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Carthusians - The Long Retreat

(Text as at 18/12/2010 19:58:05)

(For earlier versions of this Note, see the table at the end)

My long retreat in cell depended for its meaning on its being a spiritual experience. I am now doubtful about the content of spiritual experiences, so cannot now enter into the spirit of the experience as I once might have. I agree that spiritual experiences are genuine experiences. I just doubt that they are experiences of anything spiritual, on the grounds that there are no spiritual things to be experienced. So, anyone looking for spiritual enlightenment in these pages will probably be disappointed, though they may find the account of the experiences interesting.

It’s an odd sort of experience to volunteer for – on one level, I imagine, far worse than 6 weeks “solitary” in the clink and, if imposed against someone’s will, would be deemed torture. Indeed, some (maybe many) who have tried the experience have not been able to bear it, and have either stuck it out only to suffer a nervous breakdown, or have legged it after a short time realising it is not for them. "Maguire (Nancy) - An Infinity of Little Hours: Five Young Men and Their Trial of Faith in the Western World's Most Austere Monastic Order" recounts various episodes of this happening, including one in less than a day (see pages 98-99).

To survive, it helps to be psychologically very robust and self-sufficient, and it is said that outgoing types do best. I think I satisfy the former though not the latter condition. After the first few hours, during which time your mind is buzzing and you’re almost bouncing off the walls as you pace up and down, your mind slows down and becomes more contemplative. The main problem is that there’s nothing to do. This isn’t because of idleness, nor is there no structure to the day, nor is there no physical activity, and a lot of the time is taken up with saying or chanting the divine office. It’s just that you have no projects, no goals beyond living day by day with God in silence and solitude. Maybe novices have their studies to provide focus, but the Carthusian aim is to live in the present with God, walking with God as a man walks with his friend.

Now the Carthusians are often described as the most extreme western religious order. I don’t think this is quite true. While there are no longer any stylites (sitters on pillars), I think there are still anchorites who live in caves in the sides of cliffs, or are locked in their cells for life. I forget the name of the order. The Carthusian life is much less extreme, and much more balanced than this. In any case, the Carthusian silence, especially for novices, postulants, retreatants and office-holders like the Novice Master, Prior, Procurator or Vicar, is not absolute, for verbal communication is occasionally necessary either for teaching or passing on instructions, together with spiritual counselling. But there’s no opportunity for a leisurely chat, other than twice a week – firstly on the long walk, and secondly (for Novices and Postulants) at Sunday recreation. However, a week is a long time in cell, as well as in politics. One could go mad in a week.

It’s nearly thirty years since I was ensconced in my cell, and I’ve forgotten some of the details, so if you want a bona-fide account of what a Carthusian cell is like, you’ll need to consult the sources listed here1. I’ll simply allude to whatever details I can remember as this becomes necessary. I’ll also try to be honest about my experiences, even when they are rather embarrassing. As I’m not trying to write a spiritually-uplifting tale, I don’t need to worry about relating those occasionally sordid aspects of our physical existence that make living the spiritual life so hard. Other than people reading them and sniggering about me in private, that is.

I’ve recounted some aspects of the life at Parkminster elsewhere, namely my remembrances of the other novices2 and of the then Prior, Dom Guy Thackrah3, together with an account of the long walk4. There are also episodes in my account of why I became a Christian5. I will not intentionally repeat any of this material here.

I was fortunate in that my retreat in cell was in the summer (May /June), so I didn’t have to endure the privations of the winter that I’ve mentioned under my account of a stay in the guest house6. Parkminster is desperately cold in winter, but the weather was idyllically warm and sunny during my long retreat, or at least I remember it so.

The Carthusian cell is in reality a small two-story house with a walled garden. The cells are arranged around the great cloister in such a way that the gardens are not overlooked, and nothing beyond your own garden can be seen from a particular cell. When I was at Parkminster the monastery was beginning to get somewhat run down. The community were few and old, and there few brothers young enough to do the maintenance. There always seemed to be recent falls of plaster from the cloister ceiling. Also, it seemed that some major renovation was called for. The wood in the cells was what seemed to be untreated pine, and there seemed to be woodworm everywhere. The cells have a workshop on the ground floor, with a lathe. In my cell the tools were riddled with woodworm, and useless. Hopefully the structures of the cells themselves were sound. Recently, Parkminster has received a £1,000,000 grant from English Heritage, though I’m not clear how far this will go on a building covering so many acres (for comparison, the maintenance on King’s Chapel is £150,000 p.a., with a 5-year restoration about to commence costing £3,200,000).

The sanitary arrangements aren’t wonderful. I understand that in the 1990s showers were installed in all the cells. When I was there, there was no hot water in the cells, though you could have a shower once a week. It was allegedly possible to have a sort of shower in the cell garden (which is not overlooked) by using a watering can with water heated either in the sun or on the stove. I didn’t avail myself of this rather chilly option, the stove being lit only in winter, when I imagine the garden would be rather chilly. Mid-week personal hygiene was a bit of a saga and ablutions required careful scheduling because, in summer, water had to be heated in a large tin that had formerly held an industrial quantity of baked beans (not consumed on the premises), using a paraffin lamp as a rather feeble Bunsen. It used to take an hour per tin. If I remember correctly, the washbasin was upstairs, but the loo was downstairs.

Readers who are easily revolted should skip this paragraph. At the time I had what was later diagnosed as an anal fistula (Henry V died of one; the condition and cure became quite popular in the court of Louis XIV, who had had one, though I imagine the then standard corrective surgical procedure of cauterisation wasn’t much fun in the absence of anaesthetics. Thankfully there was no known cure then for a cleft palate, another of the Sun King’s afflictions, or presumably it’d also have caught on with the courtly sycophants). Anyway, this thorn in the flesh was rather uncomfortable, especially after the long walk, and difficult to keep clean with a tin of tepid water and a smelly flannel. I doubt whether the angels, whose life the Carthusians hope to imitate, have to worry about such things. Since I didn’t have to wear a hair shirt, I should have counted myself lucky.

As a retreatant (and even later as a postulant) I wore my own clothes (jeans + T-shirt), rather than being “clothed” in the heavy woollen Carthusian habit, which I understand can be rather hot in summer. Nor did I have my head shaved. I was rather looking forward to these rites of passage, and regret not having persisted long enough to enjoy them, though I imagine the novelty wears off rather rapidly, like that of one’s first blazer at senior school, or first suit in the office. I can remember thinking impiously that the shaved-head might be a good cure for dandruff.

The main attraction of the Carthusian life, if you can stand it, is the night office. The drawback is the broken sleep, which is difficult enough in any case on a straw mattress in a box-bed with no springs. In summer you can end up going to bed during the daylight twice in one day (if the night office is extended as it is on feast days). The curtains round the bed are rather ineffective at keeping out the light, but I’ve always been a good sleeper, so didn’t have too much difficulty nodding off. There are no alarm clocks, so one of the monks has the job of waking the others – there’s a bell over the bed that is rung from a bell-pull outside the cell. Each monk gets up and dressed, says whatever little office is required in cell, and then lurks by the door until the sacristan rings the church bell. All the monks then emerge from their cells simultaneously and process to the church, holding a small paraffin lamp to show the way. This is all very atmospheric. It had been known for a bat to collide with the lamp, leaving the poor monk somewhat in the dark. The bell is kept tolling by the rope being passed from monk to monk as they reach the church.

While the night office was more than two hours long (three on a feast-day), and was mostly in Latin, it was the highpoint of the day. I knew the Psalms well and in any case the readings were in English. Occasionally I’d not be able to pick out what some of the canticles were going on about, but this didn’t really matter. It was very still and peaceful. The antiphonals which contained the words and music for the plain-chant were massive affairs, like two paving-stones sewed together, and seemed unreasonably complicated to me, involving a lot of page rustling to find the right place. Thankfully, there were two monks (or was it three) to a book, with an experienced monk in charge of the rustling, and I just had to follow along. I think finding your way around the antiphonal was part of the training in the noviciate, so presumably after five years you’d get the hang of it. For me, until this facility had been achieved, the complexity would have been a distraction from devotion.

Since most of the monks were ancient, the singing wasn’t of a high standard, but it was adequate and I was glad that the aesthetic elements didn’t receive undue weight. There’s an account in "Maguire (Nancy) - An Infinity of Little Hours: Five Young Men and Their Trial of Faith in the Western World's Most Austere Monastic Order" (see references under “Dom Philip”, but especially Chapter 11 “Monks Off Pitch”) that describes how a musical novice was driven to distraction by the other monks’ lack of musicality, and consequently, whilst he completed his 5-year noviciate, didn’t proceed to full profession, and left the community. Thankfully, no-one complained about my poor singing voice.

While the monks sing in community, they do so with their hoods up, so there is no eye-contact. The idea is to maintain the stillness and avoid unnecessary distractions. However, a monk did once tell me that in the 60’s they’d had a number of “long haired” retreatants and postulants (who aren’t hooded), which had been distracting as it looked as though women had been let into the monastery.

The total disallowance of chatter meant that you had to know or deduce what was going on – you couldn’t ask. The Prior had a gavel that he’d rap on occasions to indicate that it was time to proceed after some pause for reflection.

One of these was the prostration and period of silence following the consecration in the conventual Mass. This was rather uncomfortable, the wooden floors of the choir stalls being rather hard. It may be that the Carthusian habit provides some padding, though I imagine the hair shirt must be rather itchy. So, it was difficult not to be distracted. Moreover, I used to find it difficult to meditate on the miracle of transubstantiation because I wasn’t sure I really believed in it. This would have been a fatal objection to persisting with the Carthusian life but, like a lot of things, I hoped this would eventually be resolved.

The idea behind transubstantiation is that at the consecration, the substance (what they really are) of the elements of bread and wine literally turn into the body and blood of Christ. This would be treated as a ludicrous idea where it not an attempt to take the Scriptures literally – it takes the “is” in Jesus announcement “this is my body” as the “is” of identity. It seems obvious that it should be taken as an “is” of representation. Not all “is”s are “is”s of identity. “I am the door” is presumably some sort of functional “is”. “I am the bread of life” likewise, with several levels of metonymy – “bread” standing for “food”, and food for spiritual nourishment. So, it’s an exegetical mistake to take the “consecration “is”” as one of identity, but it’s worth thinking why this is so. The reason, surely, is that it’s such an odd claim if intended literally. In philosophy there’s an exegetical principle known as “the principle of charity”, where if someone says something that appears strikingly odd, the approach is to try to construe what they say in such a way that it sounds more reasonable. Now this can be a dangerous principle – philosophers say a lot of odd things, and some of them mean them. The point of the principle of charity in philosophy is not to make your opponent appear more ridiculous than is strictly necessary. Jesus also said many provocative things that he doubtless intended to be taken and acted upon literally (eg. to his disciples, though not necessarily to everyone, “take what you have and give to the poor, and come follow me” was intended to be taken literally). God’s ways appear passing strange on occasions. But could he have intended the consecration words literally?

Well, people have always struggled to understand the metaphysics of transubstantiation. A substance is something that continues to exist despite the changes in its properties over time. So, the piece of bread can continue to exist despite going dry, mouldy or losing some crumbs, but it ceases to exist on consumption. There are some properties it is said to have essentially. A piece of bread cannot change into a lump of gold and remain the same thing. What has happened in this example is that (maybe gradually) a piece of bread has gone out of existence and been replaced by a lump of gold, a different thing altogether. During the supposed transformation, a piece of bread has been diminishing in size and a piece of gold increasing. What is supposed to be happening in the case of transubstantiation? What it sounds like is that a single thing has retained its manifest properties, but has changed from being one substance (bread) to another substance (flesh). This seems to be metaphysically impossible (or an incorrect description). What might more sensibly be supposed to happen is that (presumably immediately at consecration) a piece of bread is swapped out for a piece of flesh with the manifest property of “looking-like-bread”, but even this doesn’t seem to work. I’m not sure what the essential properties of flesh are, but something looking like a piece of bread cannot possess any of them. Maybe the idea of haecceity (“thisness”) that denies that substances have any essential properties (they are “bare particulars”) can rescue the situation in this substitutionary account, but the whole situation is so odd that we should do all in our exegetical powers to avoid having to interpret the text as meaning that.

Getting back to prostrations, I doubt I had the philosophical vocabulary at the time to entertain such thoughts. For all I knew (and know) some philosophical subtleties might rescue the situation – I should read what Aquinas has to say – but my mind is such that such questions are conundrums to wrestle with, not mysteries to meditate on with thanksgiving. So, they added to the discomfort and distraction of prostration on a hard floor.

There was also a service in church in the mid afternoon, namely Vespers. It ended with a cracking tune, which was incidentally a hymn to the Virgin Mary. I think the fact that the singing was in Latin helped avoid any cognitive dissonance. As I’m not a fluent Latin speaker, I could turn off the attempt to understand what the literal meaning of the words was, and substitute something more appropriate. Such mental adjustments were in any case necessary when reading some of the Psalms. One could hardly wholeheartedly support the notion that “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.” (Psalm 137.9). No doubt some contextual defence can be made of such apparent rejoicing in barbarity (exegetes are nothing if not ingenious), but it’s difficult (and probably wrong) for a present-day individual to share in this rejoicing. So, some spiritualization or application had to be made (e.g. substituting ones sins, or sinful nature, or whatever one held overly dear, for the “little ones”. The rational thing to do would be to say that entering into the spirit of such Psalms is not appropriate, and that they should not be sung unless you could do so conscientiously; otherwise they should be taken as (maybe) appropriate to their times, but with no application “to us today”. But the Carthusians were reluctant to pick and choose, which is probably not a bad thing.

The food at Parkminster wasn’t bad. No meat, of course, but the fish is fine, though I found that I couldn’t eat mine if it was a fish with lots of small bones; the forks are made from wood with the tines so far apart that you can’t pick out the bones. There are two meals a day during summer, which is plenty. Friday; however, is a “bread and water” day. You can make bread soup using hot water and a little salt, though this isn’t the most thrilling of concoctions. The food is served in gamelles (a tower of three interlocking steel dishes, so that the soup, main course and pudding keep one another warm). The meals are delivered by an unseen brother to the cell hatch in a wooden box that also holds the bread and tea / cider. On one occasion, the door of my diner box fell open when I removed it from the hatch so that the contents spewed out all over the floor of my ambulatory. I managed to rescue a fried egg (it must have been rather rubbery as it survived a good wash), the bread and the odd chip, but otherwise I went hungry. Father Bernard told me that the Carthusian life was hard enough without enduring accidents like this, and that I should have requested a replacement; but I wasn’t sure how to track one down, and, in general, wandering about out of your cell was a sin against obedience.

Talking of obedience, excessive piety was also a sin. I used on occasion to be so enraptured with (as I then thought) private conversation with God that I didn’t want to go to sleep at the appointed time of 18:45 (remember, we had to get up again at 23:00). Occasionally I’d stay up for an extra hour in rapturous meditation. I had occasion to mention this to Father Bernard (maybe one day I’ll explain why), and got a right wigging for disobedience.

The cider was a strange anomaly. The order is French, and the French like their wine. When the community first moved from France in the 19th century, wine used to be carted over in large barrels, to the consternation of the local population. After the French majority died out, the community came to brewing cider. It was stonking good stuff, but rather potent; drinking a half-litre bottle at lunchtime would make the afternoon a struggle. So, I was very abstemious, after the first attempt. Honest.

Father Bernard used to call on me a few times a week to see how I was getting on. I can now remember little of what we spoke about. He’d given me some Russian and Greek orthodox writings (in English) to read, so we discussed these and the western spiritual greats like the 16th century Spanish mystics, Theresa of Avila and John of the Cross. There’s a certain credulity to be noted amongst pious Catholics, and Father Bernard (despite his medical training) was not exempt. There’s a story that Theresa and John were conversing on spiritual things (through a grille, of course – I think John of the Cross was Father Confessor to the Carmelite convent where Theresa was ensconced). They were allegedly so enraptured by their spiritual conversation that they both started floating in the air. Father Bernard told me this tale with such pleasure and innocent wonder, that I didn’t want to dispute the matter, but it struck me even then that it’s highly unlikely that anyone, however spiritual, would levitate.

I repeat here a reminiscence from a letter to a correspondent7.

“Fr Bernard is one of the warmest and most well-integrated men I’ve ever met. I’m not sure I’d have given (Parkminster) 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.”

The idea behind Orthodox spirituality seems to be that there can be spiritual expertise (exemplified by the staretz), and spiritual exploits (by podvizhniks), but that all can attain to such feats by means of prayer without ceasing – using the “Jesus Prayer” or “prayer of the heart”. “The Way if a Pilgrim” describes the journeys of a simple man who visits the various staretz in monasteries throughout Russia in search of spiritual counsel, but finds continual recitation of the Jesus prayer the surer way. The prayer has a number of variants, but is essentially a mantra with the words “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”. I did try this, but it made my head ache, and seemed to interfere with the interior silence needed for contemplative prayer. Maybe I hadn’t got the technique right.

As well as the three services a day in the church, the monk has to say the rest of the divine office in cell. Thankfully, this was in English. This was quite a time-confusing task, and it was occasionally difficult to drag oneself away from whatever else one was doing when the bell rang. Eventually it just became part of the rhythm of life. I particularly enjoyed the Athanasian creed with its precise Trinitarian formulations; I remember that it contained the refrain I particularly enjoyed in those days of mystical contemplation - “The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, the Holy Spirit incomprehensible; yet we do not believe in three incomprehensibles but one incomprehensible”, but when I looked it up just now it wasn’t there, but only the injunction not to believe there are three uncreateds, infinites, eternals or almighties. A little research reveals that the version I was looking at has substituted the more innocuous “infinite” for “incomprehensible – Quicumque vult (Quicumque vult) for the English and Latin texts from the Mediaeval Sourcebook with incomprehensibility restored. The Latin is “immensus” (immeasurable / boundless / endless / vast / immense), so I suspect “infinite” is more correct, though it seems that the Greek manuscripts, from which the 16th and 17th century Anglican and Catholic translations were made, had akataluptos, which does mean “incomprehensible”.

I’ll update this section from time to time as memories return, but for the time being this will have to do.

Printable Versions:

Table of the Previous 2 Versions of this Note:

Date Length Title
23/09/2007 11:31:12 23642 Carthusians - The Long Retreat
23/09/2007 11:24:00 1936 Carthusians - The Long Retreat

Note last updated Reference for this Topic Parent Topic
18/12/2010 19:58:05 721 (Carthusians - The Long Retreat) Carthusians - Main Text

Summary of Note Links from this Page

Carthusian Novices Carthusian Walks Carthusians - Hugh. T1H1T1 Carthusians - Main Text Guy Thackrah
Parkminster - Guest House Why did I become a Christian?      

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