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.