What would it be like to see the face of God with your own eyes?
In the year 1084 St. Bruno of Cologne and six companions climbed a mountain in the French Alps with the goal of doing exactly that: achieving union with God in their own lifetime. Despite the intense cold, they built huts for themselves at the very top of the mountain and took up lives of solitude, contemplation and prayer. In doing so, they founded the Carthusian order, the most austere monastic order in the Western world.
Nearly 900 years later, Paddy O’Connell, a young Irishman not yet thirty, pulls the bell rope outside the gatehouse of the imposing Carthusian monastery in Parkminster, England, and asks admittance. Hans Klein, an East German, does the same the very next day. Over the next half year these two men are followed by three Americans: Bernie Shea, Chuck Henley and Dave Lynch. As Nancy Klein Maguire tells us in her fascinating account of their journey, An Infinity of Little Hours, their ambition is to follow in St. Bruno’s footsteps: seeking the voice of God in the silence of a hermit’s cell. In pursuit of that goal, each of the five will push himself past the limits of physical and mental endurance. Only one will finally make it.
What Maguire’s five seekers find on the other side of Parkminster’s heavy doors is a portal into the 11th century. At the time of their admittance in 1961 Parkminster has neither heat nor running water. Monks spend their days in private cells, reading, praying and tending their walled gardens, and come together at specified times only for mass and group prayer. They wear hair shirts beneath their robes and whip themselves with a penitential tool called a “discipline,” a white rope with knotted cords. Meals come once a day, baths twice a month, and visitors from the outside world twice a year. Newspapers, magazines, radio, TV and secular literature of any kind never penetrate the cloister walls.
The world that Maguire describes can often seem frightening, not simply because of its physical hardships and its deprivations, but because of its radical isolation: the five novices in her account have not only severed their ties to the outside world, but given up the human connections that make life meaningful for most of us: marriage, family and friendship. Social identities, the wrappings of personality, so to speak, are so unimportant within the monastery that when a monk dies he is buried without a name.
And yet what Maguire shows us is that within the context of the monastic life, all this severe subtraction, the emptying out of personality, is the necessary precondition for a journey into inner space in search of God. As Dom Joseph, the Novice Master responsible for introducing the five into monastic life, explains in one of his sermons:
Solitude over a period of time banishes from the mind and heart all that separates it from God, all that tends to occupy the human mind and heart and usurps the place that God will make his own….God wants it all, and human nature will not give it up. God wants it all because he wants to have complete union with the soul…the Carthusian has adopted the most direct way, the most drastic of methods of getting to his goal, cost what it may. His strategy is to bypass the lot—to cut them dead at one fell swoop—to cast them aside—to make a clean sweep once and for all.
The exact nature of Dom Joseph’s complete union of the soul with God remains ambiguous throughout Maguire’s tale. For our five seekers, it seems to lurk just out of sight, and yet each of them is driven on by little glimmers of possibility, visible in the budding of a rose in his walled garden or the sight of a sunset from the window of his cell. To fill in the gap, Maguire gives us the ecstatic experience of one anonymous Carthusian in 1487:
God visited me in power, and I yearned with love so as almost to give up the ghost…I oft commended my soul to God, saying, “Into Thy hands,” either in words or (as I think rather) in spirit. But as the pain of love grew more powerful I could scarce have thought at all, forming within my spirit these words: “Love! Love! Love!” And at last, ceasing from this, I deemed that I would wholly yield up my soul, singing rather than crying, in spirit through joy. “Ah! Ah! Ah!”
Faith, Doubt and Self-Knowledge
It is the great achievement of An Infinity of Little Hours that it makes us feel the yearning behind this five hundred year old account of mystical union, and helps us to understand that same yearning in Maguire’s five modern-day seekers. Indeed, the book manages to create a remarkable sense of intimacy with these five young men, despite the strangeness of the world they inhabit. Beneath their identical cowls, Paddy, Hans, Bernie, Chuck and Dave take on distinct personalities, and we quickly become emotionally invested in their spiritual quests. We watch each of them struggle with solitude, faith, doubt and self-knowledge—issues we in the outside world rarely face in such concentrated and uncompromising ways.
The journey can be painful: three of the five have what can only be called nervous breakdowns and are forced to leave, while a fourth decides to quit while he can still do so under his own power. Nevertheless, An Infinity of Little Hours is too nuanced and layered a book, too deeply humane, to be called sad or defeatist: starkly beautiful might be more accurate. Maguire is a wonderfully erudite and sensitive guide to the Carthusian worldview. Through her clear, intelligent prose, we come to understand why her five novices are willing to risk everything in a mad, exhilarating search for the divine.