nancy Maguire notes that the monks who remain find a balance, ultimately making certain compromises with the austerity of the life. Were you surprised by who left and who remained? What compromises do you think Dom Leo made that Dom Phillip could not?

The motto on the Carthusian coat of arms is Stat Crux dum Volvitur Orbis which translates as The cross stands firm while the world passes by, or more poetically, on the Parkminster website: Stands the cross, still point of the turning world. But apparently battles can happen even at the still point. Dom Phillip’s unspoken, yet heated, battle over the pitch of the Christmas chant reminded me that we are all human, even in the monastery where quies (peace) should reign. Were you surprised by the undercurrents at Parkminster? Do you think there are similar currents at Grand Chartreuse? What can you read in the faces of the monks that Groning shows us in Into Great Silence occasionally?

There are a few photos in the center of An Infinity of Little Hours , and when I saw the photo of the library, I had instant envy. As Maguire notes in An Infinity of Little Hours, “Carthusians cherish books.” Guido, a twelfth century Carthusian monk was more effusive, “books forsooth, we wish to be kept very carefully as the everlasting food of our souls.” He goes on to say that the writing of books should be equally valued as it is the Carthusian way of preaching – “with our hands” rather than with the spoken word. Many of the RGBP preach with both their hands (in their blogs) and with the spoken word in the pulpit, and many of us do so as the Carthusians generally do – anonymously. If you keep a blog, how does it connect to your preaching? Do you see your writing as two sides of the same coin? If you don’t have a pulpit, do you see your blog as a virtual pulpit?

My non-Catholic husband read the book and found the stories of the journeys to be compelling, even though without any monastic exposure, he found the life to be strange in the extreme. What else struck you in the film or the book that you'd like to share? Let's talk as the Carthusians preach, with our hands...I'll be in and out all day to see what you have to say.

Other resources you might wish to peruse include:
  • Nancy Maguire's interview with Philip Groning
  • In This House of Brede, a fictional account of a cloistered community of Benedictine nuns by Rumer Goden offers a similar portrayal of the challenges and joys of a contemplative life to An Infinity of Little Hours
  • Brother Cadfael, a creation of historian Ellis Peters, is a contemporary of St. Bruno, offers another look at the realities of life within and without the enclosure walls in the 11th century, try any of the 20 or so mysteries that Peters wrote about the (real) monastery of SS Peter and Paul in Shrewsbury (the first is A Morbid Taste for Bones)
  • Perfect Intimacy, a ethereal photo essay about two enclosed Carmelite communities of nuns
  • The Hermeneutic of Continuity blog has a series of entries about a priest who visits periodically, including some marvelous photographs of the library I dream about.


  1. Michelle, you asked:
    Did reading the book help you “read” the movie? I saw the movie first, and the movie helped me "see" the book.

    I have not quite finished the book - I think I understand why they seek this life --- however, I really wonder if it is worth it - I am not trivializing their purpose, but WHY? I enjoy reading about it, watching it, but day in and day out for the rest of one's life?

    I do have some other thoughts, but work calls. I will be interested in others' thoughts on this also.

  2. In some ways, I suspect it is a much harder life now than in the 11th and 12th centuries, when life was less materially comfortable for anyone -- and what might you do for books?

    The longest I've ever tried silence and solitude of this sort is a few days, not even the month that Dom Leo's former Trappist abbot thinks is enough to bring most Trappists back to the fold. My sense in that short time is that the solitude and silence is for some a lens with which both they see God and God sees them.

    In the end, I wonder if the fact that people will go to such lengths to be with God is not the strongest argument for the existence of God. I was so struck by the faces of the monks (and those of the nuns in Perfect Intimacy), it's as if they are gradually growing transparent and you can see the face of God in their faces.

  3. wow. I can't stay right now (long story) but will be back later in the day.

  4. Oh! A book I've read -- albeit awhile ago! I'll be back to check out the comments.

  5. I have not seen the movie, but I read the book.

    I must confess that I had a reaction similar to Michelle's husband's. I, also, have little exposure to monastic life and have done, at the most, one quiet retreat that lasted 2 days.

    I have a hard time understanding the why of this, too. Perhaps because I feel such a strong sense of call to what I do in the world: in the university, in the church, in the home.

    Or maybe I'm not listening for another call?

    hmmmmm. Will return for more later.

  6. I saw the movie and have the book on my stack to read next.
    I,too, am struck by whatever would seduce one to stay in the cloistered life...
    I do understand the desire of a little peace and quiet, but the Carthusaian way could not be described as moderation.

    Michelle, you raise fantastic, wonderful questions and provide great resources. I'll be reading the book with another group and I will benefit from considering the questions you pose as I read the book. Thank you so much!

  7. Mary Beth, I'm certain we're not all called to live this life...though I think for those of us who live lives that are intensely people oriented (ministers, teachers, parents), there is a seductive nature to time apart.

    A couple of years ago, when I went up to see my spiritual director, I had lunch with the staff. Mid-bite one of the other Jesuits there asked why I came up and spent the night. Before I could swallow my director shot back, "She has an 8-yr old and a 10 yr-old. Boys."

    But beyond the idea of silence as a "vacation with God", I wonder if the religious life (in all it's various instantiations) is a call to be leavening. In this article Richard Rohr (a Franciscan monk) argues that religious formation has benefits even (particularly?) for those who do not remain, and that the call to a life-time vocation is rare. His final lines have stuck with me: "The Franciscans initiated me quite well, despite some of their best attempts to the contrary, into almost everything that really matters. They held my feet to the fire long enough for the Gospel to become fire—and for my feet to become feet."

    Would Nancy Maguire have written this book if she had not married a Carthusian? Would we be the poorer for it?

    Perhaps the why is that we all need to have access to the many paths to God, we will need different ways at different time in our lives and those who trod these paths apart, whether they "return" to the world, or remain, gift the rest of us with sign-posts.

  8. Jiff,

    You'll have to let us know what your group thinks of the book as well!

  9. The movie was amazing...almost hypnotic as I was indeed pulled into that great silence. I have not yet read the book. I understand the pull to this life at some level, to solitude, to that level of contact with God, but do not have any of what it takes to sustain it in terms of letting go of the rest of the world. Although having lived in "regular" religious community, I'd have to say there might be aspects of this that would be easier. I am looking forward to finding time to read the book, as I am always fascinated by what does draw people to come and to stay in any religious context, especially one that asks so much.

  10. Oh...the film is on my list to see...Missed it at the cinema, - does it lose out by being a DVD I wonder?
    Fascinated by the thought of a temporary hermitage - I have a friend who created one at the bottom of her very beautiful garden (actually the garden was so lovely and restful that the hermitage felt a bit unnecessary to me) and every now and then I catch myself eyeing garden sheds/summerhouses in the sales with an eye to their hermitage potential.
    NO internet, though. That would be fatal...Having failed to read An Infinity of Little Hours -which sounds enthralling - I can report that I know In this House of Brede almost by heart. My honorary mum had a copy and I read it repeatedly when staying with her as a child...partly because Brede is a village very close to where I grew up (though without a Benedicting abbey irl).

  11. Kathryn,

    My copy of In This House of Brede is pretty tattered, too. You raise a good question about the big/small screen. I watched it (alone) on a snowy night on big screen TV while house sitting for friends, which felt appropriate, but I don't have a comparison point either. I think Cathy saw in in the theater, so she might have some sense how it comes across in that venue.

    No internet, no organ for the music, either might be the end of such a life for me....but I keep thinking of that amazing library!

    Meanwhile, my introverted child, home sick from school today (we are both a bit under the weather) has built his own "hermitage" in the living room. I handed him his cocoa through a little pass through.

  12. Michelle, I have neither seen the film nor read the book, but I have been a part of an order that observed silence as a part of its daily living.

    Now I am a SERIOUS E on the Myers=Briggs so I was at a disadvantage from the start! And the convent was NOT my vocation. But I am so grateful for the time I had in the monestary. It made mental prayer so central to my faith life that it has been the thing that has held me together throughout my 30 years in active ministry.

    But living in silence is not a life without conflict. The silence magnifies the relationships in community. The introspection intensifies one's understandings of sinfulness and guilt. And nearly always the demands of obedience and community disturb that sense of quiet and calmness that those of us who do not live the cloistered life long for.

    I probably had less time to read in the convent than I have ever had in my life in the active ministry. The Hours do sanctify the day, but they do not give one long periods for study.

    It is so easy to romanticize the secluded life because we feel beset by the demands of the world. But it is far from a romantic vocation. I remember meeting a hermitess once and was amazed how "up" she was on things going on in the small town in which she lived and on the events in the world. She said that she had to stay attuned to what was going on in the world in order to pray for the world.

    I think that it was then I realized that I really belonged "in" the world and serving the world.

    I give thanks for those who are called to that vocation. I hope they are praying for me and for the ministry to which I am called. But the silence that we long for must be found within ourselves--not in the cloister.

  13. Muthah+,

    Thank you so much for that profoundly beautiful reflection on the silence within and without.

    I dip into and out of the monastic silence (a day a month - a week a year) enough to resonate with your observation about the Office. I used to bring a lot of books, but as I carted them out to the car, once again unread, I finally realized the day is much shorter than one thinks!

    I will cherish the image of the hermitess as well!

    grace and peace...

  14. I confess I didn't get to this book or the movie, but one of my church members watched the movie recently and offered to loan it to me--she began telling me about it unsolicited, and then I thought, "oh, I think that's the movie for next week's discussion!" Coincidence?

    I love the discussion going on here...I have not lived in any sort of quiet community, but have lived in several "intentional" Christian communities around the world. Each has been a wonderful experience in its own way, but challenging too. I look forward to seeing this film.

    Also, I just have to say, I love Cadfael. I know those books (and the TV series based on them) is nothing like what y'all read/watched for today, but I do love them. So fun, and good at portraying the challenges and the opportunities that arise from communal living and following a rule....

  15. Teri,

    I hope you can make time to watch the movie! I enjoy Cadfael, too. Years ago I went with my mother (who had introduced me to the books) to see the Abbey. My father was perplexed as to why Shrewsbury HAD to be on our tour agenda. I put those books on the list because, despite their lighter take on it, many of the same questions about how we answer our call to live in God at different times in our lives are surfaced in them.

    Besides...I covet Cadfael's garden!

  16. Michelle,
    Thanks for these great, thoughtful questions.

    REad the book, did not yet see the movie.

    A little thing bugged me about the book - which was that I felt I really got to know the guys with their pre-monk personalities, but had a hard time telling them apart once they got their Carthusian names. I'd find myself saying, "lets see, was THAT the one who fell in love with the woman on the boat?..." If you ahvent finished it yet, there's an appendix that clarifies the dramatis personae, and I wish I would have seen it BEFORE instead of after.

    But maybe that confusion I felt was part of the monastic life? Of really losing oneself in God, so the former life fell away?

    All in all, I really liked the book, maybe because it was all so foreign to me - the silence, the study, the GETTING UP IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT (yikes - that seemed way harder than the solitude).

    In one, though, it struck me that instead of getting closer to GOD, as the monks went deeper inot silence, they actually were closer to their own humanity. This quote caught me "As a mortal being, the monk faced eternity every day. Today, tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow were all the same. NOthing ever changed." (p 161)

    I havent had much depression, but when I have, it felt JUST like that. Like nothing would ever change and every day would follow the last in a unending march. It's like the monks went away from the world in order to have an intense, unadulturated experience of the very thing they were trying to escape - humanity.

    Thanks again for this discussion!

  17. Wonderful discussion. I must be very post-modern...I just cannot see the sense of a life that is devoted solely to prayer. (Ka-blam! the big lightning bolt hits me!)

    Truly, though, it makes me think well about how much more prayer and silence my own life could use. How important living in community is to me.

    But I have no urge toward monastic life.

    Like Juniper, I was frustrated by trying to sort out who the individuals we had met as they entered were, under their monk names. I guess that was part of the point. They weren't meant to be individuals any longer.

    Thanks so much Michelle! I can't wait to re-read In this House of's been a long time.

  18. Mary Beth and Juniper,
    Religious life is not so much about the loss of one's personality--it is impossible anyway. But it is about learning to fit in to a community.

    One of the things that American culture has done to/for us is made a norm of individuality. It is not the norm for conventual living. It is not the norm for living in other parts of the world in secular life either.

    My concern for the post-modern era is that the cult of the Individual that American culture has exported all over the world will make it impossible for us to live together with a sense of compromise and goodwill.

  19. I'm catching up -- I've been feeling "fluish" this week.

    I've read the book and watched the movie -- what came to mind for both was a quote from Merton that I clipped a long time ago and can't remember what it's from. Merton said: "a true spiritual community exists to protect the solitude of its members, to hear and honor our individual stories of faith and desire, and to share the nourishing experience of solitude and silence with others." For Merton, community was the "price" he paid for his most precious solitude. For others, solitude will the the burden to bear to understand and appreciate community. It will depend on our personal temperaments.

  20. Returning from 24 hours of immersion in silence, it's interesting to dip back into this conversion...

    muthah+, last summer I wrote an op-ed for the Philadelphia paper about silence, and how it was (among other things) a way to learn to hear and then accommodate ourselves to, the needs of those around us. Something, I agree, our society does not do well ("have it your way" might sum it all up).

    reverend mommmy - thank you for the quote from Merton, which so strongly balances Mary Beth's candid description of the other pole. Those two bookends brought St. Paul's image of us as being the body of Christ, each part playing a different role, to my mind. There are those who are called to a life of continuous liturgical prayer (living prayer wheels); others who are called to be immersed in the world (living prayers), at times carried along on the tide of others' prayers. Regardless of what path we find ourselves on at the moment, we are all called to intimacy with God. One of my favorite quotes from Thomas Aquinas wraps up with: First we need to know we are all madly in love with the same God.

    Thank you all for the graces shared in this discussion...may the peace of God be with you all!


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