BustedHalo: Nancy, your book, An Infinity of Little Hours, is an extraordinary look at life inside a Carthusian monastery, something no one has ever done before. The reason you were able to do it is that you have an unusual connection: you are married to a former Carthusian monk—one of the five monks whose experiences you chronicle in the book. So let’s begin at the beginning: how did you two meet?
Nancy Klein Maguire: I was teaching at Loyola University in Chicago and the other woman on the faculty—it was 1967 and there were only two of us—was asked to look out for an ex-Carthusian who had just left the monastery . She said to me, let’s go have coffee with this young man and see if he needs help adjusting. So she takes me to the door and says, Well, have fun, you two! It was a blind date! Three weeks later we were engaged.
BH: Did he tell you about his life in the monastery?
NKM: Not really. I wasn’t interested, and at that point he really wasn’t either. But on our honeymoon he insisted we go and see the monastery. I didn’t want to—it felt like a competitor. And as we walked down the long, winding path to the gate, a brother in a dirty gray habit ran out and said to my husband, “I knew you would come back!” That was fright number one. That night, we stayed in the visitor’s parlor that I describe in the book, which was really cold and miserable, but they wouldn’t let me into the monastery itself. At the time, I thought that was absolutely outrageous.
BH: You felt excluded?
NKM: Absolutely. So for thirty-three years I refused to talk about the monastery. But eventually I realized that the order had a thousand-year history, and when I checked at the Library of Congress, I saw that there was nothing written on the post-Vatican II Carthusian order. Sure, there were some things from the 13th century, but nobody had written a real cultural history. So my historian’s instincts, honed during twenty-five years as scholar-in-residence at the Folger Library, took over. Instead of being obsessed with the execution of Charles I, I became obsessed with the mystery of these monks, as a window into the 11th century. It was like traveling back in time.
BH: Yet at some point, the project clearly went far beyond an antiquarian interest in the monastery as a relic of the middle ages. You follow five men in their attempt to become solemnly professed monks, permanent members of the Carthusian order, and in your telling it becomes a deeply emotional journey.
NKM: Yes, as I got to know the monks it became a story about people. On my first research trip to the monastery, in 1999, I met Dom Leo and Dom Columba, as well as a bunch of other monks, and what happened is that I fell completely in love with Dom Columba. He was just such an extraordinary man: as gregarious as can be, a terrific sense of humor, but for want of a better word, selfless. The sense of empathy coming from him was incredible.
BH: So you became aware of something else going on within the weird medieval world of the monastery: a spiritual journey that produced unusual men like Dom Columba.
NKM: The purpose of the Carthusian order, according to its statutes, is to establish a direct relationship with God while still on earth. I don’t pretend to know how that takes place, and clearly sometimes it doesn’t, but hopefully some of the monks really get there. At the end of the book I quote Dom Columba: “What will take place on the other side when all for me will be overturned into eternity, I don’t know. I believe only that a great love awaits me.”
BH: He has a very strong sense of God’s love.
NKM: Life inside the monastery is so rigorous that the only way to survive is if you have a strong faith, along with strong internal reserves. Imagine yourself living 24/7 in an apartment of about 1500 square feet, with a 1200 square foot garden attached. The garden is walled in and totally private. You can’t see another cell.
BH: I have to say that would probably drive me insane. And yet even though four of the five men that you track end up leaving the order, three of them in terrible shape, all of them still identify strongly with the experience.
NKM: They consider it the most positive experience in their lives. The most surprising thing in writing this book was that, of the 30 ex-monks that I found, not one is bitter.
BH: I felt that they had good reason to be angry, frankly. They were thrown into the 11th century without any help or support. The attitude seemed to be sink or swim, and three of them have nervous breakdowns. Can you tell me what their lives have been like since leaving the monastery?
NKM: They all had extremely difficult times. It’s quite a paradox, but they all felt much more isolated outside the monastery than inside it. They couldn’t talk to anyone about this incredibly deep experience. When I wrote to them introducing myself and explaining my project, I got next-day emails. Finally there was someone they could talk to.
BH: No doubt they sensed how attuned you were to their experience. The reader also benefits from that sensitivity, by the way. You make the alien world of the monastery real for us.
NKM: My first draft was actually more focused on the culture and traditions of the monastery, rather than on the experiences of the monks themselves. It had ten monks instead of five, and it was hard for the reader to tell them apart, let alone connect with them all as individuals. My editor suggested that I cut the number in half, so I wrote to all of the ex-monks I was working with and explained that the next draft of the book would focus more on what’s going on inside their heads: their doubts, their fears, the things that were most difficult for them. Some were very excited and some of them were very skittish. So part of the basis of my picking these five men was their willingness to share that information.
BH: Stepping back and taking the big picture, what do you think this extraordinary tale is about?
NKM: For the young novices we meet at the beginning of the book, in 1961, it’s a coming of age story. But for the same group of men at the end of the book, forty years later, it’s about coming to terms with your life. I found it interesting to see how they had integrated the monastic experience into their lives, and how in spite of the really hard times they had when they left, they had become very warm, generous people.
BH: Were you affected by the experience of writing the book?
NKM: Many of the monks said to me, You can’t find God unless you know who you are first. I’ve come to think that’s really true. You have to accept yourself as you are, as a creature, before you have a chance of finding God.
BH: And isn’t that the most difficult step of all, the one we struggle with every day? To accept ourselves.
NKM: Exactly. With all the baggage we carry around. The monks are forced to face this problem, since who else do they have to live with, alone in their cells, but themselves? I love Columba’s line in the book. He says he reads Theresa of Avila because she makes you understand that God loves you. Understanding that love is the whole point of Carthusian life. But to make that leap you first have to know who you are.