Nancy Klein Maguire’s An Infinity of Little Hours

“But monks are dumb!”  The comment was made in the midst of a Wednesday night prayer meeting discussion in which, somehow, the issue of monasticism had come up.  The lady who said it meant it with all the genuine sincerity of a cradle-Baptist who, for the life of her, could not see any merit whatsoever in the very idea of monasticism.  The comment was undoubtedly buttressed by a strong dose of anti-Catholic sentiment and perhaps even by the Luther movie I had showed some months earlier to celebrate Reformation Day.  After all, Luther’s vow to St. Anne had proven to be an act of fear-driven works righteousness, so the whole enterprise must be absurd, right?

I gently pointed out that calling every aspect of monasticism “dumb” was perhaps unwise, especially given the crucial role that monasticism has played in preserving and transmitting the Bible.  But in my mind I had a much more visceral reaction to such a statement.  Dumb?  Really?  And the average Southern Baptist minister is what exactly?  A paragon of virtue, wisdom, and Christ-likeness?  And what of the laity?  What of the whole comfortable, American, Evangelical enterprise?  What would we call it?

Monasticism is not without its problems.  I agree with Bonhoeffer’s diagnosis in Discipleship that when the church set apart men and women who were to give all for the gospel, it inadvertently excused the cultural accomodationism that the majority of those within the church had fallen into (i.e., “Well, after all, we’re not monks!”)  But perhaps that objection also states the great virtue of monasticism:  it reminds us, in sometimes shocking and uncomfortable ways, that (to borrow from Kuyper) “there’s no square inch of reality over which Christ doesn’t say ‘Mine!’”  As such, monasticism has a prophetic role to play in the Church.

An Infinity of Little Hours is a spellbinding chronicle of 5 young men’s attempts to join the rigid Carthusian order.  The Carthusians have recently been given a great deal of attention, most compellingly through Philip Groening’s “Into Great Silence,” a project that was ironically finished just a few months before Maguire’s book.  While this book lacks the overall spiritual, emotional, and psychological punch that Groening’s haunting documentary provides, it is right up there with it.

Maguire’s book is a profoundly beautiful and a powerful work of art.  It is immensely educational.  It draws the reader into the inner workings of an order that most people throughout Christian history have known very little about.

The Carthusians are fond of their motto:  “Never reformed because never deformed.”  While the reality undermines this sentiment somewhat, it is by-and-large true that this order of monks have remained amazingly unchanged throughout their long and rich history.

The book follows the journey of five young men from 1960 to 1965.  Each came to the order seeking nothing less than God Himself.  Not surprisingly, most of these five were strongly influenced by Merton’s Seven Story Mountain.  Only one of the five would ultimately remain with the Carthusians, but all five had their lives indelibly marked by their fascinating, demanding, and daunting journey in the order.

What strikes the reader more than anything else is the challenge of solitude that each of these men faced.  The Carthusians spend the majority of their time in their cells, essentially small houses.  Their lives are dominated by the monastic hours that call them every day, time and time again, to corporate prayer and to choir.  Hearing of the various men’s struggles with learning how to sleep only a few hours at a time was fascinating and made me seriously question whether or not I would ever be able to do such a thing.

Maguire’s book is sympathetic.  Perhaps it is because she is married to an ex-Carthusian.  She has no desire to ridicule this life that must appear ridiculous to many observers.  She depicts the Carthusians as men who are passionate about knowing God and see in the monastic impulse a powerful tool for doing just that.

To be sure, her depiction is not overly-romanticized.  She shows the political wrangling within the order, the ambition that occasionally grips the monks, and the inner conflicts and tensions that plague all human relationships at times.  Her chapter on the conflicts in the choir was humorous and fascinating.

The book will undoubtedly leave the Protestant reader with some problems.  The most fundamental problem with this attempt at living the Christian life is its stifling legalism.  I’m almost hesitant to mention this, because American Evangelicals tend to call almost any attempts at mortifying the flesh “legalistic.”  To be sure, we have a perverse understanding of “freedom” that borders on antinomianism.  But the fact remains that monastic expressions like the Carthusian order have a stifling measure of legalism under which even the majority of their own applicants eventually wither.

I was moved by the pitiful fact that more than a few Carthusians collapse under the psychological strain of the order.  Than neither proves nor disproves anything, of course, for many SBC pastors collapse under the stress of the ministry as well!  The book does reveal that some of the more excessive aspects of the aestheticism of the Carthusians are being softened a bit.  Showers have been installed in some of the monasteries (with no hot water, of course), and a few other things along those lines.

I was also struck by the fact that two of the five young men that Maguire chronicles eventually left the order and embraced the homosexual lifestyle.  There is no evidence that homosexual practices occur in the order itself, but the anecdotal evidence provided by Maguire would suggest that perhaps monasticism (and the priesthood itself?) attracts men who are trying to overcome their own demons.

In all, however, I am very glad to have read this book.  I would recommend it (cautiously) as a fascinating look at a unique movement.  There are aspects of this movement that must be rejected.  But I daresay there are aspects that would strengthen the devotional life of the average Evangelical in powerful ways.

Read this book.

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