2016-06-30
The Carthusians, founded by St. Bruno in 1084, are the most austere order of monks the Catholic Church has ever known. Bruno was inspired by the desert hermits of early Christianity, and each Carthusian monastery is essentially a community of hermits. The monks spend most of the day praying and meditating in their cells. During their few hours outside their cells to celebrate the liturgy, they maintain nearly complete silence, and traditionally they have fasted rigorously most of the year, eating only bread and water on several days each week. In her book "An Infinity of Little Hours," author Nancy Klein Maguire tracked the lives of five young men, including three Americans, who entered the Carthusian monastery of Parkminster in England during 1960 and 1961. All five eventually left the order. What follows are the memories of culture shock that two of the Americans, Bernie Shea and Chuck Henley, experienced after forsaking their comfortable middle-class lives.

When Bernie Shea arrived at Parkminster in early October of 1960, Paddy and Hans [fellow newcomers to the monastery] could smell the cigarette smoke on his clothes. Bernie arrived just in time for the feast of St. Bruno, on October 6. Bernie was slightly out of practice being a monk, but he knew quite a bit about the Carthusians. Dom Joseph put Bernie in Cell HH, and after several weeks, the prior decided that Bernie could stay. He gave him the postulant’s black mantle and biretta. Bernie’s expectation of the Carthusian life did not match his initial experience of it. The life felt heavy on his shoulders—he admitted to Dom Joseph that he felt "oppressed." He missed human contact: in choir, for example, there were no human glances. The monks behaved like soldiers on parade. No one attempted to create an emotional or personal connection. Solitude seemed to envelop him like a silent blanket of white fog.

While struggling with all this confusion and disappointment, Bernie was cold. The late autumn was chilly and damp all the time. Bernie didn’t have monk clothes yet, and he continued to wear pajamas for bed—as if he were in a centrally heated house. He was trying to behave appropriately, and wearing a sweater to bed did not seem right. When his mother sent long underwear and a note saying, “A monk that’s warm prays better,” Dom Joseph wouldn’t let him keep it, considering long underwear indulgent. An older English novice, Dom Gregory, tried to cheer him up by telling him that the English always go to bed with everything being damp. In mid-October, Bernie decided to start a fire in his cell, which hadn’t been lived in for decades. He’d never been a good Boy Scout—in fact, he had been asked to leave two groups for disruptive behavior—so his attempts to start a fire ended in a cell full of smoke. He opened all the windows. One of the solemns [professed monks], Dom Ludolph, came to see if he was all right and remarked that fires weren’t encouraged until Nov. 1. When that day arrived, Bernie again tried to light the fire—with the same results. Finally, Dom Joseph asked Bernie’s neighbor in the next cell to help, and he immediately discovered that the chimney pipe had never been cleaned and was totally clogged with soot. Bernie wasn’t sure if he could make it through another day. He was totally overwrought.

By mid-November, Bernie was struggling to improve his Latin, had become bored by the statutes [the Carthusian rules], and remained unconvinced that the ancient paths to God were really necessary: He felt a great inner conviction that he should leave the Carthusians. So he decided to leave, either to find his own mountain or to join the Camaldolese in California. He told Dom Joseph of his decision. Aware that newcomers tended to focus on solving the problems that they have inevitably brought with them, Dom Joseph tried in every way to dissuade him and failed. Bernie made an appointment to see the prior, but before he left his cell, he knelt in his small Ave Maria room and asked the Blessed Virgin to stop him if he was wrong, before it was too late. The distance between his cell and the prior’s was long enough to do the trick. Nothing happened, no logical syllogism was worked out, but by the time Bernie Shea arrived at Dom Bonaventure’s cell, he simply knew, was certain, that he should remain at Parkminster. He told the prior that he had been mistaken. Looking over his round horn-rims, Dom Bonaventure was greatly surprised, but he told Bernie that he had had no intention of trying to argue with him.

Once winter set in, the three young men found the Friday fast much harder. Bernie, especially, found it a shock to his system, and a humbling one. He was somewhat ashamed that while others in the world were starving, he found it difficult to go forty-eight hours on bread and water. Like most Americans, he was used to central heating, and without any fish or vegetables to stoke his body, a damp, cold day in Sussex stretched out forever. It was hard to keep from shaking with cold. Even when he received a gilet, a thick vest the monks wore under their habits in cold weather, it didn’t help much. No matter what he did, he remained cold.

*****

Chuck Henley arrived very late on the evening of December 2 as violent storms pounded England. The flooding in some places was the most devastating in more than a century. A brother opened the small door in the large double doors and contacted Dom Joseph, who soon arrived. He led Chuck to his assigned cell, designated “PP," about as far from the front gate as possible. Chuck was very glad to be under cover. Dom Joseph built up the fire in the coal stove to last until morning, and while Chuck, skinny as a stick, ate some food a brother had brought, Dom Joseph instructed him on surviving the night: how to light a paraffin lamp, how to bucket flush the ground-level toilet, how to find the washbasin, and how to acknowledge the Excitator’s bell.

After Christmas, the weather got colder and damper. New Year’s Day, the feast of the Circumcision in the pre-Vatican II church calendar, a big feast day for the Carthusians, was a slight break; all the monks got a small bottle of green Chartreuse with their supper. Through the winter, in spite of the cold, Chuck [was] very happy at Parkminster. He loved to inhale the now familiar and comforting smell of church, of guttering candles, of damp stone, and of unwashed monk. He found Night Office especially magical.

Chuck particularly looked forward to ringing the church bell before Mass. The sacristan, Dom Francis, his dark brown face nearly invisible in the early morning gloom, took a couple of long pulls on the bell rope. The weight of the bell almost swept the slight sacristan off his feet. Each monk rang the bell until the next arriving monk took the rope from him. The last monk had the arduous and tricky task of stopping the enormous bell from swinging. Bracing his body to lock the bell, as the rope went up, the monk would restrain it, to slow down the momentum; he would then wait until the next up stroke to restrain it again. He then had to tie the rope to the hook on the side of the choir stalls nearest the altar. Only the athletic Dom Ludolph could stop the bell from ringing with one arm, with one pull. Chuck found this a marvel. From Dom Joseph’s perspective, Chuck was a poster child for the order, and he moved rapidly into the novitiate. Chuck was clothed [the ritual in which a monk puts on his habit for the first time] on the last feast day before Lent began. The prior and Dom Joseph chose to name him “Damian” after the third-century Arabian martyr; Damian and his twin brother, Cosmos, were both noted physicians, as was Chuck’s father.


Bernie was not a poster child. Indeed, Dom Joseph had disturbed Bernie’s adjustment to the life by giving him a Christmas card sent by a young woman he had met and fallen in love with on the Mauretania, the ship on which he had traveled to England. Her words were delicate and carefully chosen, but Bernie still felt that he had made a choice that was right for him and therefore for her. Yet he felt increasing guilt for this romantic encounter and put himself on a very ascetic regime. He used few or no coals in his stove, cut back on food and sleep, and focused his energies on totally mortifying his flesh. Soon, he had no circulation in his hands and fingers. Dom Joseph sent him to St. Anthony’s Hospital in Cheam, run by nuns who greatly admired the Carthusians. Dom Damian said good-bye to Bernie before he left for the hospital, convinced that he would not return. A specialist failed to find any cause for the lack of circulation, but body heat could he affected by diet. When the great fast ended at Easter, the monks could feel the difference in the heat of their bodies. To avoid returning Bernie to Parkminster during Lent, with its even greater austerities, the hospital postponed his release and sent him to another hospital to convalesce. He stayed in hospitals for nearly five weeks, ate properly, put on weight, and thought again about the wisdom of joining the Carthusians.


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