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Blog - Carthusians - Hugh

Dear Theo,

I've come across your website while googling Carthusians. I'm interested to read of your Carthusian experiences and I look forward to learning more when your autobiography is completed [dunno if this qualifies as writing "imploringly" and being "desperate to see it"].

Thanks for publishing the letters from Doms Guy and Bernard. You may be interested to know that a book was published last year called "An infinity of little hours" (I think) which deals with the experiences of 5 novices at Parkminster during the early to mid sixties. Doms Bernard and Guy are both featured in the course of the narrative, indeed the author who is the wife of one of the ex novices spent time at Parkminster interviewing him as part of her research. At the time the book went to press, Bernard was still at Parkminster, and there is a photo of him walkng through the cloister with one of the ex novices who has maintained contact with him. Guy, who was a former solicitor, apparently died around 1995.

The book is published in the states but is readily available on Amazon.

Hope this is of interest. Thanks for the website.

Hugh (14th August 2007)

Theo’s Response1

Note last updated: 19/08/2007 11:34:05

Footnote 1: (Carthusians - Hugh. T1)

Dear Hugh,

Thanks for your email and particularly for the tip-off concerning "Maguire (Nancy) - An Infinity of Little Hours: Five Young Men and Their Trial of Faith in the Western World's Most Austere Monastic Order", which I’ve ordered from Amazon (Amazon: Nancy Maguire - An Infinity of Little Hours ( I must update the blurb for the “private” pages to make it less OTT.

I emailed1 the Parkminster website (Parkminster ( a couple of weeks back, and received the reply that Fr. Bernard is indeed still alive and active, aged 92.

Thanks for the correction re Guy Thackrah – does this information come from the book?

What’s your interest in these things?

Best wishes,

Theo (15th August 2007)

Hugh’s Response2

Note last updated: 18/12/2010 19:58:05

Footnote 1.1: (Carthusians - Fr. Bernard)

I have recently found your website (Parkminster (, which I have to say is very well produced. The reason I am writing is that I was briefly a Postulant at Parkminster in 1978, and developed a great affection and admiration for Fr. Bernard O’Donovan, the then Novice Master. We continued a correspondence for a few years thereafter, and I returned for a couple of visits. However, our understandings of the Christian life had diverged somewhat, and I eventually left him peace some time after he took on the responsibilities of Prior. My last letter from him dates from 1982. I can hardly believe that he could still be alive. If I remember correctly, he had been a medical doctor for 10 years, then a Cistercian for 20 years, and finally a Carthusian for 10 years when I first met him. So, he would be in his 90s by now. But Carthusians last a long time, so it is not impossible. Could you let me know his situation, and send him my greetings if that is possible? Yours sincerely in Christ Jesus, Theo Todman (21st July 2007)

Response: Dear Theo, Yes he is still good for his 92 years and says mass each day with a young American priest we have here. He will hardly remember you but I will mention you and say you send your best regards. Yours in Our Lord, Br Simon (23rd July 2007)

Note last updated: 18/12/2010 19:58:05

Footnote 1.2: (Carthusians - Hugh. T1H1) (CORRESPONDENT)

Dear Theo,

Good to hear from you. The Guy info is from the book. I hope you'll enjoy "An Infinity", I'd be interested to know what you make of it. Incidentally, in the book Fr Bernard is referred to by a pseudonym, the author was asked to change the names of Carthusians still living. You'll recognise him immediately, I suspect that Parkminster has not known too many ex-Cistercian medical doctors.

In 1984, shortly before I went to university, I discovered Thomas Merton and from there it was a short hop to the Carthusians. Having completed exhaustive researches in the Catholic Encyclopaedia, I decided that the Carthusians were for me. I wrote to Parkminster with what appeared to be my pressing dilemma, do I go up to Cambridge or do I try my vocation as a Carthusian.

Fr Bernard was then Prior and he sent me back a short handwritten note, explaining that twenty was the minimum age for entry and that, in any event, it was better to be a bit older. I never did make it to the charterhouse, but the Carthusians have remained a source of interest to me ever since.

I don't know if you've come across Richard North's book "Fools for God", written in the 80s. At Part V there are a couple of short chapters on the author's visit to Parkminster a few years after you were there. There is an account of his encounter with Fr Bernard who was Prior at the time. You can learn, amongst other things, of Fr Bernard's burgeoning expertise, "on the minimum quantities required by hosiery firms before they will make a consignment of woollen underwear." [the entire book can be downloaded for free at (Link - Defunct)].

The letter from Fr Bernard which you have reproduced strikes me, as far as I can read it, as warm and enthusiastic about his way of life. Is that a fair impression of the man?

There is absolutely no need to change the blurb on your personal pages, far from being OTT it is unstuffy and brought a smile to my face.

All the best,

Hugh (16th August 2007)

Theo’s Response1

Note last updated: 18/12/2010 19:58:05

Footnote 1.2.1: (Carthusians - Hugh. T1H1T1)

Dear Hugh,

Thanks for the background. One of the things that impressed me about the Carthusians was their unwillingness to make easy proselytes. It would have been tempting, given their falling numbers and aging population, to encourage anyone vaguely suitable to have a go, but they were initially very discouraging, and rightly so. And then there’s the long obstacle course - again rightly so, on the assumption that this is a work of God.

I enjoyed reading the passages from Richard North’s book1. It was good to be reminded of people from nearly 30 years ago. The account is well-put and authentic. Fr. Bernard must have had very similar conversations with a series of enquirers. The Parkminster thing had been rather a closed chapter in my life, so I’d not kept up with the literature (of which there had been very little in any case), so thanks for the reference.

When I think about what I might write, I can’t imagine being able to come up with as much detail about the externals. I can still in my mind’s eye walk around my cell, the cloisters, the guesthouse, but the details are rather blurred. But I can say a bit more from the inside, though not with any authority. In particular, I can’t speak on behalf of the Carthusians. I want to give this a lot of thought before writing up my experiences, as I don’t want to write some trivial travelogue. I need to think through carefully just what I was doing.

Fr Bernard is one of the warmest and most well-integrated men I’ve ever met. I’m not sure I’d have given the place a second look were it not for him. The fact that he was bright and knowledgeable also helped. He was also very humble. We were talking about spiritual sloth and Fr Bernard used the term accidie. I’d come across the term (probably in Merton, as acidie), but never heard the word spoken before – so when Fr Bernard used the term, pronouncing it “acheedia”, I needed a quick double-take to work out what he was talking about. I then said, rather foolishly, that I knew the term, but I’d imagined it pronounced “acidy”. Instead of saying “stupid boy”, he said that for all he knew that might be the proper pronunciation.

Returning to the plot, I was looking for some sort of authenticity – monks who were monks because they were monks, not because they were teachers or musicians or something else. If a (rather odd) way of life isn’t really believed in by those who live it, why should you entertain it? I took the view, maybe wrongly, that the Benedictines and Cistercians failed this test, but that the Carthusians didn’t.

Not that they all did. The Fr Vicar had run away from home at 18 and joined the Carthusians directly, contrary to procedure (though with the usual probation). He rang me up after my “long retreat in cell”, to check I was going to turn up as a postulant. He said that I was “Fr Bernard’s blue-eyed boy”. What on earth put it into his head to say such a thing? Maybe he was trying to be encouraging, but I’m sure Fr Bernard would never have made such a stupid remark, or said anything other than displaying his usual enthusiasm. But it set hares running in my mind that soon made the whole endeavour unravel. I suppose I had a rather starry-eyed view of the place, when, after all, it was and had to be populated by human beings not saints. But I didn’t want to throw in my lot with a place that was happy to have someone like me. I’ve always been doubtful about joining any club that would have me as a member, and I didn’t join that one (but not wholly or principally for that reason).

I should probably have deleted the above paragraph. Sed quod scripsi scripsi.

Best wishes,

Theo (17th August 2007)

Note last updated: 19/08/2007 11:34:05


Extracts from "North (Richard) - Fools for God" …


by Richard North

Published by Collins, 1987

ISBN 0 00 217407 3


1. The Hermits
2. Parkminster 1
3. Parkminster 2
4. Parkminster 3

1. The Hermits


Perhaps the most successful founder of the western hermitage-monastery was St Bruno (1032-1101), a north European educated at Rheims and Cologne. He was a high-flyer, a man who, as head of the Cathedral School at Rheims - whose head he was by his mid-twenties - taught future popes and was in demand for ecclesiastical diplomacy. But he wanted to be a monk. At first he achieved this under the direction of Robert of Molesme, the progenitor of the most communal brand of hermit life. Then he moved to Grenoble, whose bishop gave him land on which he and a few companions in 1084 founded what we know now as The Grande Chartreuse. This was the original Charterhouse, where the Egyptian tradition of the lavra, or laura, was brought to its highest pitch of penitential severity.

Few men have wanted to be Carthusians: but those that do, want the life with a fierce devotion. St Bruno certainly wanted it, and with a passion: even so, he was often called from his mountain fastness to Rome, where the Pope would seek his opinion on the highest affairs of the Church.

Whatever the austerities of the Charterhouses, there is evidence that there was from the beginning a system of lay monks looking after the physical needs of the hermit-monks and that it was well established. When Hugh of Lincoln (c 1140-1200), sometimes known as Hugh of Avalon - a locally born man - was appointed a sort of religious squire to a Cistercian archbishop who used to go on retreat to the Chartreuse at Grenoble, he noted the practice.

Hugh was the typical Carthusian leader of the time. He was summoned from La Grande Chartreuse to England to reform the first Charterhouse here. It was at Whitham in Essex, and had been founded in reparation for the murder of St Thomas A Becket. St Hugh was called by Ruskin, 'the most beautiful sacerdotal figure known to me in history'. He was the confidant of kings, and prone to such a vast impertinence in his dealings with them that they were stunned into compliance with his wishes. He worked with his own hands on the earthquake-damaged Lincoln Cathedral, whose bishop he reluctantly agreed to become in 1186. He was the most educated monk in Britain, according to contemporaries. He loved animals and peasants.

Especially likable in such a man is his robust defence of the normal human values. Whilst many of his contemporaries would see the monastery as the only foothold on earth of the only ladder to heaven, Hugh tells people that the layman who has charity in his heart, chastity in his body and truth on his lips is assured a place in heaven quite as well as any monk. This is not a uniquely late medieval view: there were Egyptian monks who said the same sort of thing. But it is a comforting opinion whenever we hear it.

Of course, what draws us to men such as Hugh is that though they were successes in the world, they longed for the cloister. It is immensely reassuring to those of us who achieve rather little that those who achieve the most long for obscurity. Besides, we respond to the heroism and glamour of people who recognize that the human enterprise is a peculiar tension between glamour and attainment on the one hand, and the awful stillness of the great verities - and especially death - on the other. A monk is a man who wears death in the cloth of his uniform. They on the whole think, most of the time, that they hold the prescription that beats or cheats death; the rest of us, more sceptically, admire them for at least facing up to its inevitability in some form or other.

Charterhouses are especially places where death is in men's minds. For all that in the past great Carthusians were much in the world, nowadays they tend to keep and guard their privacy. One Carthusian Prior was chastised by the present Pope for emerging from his monastery to make obeisance to the successor of St Peter. A Charterhouse such as Parkminster, in Sussex, is no place of temporary or convenient retreat. It is a way station to paradise where a very refined kind of religious specialist is in training, without the luxury of distraction.

2. Parkminster 1

It was the first proper monastic grille I had encountered, set in the left-hand of two vast doors in a huge stone wall, with a Latin inscription above. As the taxi drove away, the driver gave a wave, and a man who had a chimney sweep's blackness of face and working clothes, walked away from the scene, with a smiling 'cheerio'. In the fine Sussex drizzle, there was something a little surreal about the scene. The building before me would have been more at home in Normandy, perhaps as the stable block of a noble chateau.

It had been built as a part of the nineteenth-century revival of the monastic spirit, but especially to provide a potential safe haven in face of a contrary wave of anti-clericalism on the Continent. It was completed in I883, and at the turn of this century did fulfill its sanctuary purposes, receiving exiles from France (the monks from Grande Chartreuse went to Italy for some years).

I wandered off for a moment. Then I heard the wooden hatchdoor open, and a face appeared behind it. It belonged to a shaven, young, head. The boy spoke, in a thick Irish accent, asking me if I was a retreatant. I told him I was there to see the Prior. He turned to seek further advice. He was wearing huge black boots which had given in to their age. From them emerged great dirty white socks, which lost themselves in his white robe.

After a while he returned and beckoned me to follow him. We passed some sort of cloister and then went into a vast passageway. We passed several doors and then came to one which the boy opened.

The room was big and cold. There was a kind of cut-down four-poster bed in one corner. It had musty-looking curtains and a built-in light which hung down from the canopy. It looked cold and cheerless, like a nineteenth-century altar, and more inspired with notions of dank awe than with commodious rest. I was glad that I had brought my own sleeping bag. Before the big windows there stood a table, laid with a plastic gingham tablecloth and one place. Outside the window, the shrubs dripped rain onto the sodden grass.

The Prior's invitation had suggested that his Order was more interested in exigences than luxuries. I had bought three Mars bars at a shop.

There was a gas heater burning before the grate: it was of the kind aristocrats in draughty mansions and the hapless in bedsitters now boast equally, with its own gas bottle. There was a prison-style piss-pot bucket behind the washstand. I took it that the emptiness of the washing jug and bowl was a sign that somewhere near there was running water. There were two huge armchairs of the kind no junk shop could shift, there being no one poor enough to need them who would have the space to keep them. On the wall above a dressing table a plump boy Jesus, reclining against a rock, stared up at his adoring mother, with his prehensile hands flopped across his great stomach. A disapproving face, done in charcoal, stares down at me. He might have been St Bruno himself. He was dispeptic and discouraging.

I was left alone for a while, and then the Prior came.

He had a shaven head gone bristly, but was very tall and, I suppose, elderly: but spry and fit looking. He spoke in an accent which might have been American or Irish. He sat himself in one of the two chairs set before the fire, like a big-winged bird settling onto a branch, and enquired whether the room was warm enough. I perched on the edge of my chair: it was so low-slung that it could not be sat in without a slumped informality I didn't feel up to.

'Please, relax', said the Prior, either setting me at my ease, or practicing authority, or both. He talked a little in the manner of a doctor, delaying the start of a consultation for a moment or two, whilst catching breath. It turned out that he had indeed been a doctor.

He had been discouraging by letter, saying that it was contrary to the spirit of the Order to have visitors. I had not taken no for an answer, and got a friend who had been on retreat in the monastery to write in my favour. It did the trick. But, said the Prior, I had better come soon, since he was shortly off to a chapter meeting of the Order at Grande Chartreuse, where it would likely be decided to be far stricter about visitors. There had been a time when visitors would come and make retreats at Parkminster, but that was an irregularity. 'An abuse, really', said the Prior. So I might be one of the last outsiders to come to this place. Only doctors, bishops or workmen would come inside, quite probably. That and the shifting, small population of people who apply to join the Order.

Before someone is invited to come and make a trial as a potential Carthusian, he fills in a questionnaire. Amongst others, it poses three trick questions, designed to exclude the men who believe that not liking the world is good reason for supposing that they could stand leaving it.

And so the applicant finds these questions:

7. For how long have you been more serious about the spiritual life - daily mass, prayer, spiritual reading? Do these come easily, or are they something of an effort?

8. Do you mix easily with others? Have you problems meeting people for the first time, and tend to withdraw from people? Have you had any intimate friendships?

9. Would you find it a strain to have just a quarterly contact with your family by mail, and a visit of a few days once a year?

About half the applicants don't get past this first hurdle. Then letters are written to priests and others who know the man. If things go well, the man comes to live amongst the monks of Parkminster.

This is the period when most people are weeded out. 'A man will come, perhaps after a fortnight, or month, and say he can't stick it. Or he'll go home, and we hear no more from him', says the Prior. But this period of trial is just the beginning. A Carthusian undergoes a novitiate of at least five years before becoming a professed monk. One man recently was at Parkminster for eight years, and on the brink of taking solemn vows, when it was agreed all round that he should not. It was a very painful episode for everyone. But, says the Prior roundly, 'I never worry about the ones I send away; I'd rather worry about those I keep. I've seen tragedies in the past.'

He also seems to be on the receiving end of a good deal of unrequited longing from men who would like to be Carthusians but cannot, for one reason or another. He cites the case of a young man in a big job who knows he could not settle to monastic life, and yet has a constant yearning to be a Carthusian.

The Prior talks of some people having a romantic yearning for the life. 'It must be hard: a bit like having married a woman one liked well enough, but always knowing that she was not the woman one had loved the most, who had herself perhaps married another man.' He kept the analogy going, to describe the position of a man's not being suitable for the life. 'You can tell, after a while, at least an experienced man can tell. It's like watching an unsatisfactory marriage: something you can't perhaps put your finger on, but there none the less. The spirit just isn't there, and you can tell.'

Some people, said another monk later, 'fancy themselves wandering in a cloister: that sort never make it.' He believed that you can rather quickly tell whether a man can take the Solitude. The difficulty sometimes is that it is only fair to give the man a chance, even if his fellows know it's going to be no good.

One tough rule of thumb a Prior or a novice master can apply is cruelly simple. If a man who proposes to become a Carthusian keeps coining to his superiors for advice and help, he's simply not making it as a solitary. If a man over forty-five applies, a Prior must seek permission from the head of the Order (always the Prior of the Grande Chartreuse). This is usually refused: there had been a tendency for monastic Orders to be used as a kind of home for retired priests, and it had become frowned on.

But more than that, there is a strong feeling that one cannot 'form' an older man: one cannot 'make a Carthusian of him'. Not that this stops the Order accepting men who have had a vocation elsewhere. The present Prior of Parkminster was a Cistercian before he became a Carthusian, and another man, a brother, had been a Benedictine, having served in the merchant navy during the war, and been an electrical engineer after that. The ex-Benedictine had found that he wanted something stricter, he says, and was finally allowed to move.

The Prior himself had believed that he was too old, should he become a Carthusian, ever to be called on to take senior office: that suited him fine, since he was determined not to be 'busy'. But it was not to be: no sooner had he professed than he was made novice master. 'It was a bombshell', he says. Now sixty-eight, he has charge of the running of the place: it involves him in a great deal of correspondence, for which he has a dictating machine and some secretarial help from

He also has a powerful interest in combatting cold, and 'I'm quite an expert on the minimum quantities required by hosiery firms before they will make a consignment of woollen underwear. He asked with real interest about what ski-wear people were adopting on mountain slopes these days: he has an elderly community, and it is taxing to know how to keep old men warm in a freezing church as they intone the night office for three hours at midnight. And then, politely, but quickly, he would consult his digital wafer watch and be off to his letters, promising to return for another talk.

His charges are a mixed bunch. There are nineteen all told: eight lay brothers and eleven priests. Of the latter, there are three Irish, one Indian, one Polish, one Swiss, and one Spanish. Only two are English.

The next Carthusian I met was straight out of Breughel. A beaming, rounded man in enormously long and battered baseball boots. He told me we shared a Christian name, and that his uncle had done the wonderful decoration of Unique Cottage in Chichester (it's one of those pottery-decorated follies). He was a Sussex man, the only one in the monastery, he said. He had been put into an orphanage when he was young: motherless, he stood between his father and a new marriage. 'That was a rough place', he said: as though this monastery of his was soft by comparison. 'We slept in huge dormitories, and had to break the ice in the trough to wash in the morning.'

We were walking along one of the sides of the cloistered square at the heart of Parkminster. 'The longest glazed cloister in the world', he said, 'five hundred and ninety-nine feet. It took seven hundred men six years to build this place: you wouldn't get it done so quickly, now.' This kindly, smiling man looked after the monastery's one hundred and fifty chickens. He seemed to like his collection of clocks above all things: six or seven of the cheapest and loudest kind adorned one of his work-rooms. 'I have all sorts of friends', he said obliquely, explaining their provenance.

Each brother had a room, he said, and ate alone, and went out of it most days only to the night office at 2.30 a. m. (if they were up to it: the Prior was not keen on the over-eighties persisting with the rigours of the routine) and at 8.15 a. m. for the conventual mass. The night office lasted two or three hours and the mass less than an hour. The fathers, the choir monks, had their own little houses. He would show me one. But first the church. It was tall and long and desperately cold. Half way down its length there was a stone screen, where, before Vatican II, there had been doors. The brothers would be in the western end of the church, and never venture beyond. For mass. they had their own church. But now, with the modern attitude to class divisions, the brothers were free to sit in choir with the priest-monks. Some did, but most preferred the old ways, as he himself did.

The same divisions had applied in the white-painted refectory, where the entire community now comes together on Sunday for their one communal meal. Previously, the brothers had sat in their own adjoining but quite separate room. There was a double-handed cup on one of the tables. It represented, said my guide, the double-handed grab that one of the medieval monks had made at his cup when it was suggested that wine might be denied the Order in future. He himself, he said, preferred tea, and never tasted the wine, which he thought, however, to be very strong. 'We never ask for what we want. We never look round at the next person. if you want something, you might tap your cup.'

We went into the roof space above the church: the arches, concave below, and tiled, were rough cast cement, and convex, up here. 'The slates cost £250 when they were put on; now they're £2.50 each.' Vast tree-trunks metal-strapped together held the great bells. Dim plankways took us along the length of the aisle, past great heaps of straw beneath air vents in the roofs where, said the old lay brother, jackdaws year after year and fruitlessly, attempted to make nests, not realizing that their home-building material always fell uselessly inside the roof. It seemed a sad waste.

And then out through a little door, and up some steps, with one unsupported railing to hang on to, and nothing else between the giddy roof and the distant grey-green of the winter quadrangle lawns below. All the lines, as straight now as the day they were put down, he said, as we looked across the roofs. French-designed, he said admiringly, perhaps marveling at the exotic quality of the place a Sussex man had found himself in all these years.

He had been in the war - driving petrol tankers in Palestine -fuelling engines of death in the Holy Land. He had been the only monk to go to war from Parkminster: glad to go, and glad to come back. He had spent a few years in the States in the 1950s, helping to set up a Charterhouse there. He had once gone to a dentist in Hove. He had over-nighted once away from the monastery. Now seventy-six, he had been fifty-three years a Carthusian. 'Not a bad record, eh?'

I asked him if he was happy. 'Oh yes', he said. 'You'd go mad if you weren't.' Perhaps he already was. Perhaps he was merely nearly in heaven already. I could not say.

The Prior himself told me that monks are at a very joyful business. 'The martyrs went singing to their deaths', he said, of the eleven London Carthusians Henry VIII first tortured with uncertainty, then actually, and then hanged, and drew, and quartered. But should a monk not be trying to enter into the sufferings of Christ, holding the sins of man in his mind, rather than bothering to be happy? 'No monk, of course, comes here in order to be happy: the happiness comes from giving oneself to God as fully as possible. The rest follows from that. In that way, again, it's rather like marriage: a successful marriage is based on people giving themselves generously, and gaining happiness as a result of that. And of course, we know that the victory has been achieved. God in his mercy entered into creation.'

And how can it be right for some men to abstract themselves from God's world and the human framework God himself invented, of procreation and the struggle to improve the material and intellectual life of the species? 'Partly it's a matter of specialization. God is worthy of being loved completely: it is right that some people should bear witness to that. But we aren't just praying for our own souls: the selfish idea of working for one's own salvation would not keep you going. It might do to start with, perhaps. But people soon mature to giving unselfish love. A young man, bright, came to me and asked whether he should work in India or become a monk: that is a question of finding out what God wants for you. It's not easy to advise someone.'

And so they come, young men and old, and ask to leave the world behind and enter what must strike anyone as a life of unparalleled hardship. Perhaps one in forty survive their first few weeks of trial (though people who want to be lay brothers do rather better).

3. Parkminster 2

I was served my food by a man dressed in a couple of anoraks and a faded navy duffel coat, like a refugee from a Noel Coward marine war film. He had slightly poppy eyes, and was diffident. Would Mr North like his lunch now? Yes. 'Yes? Thank you.' He always said thank you with a rising, slightly squeaky inflexion to the 'you'.

The man returned, with a square wooden structure, a bit like a rabbit hutch. It was painted with thick, battered brown paint and had a wooden handle on top. 'Here is your box', said the Prior, the first time I saw one. 'You will be eating as a Carthusian eats. I am afraid you will think us primitive: you eat the food from the dishes it arrives in.' There was a sliding door to the front of the thing, and the man slid it up, revealing two decks inside. On the lower was a little tower made up of three interlocking stainless steel dishes. I saw bread, dishes of jam and butter, a bottle of pale yellow liquid. The little shelves were covered with peeling sticky plastic lining paper.

'The stacking billycans are called "gamelles": I think they are used to take food to the men in the fields in France. They seem very sensible', said the Prior. 'They keep food piping hot for quite a while, which is important, because it can take half an hour for us to get all the boxes to the monks in their cells.' He left me to my lunch.

It was good. I began with a great portion of soup, in the bottom layer. And then moved up to the next pot, which contained two large pieces of fried fish, done in thyme and, batter, and then on to the third dish, which contained chips that had gone soggy from being trapped in their own steamy heat, and chopped leeks. There was brown bread and white.

As I settled to the cheese, I drank the apple juice, as I thought it, and found that it was powerful apple wine - not even cider which was slightly effervescent to the tongue. I had not touched a drink for four or five months, and this stuff ran through me like a poker's heat in herbed wine. Robin Bruce Lockhart in his book Halfway to Heaven, a detailed account of the order, says that Carthusians eat their solitary lunch slowly. I am not at all surprised, it is good. It is their only indulgence; supper at five p.m. is, by comparison, a lighter affair (though it includes another invaluable half pint of the apple stingo).

And then nothing throughout the long night; and the interrupted sleep. Though I hear, and am pleased to note, that monks do get a good tin jug of tea or coffee, which they can keep hot on their stove.

The Prior had arranged an appointment for me. I was introduced to a brother who had been a Benedictine for twelve years. A stripling of sixty-two, he called himself, compared to some of the older men. He had felt himself called to be Carthusian for nine of the twelve years he had been a black monk.

'I think I needed something stricter', there was something very nearly apologetic in the way he said it, as though he had half a thought that a tougher man could manage perfectly well on a weaker regime.

He was a smiling, kindly character, with a robust cheerfulness which may have taken more effort to achieve than met the eye. He had not known, before he embarked on it, whether he was right in his feeling about the strict life. How could one be? 'It is so hard to know whether what you want is God's will or just Joe Smith's. I suppose you just have to wait until someone else tells you. It takes enormous will to give up one's will. And I was very fond of people at Prinknash' (that is the Benedictine monastery he had been in).

This is the crucial test for a monk, and the one that so troubled Thomas Merton: to be strong and whole as a person, and at the same time to lay down one's will and to obey. A monk has to obey his Superior, and the will of the community, and hope those obediences to be obeying God. But he cannot be weak or he will go under.

Why had he entered? 'One merely does it because God wants it. And I can only say God wants it because I just know that he does, that's all. That's the whole thing about it.' What about doubts? 'Of course one has doubts, at least I do. Father Prior has told me he does not doubt, ever. But it seems to me obvious one must have doubts at times, otherwise, where's the exercise of faith?' We talked about the cool Anglo-Saxon mind and its rationalizing, and the Celtic mind. Perhaps that was where the difference lay between this brother and his community's leader.

He had been a wireless operator in the merchant navy during the war. 'There's something monastic about the life of a sailor', I said. (There is: those clear, piercing, seagoing blue, eyes are the product of innocence and loneliness and tedium and fear, not of legendary brothels. I never met such shy a childlike people as men who live with the sea.) 'Hardly', he said. 'Not as I remember it, anyway.'

He seemed to flash into momentary recollection of those giddy times, gawdy or not, guilty or not, which he had left behind him. He claims to have gone into a monastery to sober up and swot for some electrical engineering exams. His priest had suggested it, 'may have noticed something perhaps', said the brother. He had kept going back. 'Going to that damned place?' his father had demanded. 'I didn't ever want to be a monk: 'God called me.' It has been, he insists, no great sacrifice. 'You just realize you're gaining a life. The material side of life seems quite worthless. The whole thing about this life is love. Not for yourself, but for God and for humanity. Yes, humanity. I have a local boy, a young I working with me. He says he doesn't want monks to be praying for him; but I say to him, "You can't stop me praying for you if I want to'.'

The first summer he was a monk, he kept thinking, 'I'd anything for a beer'. He would have had, if allowed it, lots and lots of beer. But the place was beautiful and he loved it.

Had he ever wonder about his vocation? 'For the first ten years or so, you may perhaps sometimes think like that. But not for long.' And what about wondering what lies on the other side of the enclosure? 'Oh, I used to daydream, but not any more. I do sometimes think that I left the sea at just the last moment. I had five years of it, and I got away before it got too badly into my blood. If I had been away any longer I could not have torn myself away. I came ashore just in time.'

And now, he still misses feminine company. 'Not the sex, of course. But the femininity of life. Men living alone together, there's something disgusting about them. Something rough, like the lower deck.

'It's too rugged. I need to remind myself of refinement.' Why not the priesthood? 'I'm an anti-clerical', he laughed. 'The priesthood is a quite separate vocation. Normally, monks weren't priests, traditionally.' In the wake of the Vatican II reforms, he has taken to sitting with the fathers in the fathers' choir.

Not everyone chooses to. 'Especially the older ones, who often don't really want to. People get conservative, I suppose.' He said that one became a monk from 'a desire to go the whole hog'. It was a business, he said, full of joy. 'You couldn't live this life without joy. You know, when someone dies here it's like we're having a party. People outside would be scandalized, I think.

'Joyfulness in Christianity was rather lost after the eighteenth century, I think, when something jansenistic came into its spirit. The medievals saw it as a joyful business. But then, even mortification can be joyful. No, we don't have the "discipline" (self-flagellation) now: and we're well off without it, in my opinion: but even when it was practised people didn't think, "Oh dear, I've got to do this". They did it full of joy. Even when I clear out a drain, I do it full of joy. And there is joy in the oddest places: you know how people with the most frightful disabilities can be full of joy?'

Does the work he does distract from his monastic life? 'Well, I am an empire builder, and when I was given the job, given, in effect a little empire, I said, "here I am, a bossy little man come here to reform his ways, and you're giving me a bossy job". But they wanted me to do it, and you find that as you go on in the religious life you are guided. And God helps you.'

As a brother, he gets rather less time for recreation or walking with his confreres. The fathers walk in the country once a week, and they meet for recreation once a week. For the brothers, this is reduced to once a month. But not all the brothers bother with the recreation or the walk. They have, they say, enough of both in their ordinary working days, and feel no need of the distraction otherwise. A brother spends between five in the evening and eight the next morning alone in his room, and is there alone for his meals. Only the doorkeeper has different hours, since he must be at his post almost all the time.

4. Parkminster 3

The life of the Carthusian priest is hard to imagine, and the Carthusians do little to help. Perhaps the best way is to begin with the architecture of the hermitage to which he has been called, or has perversely chosen to live. It is, after all, in an important way the limit of his world. A man who cares to live in so limited a place probably would not mind being defined by it.

The cloister encloses a great square, which is laid out with apple trees, Its glass is mostly opaque, and its floor made of Belgian slate.

At intervals, here as elsewhere in the monastery, tiny night-lights glow beside the light switches. And there are doors with roman numerals above them. Beside each door there is a hatch, through which the monks receive their food boxes, with no communication except notes left inside if the man wants more or less bread each day.

My Brueghel brother took me to a hermitage he knew to be empty. Number 2 -'double "I"', as he called it. He rattled his great bunch of keys and let us in. A small corridor led from the door to the foot of the stairs. To the right, a door leading to a pretty little garden, wholly enclosed by stone walls, and run wild. Watering buckets, spade and fork. Flower beds still delineated against the intruding weed-cover. It looked like the sort of pleasant little place a maiden aunt might aspire to in a cathedral city somewhere, or a grace and favour apartment tucked away from prying eyes, waiting for an ancient brigadier to spend his last days in.

Still downstairs, a workshop containing tools of some woodworking craft that had once been practised here. A pedal driven lathe ('hard to work', said my guide, 'much better to have a motor'). On the wall, a saw attachment. In racks, lovely chisels and planes, their hand-rubbed, gleaming, worn surfaces still seeming to carry the impress of a man's attention. Tools whose use must have constituted a kind of prayer.

This was turning into a kind of William Morris fantasy place, except that the monk would have had precious little time to devote himself to his handiwork: an hour a day for this and his garden, thought my guide. Bruce Lockhart has done the sums: a Carthusian father will be doing his real work of: prayer, lectio divina and religious study for fourteen hours of his day, six hours of them in church and the rest alone in his cell.

We went upstairs. First, bare outer room serving, so far as I could see, no purpose. Who to entertain in this small reception room? And then through to the cell itself. A freestanding wood stove, over which a monk could keep his water or tea warm. A pathetic little heap of wood beside it. A table with a new-looking book about Carthusian monasteries in Spain. One of them was Montalegre, near Barcelona, whose retired prior came to Parkminster as an ordinary monk.

A fine old array of shelves with various devotional works, brought probably in answer to a slip in the man's box, or - if this had been the novice's wing - if the novice master had permitted it. Against one wall, a bed in a kind of box, as you see in old Ships, with a curtain which can be drawn across on cold nights. It had bed clothes still on it, after a fashion: as though the man had just got up and gone.

It altogether looked rather a shipwrecked sort of a room, quite spacious though. 'Oh, it probably seems small enough, at times', said my guide, who vouchsafed that he admires but does not envy the fathers. The hermitage seemed to have the qualities of order and tradition about it which might well comfort a man: one could imagine Robinson Crusoe self-sufficiency developing in such a place. But it also reinforces the awareness one has about the Carthusian fife,: it is intended to be without comfort.

Yet, says the Prior, 'There is a very warm family spirit. The fact that we are cut off from the world means that we have only each other, humanly speaking. There is the weekly walk of three-and-a-half hours. We change partners about every half hour, so there is opportunity for an intimate conversation every week with each one. This goes on year after year, so we -and-a-half of recreation get very close. Then there is the hour each week when we sit talking in a group. There is always much talking and laughter. Then each one has a confessor to whom he can go at any time for advice and help. All can come to me at any time; and I visit all from time to time in their cells. The sick and old are very well looked after. Our Rule gives as the first duty to the Prior to manifest God's love for all the community. And the Rule insists very strongly on the need for warm, fraternal love: 'It is the Prior's task to mirror the love of our heavenly Father, uniting the community in Christ to form one family".'

I had the luxury, as few of the fathers would have, of lazing in the library. Looking at a monastery library you see the way the world of leaming, and even the mind itself, is divided up. The section labels, written neatly on the gleaming shelves in the richly panelled room, tell the story:

theol.; ascet; paraenesis; liturgia; christologia; mariologia; hagiographa; biographica; scriptura; canonic; theol.; dogmat. theol.; monastica; cartusiana

But between the last two, in section 35, the Waverley Novels, and rather little else of a trivial nature.

Lying by themselves, some of them under lock and key, there are some very precious books. One of the finest is the psalterium cum antiphonis in fol. vellum buxheim xvi: a lovely psalter from the 1500s, with the reds of the illuminations glistening still, as though pale vivid blood had been trapped timelessly there. The cherubs have apple-bright cheeks and buoyant golden curls. The red of one of the illuminations enlivens the robe of Christ, at the scourging at the pillar, which makes the 'I' of Inclina, domine, aurem tuam, exaudi me, quia miser et pauper sum ego (Psalm 86: Bow down thine ear, 0 Lord, hear me: for I am poor and needy). The fabulous golden 'I' was in a golden box. How it must have enlivened a midnight ritual, catching a candle flicker.

'But what could that have meant to you?' I asked the Brueghel-brother, who did not know Latin and yet regretted the passing of the old liturgy in that language. 'We could come and look it up in English the night before', he said, a little doubtfully. He added, 'It's all in God's hands.' God knew what it meant, and doubtless anyone could tell that it was beautiful. Why this dreary hunt for meaning and precision? He looked at the library and its vast collection with some scepticism: knowing better, I think. He was a man you could grow very fond of.

The greatest treasure is a Carthusian gradual (the scriptures designed for chanting) which comes from the founding days of the Order. It is gradual cartusiensi vellum ddio, xii, and one hardly dared to touch it.

We went down to the cloister again, and to the graveyard. Here lie eighty-odd fathers - I didn't count them, but the Brueghel-brother had. Each grave was a mound of earth. The plain, unnamed wooden crosses were mostly straight enough, but there was every degree of freshness, from one which had not been painted at all, through those whose creosote was deep and dark, to those which were grown over with green lichens.

Less than ninety souls sent to heaven by this place; a batting average of less than one a year since its inception. It might seem a curious gain to put against the 4,200 man-years of labour that went into building the thirty-six little houses - gateways to heaven - and church involved. But then monks seem to live for ever, and God, when calling them to their cell-life, must know that he is taking men from dissolute ways, which kill quite quickly, into that spiritual purity of heart and prayer which keeps them going, when the sheer cold of the place ought to wipe them out in most winters.

The freshest grave was that of a highly educated French father who had died that winter. He was ninety-seven and his sharp brain had only weakened toward the end. He had gone to hospital - to some nuns nearby - and seemed to vegetate.

Towards the very end, they had brought him back. From not recognizing even the voice of his Prior, he seemed to brighten even as they drove him towards Parkminster. 'I think he sort of recognized Cowfold', says the Prior. 'His whole face lit up when we brought him home. And when we were singing around his bed, he seemed to be trying to join in.'

I saw no priest monks close up. It is the success of the system that they are not troubled by any sort of enquiry, leaving all that to the Prior. The nearest I came to it was tanding for assorted hours in the high, west gallery of the great freezing church and seeing the men below in the gloom. They would file in from a door near the altar, and each give a long thin bell pull a tug, affirming the celebratory, thin clamour it made above our heads, out over an indifferent Sussex landscape.

And then their bent shuffles - occasionally there would be a brisker step, but not many of the men are young - would cease and the service would begin with a knock from the Prior, whom I could not see. Their singing was willing, but it was not lively. There was no organ. There was a certain warbly vibrato from some of the voices. Sometimes a lone voice would fill the church. I could not say I thought the noise beautiful, and the grey, unlovely building seemed to me rather frightening. You would, I think, have to love God a lot not to notice a chill in the place that did not come from the absence of heat. If you could survive that chill, probably you could survive the lack of heating.

On my second and last night, I went to bed after supper and a visit from the Prior. I was a little scared, and aware for the first time of the size and loneliness of the guesthouse (it predates the monastery, which had been tacked on to, and dwarfs, it). I crossed the corridor to the lavatory, like a child which is trying to ward off demons and ghosts, wishing I had eyes in the back of my head, and a brighter torch to flash into all the icy comers. I climbed into my sleeping bag, glad I did not have to commit myself to the narrow, tapestried fourposter bed completely, but could lie on top of it, nicely insulated in my Scandinavian nylon with its bright colours.

I woke before the alarm, in plenty of time to get to the church for a quarter-past midnight. My small torch made a dim impression in the wide corridors. The gallery of the church was if possible more bitter than ever, and I was glad of anorak, jumpers, scarf (worn draped over the head), gloves, and my sleeping bag worn as a traveling rug. Down below, I could just make out some brothers in their end of the church directly beneath me, and something shadowy of the priest monks in their stall in the choir nearer the altar.

Occasionally nodding off, sometimes following the service from the rail of the gallery, enjoying the moments when someone in the church put some light on in order to read (but it was the merest glow, and nothing more) my two or three hours passed. Every sound was magnified time and time over by the vaulted aisles.

The next day, I was leaving. The Prior came to see me one last time. I think by then we were talking in familiar terms: I was certainly glad of his solid, deeply Irish intuitions about monasticism, and for his hospitality, which was all the more genuine for its having been unwilling at first, and perhaps against his better judgement throughout. He told me about the time he got lost in Paris trying to make his way across town to the general chapter at Grande Chartreuse. About how hilarious the style of a French seminarist seemed to the rather more impassive Irish: the gallic spirit lent itself to rather more dreamy looks cast at images, and exquisite sighs.

I was still trying to muddle out some thoughts about the Irish and Celtic spirit. 'Yes', he said. 'I think it's true that your Irishman is not really happy unless you can give him plenty of fasting and all-night vigils.' I could no more be a Carthusian than fly, and I left that place with little regret. The kind of love which is evident there is too wonderfully understated for me. But that very strong, very agreeable, very fine characters are drawn to it had been amply proved.

Note last updated: 24/08/2013 13:48:00

Text Colour Conventions

  1. Black: Printable Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2019
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Timestamp: 01/12/2019 15:48:00. Comments to