- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 30, 2009

For several years, a book about the Carthusians, the Catholic Church’s most austere monastic order, has sat on my shelf begging to be read. Last week, I finally finished the tale that traces the lives of five young American men who became postulants at Parkminster, the order’s charterhouse in West Sussex, England.

The rigors of living in the order’s 22 monasteries around the world are so tough, 90 percent of the postulants never make it to solemn professed vows five years later.

The author, Nancy Klein Maguire, a Capitol Hill resident, married an ex-Carthusian monk. A 17th-century scholar-in-residence at the Folger Shakespeare Library, she found almost no written material on this order. She began tracking down ex-monks to put together a book using material no one else has unearthed.

The book, “An Infinity of Little Hours,” took her seven years of research. The monks she met gave her reams of personal notes and correspondence about their lives. One sent her a 40-page letter.

“It’s as if they’d been waiting their entire lives to talk with someone about this,” she said.

She chose Parkminster because it’s the largest of the English-speaking monasteries. Her descriptions of the 11th-century conditions (the order was founded in 1084) these men lived in is fascinating. Hair shirts are required, they eat no meat and they rarely, if ever, talk with one another. They can take one walk a week outside monastery grounds. Their mail is monitored. There is no TV, radio or newspapers.

“You have to understand the isolation,” she told me. “There is a charterhouse in Vermont that has thousands of acres.”

Every night from 11 p.m. to about 2 a.m., they recite Matins and Lauds — the first two official daily prayers of the Catholic Church — which means sleep comes in four-hour shifts.

Of the ex-monks she interviewed, most said the lack of sleep, not the constant fasting, is what got to them.

“They’ve never adjusted to getting up in the middle of night,” she said. “It’s split sleep. It’s not a sleep you wake up from feeling refreshed.

“And the cold gets to you and the damp. The sheets are damp, the blankets are damp, the walls are so thick that in the winter, the inside becomes like a refrigerator.”

But, “It could be a comfortable life with no income taxes, no bills to pay. So they make living there hard. The idea is to be focused on your next life with God. The only reason for doing this is to be intimate with God in this world before they are dead.”

Women have gotten in the act as well, as there are six charterhouses of nuns worldwide, the most recent opening in South Korea. Recent houses for men have opened in Argentina and Brazil.

But interest has waned at Parkminster, which housed 100 monks when it opened in 1863. In 1960, there was a waiting list to get in. Today, 20 monks live there.

The order swung in a more conservative direction in 2001 when seven priors were removed for liberal thinking and innovations such as putting showers, hot water and flush toilets in the cells. Today, Mrs. Maguire says, a woman would not be allowed inside Parkminster, as she was, to do research.

Of one of the priors who was discharged, she said, “He was changing what the conservatives thought was the nature of the order: to be uncomfortable. He thought that to get recruits in the 21st century, the charterhouse needed to be a place where people of the younger generation could live.”

Julia Duin’s Stairway to Heaven column runs on Thursdays and Sundays. Contact her at [email protected]

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