A Month of Sundays

“The first forty-eight hours are the worst,” said a Benedictine monk of my acquaintance when I told him I was going to be spending a month at Parkminster. “But if you can get through that you’ll be fine!” he added cheerfully.

Helpful advice, no doubt, but still – not exactly reassuring.

Nowadays, few religious communities live up to the typical monastic clichés of austerity and self-denial; indeed some are really quite comfortable. The Carthusians, by contrast, reinforce all the popular stereotypes. And then some. The cool, vast, empty cloister – which never seems to warm up, even in summer – is home to a community whose way of life has remained largely unchanged for hundreds of years. Although it was only built in the late nineteenth century, the sight of hooded monks silently making their way to church in the middle of the night conveys the unmistakeable impression that Parkminster is in every respect a living medieval monastery.

During the month I spent there, I never quite managed to shake the feeling that I had stepped back in time, nor did I ever get used to the fact that there really are people still doing this today, in Britain, and through their own choice. Their cloistered life, by any measure of what most people would consider normal, is completely unnatural. The Carthusians see themselves as heirs to the desert fathers, and they deliberately strive to re-create the ethos of early Egyptian monasticism by being a community of hermits. Are they the ultimate escapists, or the most deeply engaged with the reality of being human? At times I couldn’t help thinking they had to be completely mad. Yet at other times it was clear that they were not only more sane, but also more free than any of us.

 Well, the first forty-eight hours were pretty tough. And I say that as someone who really enjoys being in these kinds of places. I’ve stayed in monasteries where I’ve had nothing but a hard pallet to sleep on. I’ve happily risen at four o’clock every morning to spend two hours in silent prayer before dawn. I’ve shared a cell with rats, allowed mosquitoes to bite me while I meditated, and sat cross-legged under a tree with my back to a cobra’s lair. Monasteries, in short, are my thing, and I had been eagerly looking forward to my stay at Parkminster for months. The place is legendary: monks of other orders speak about it in hushed tones. “That’s a real monastery,” they say with a mixture of admiration and horror.

It is almost impossible to get into Parkminster, and of the few who do make it, most can’t wait to get out again. Those who manage to stick it out, however, seldom leave unaffected. Like a mountaineer who dreams of Everest, I yearned to taste their way of life for myself, and fully expected to be bowled over, if not transported to higher planes. Shortly after my arrival – in fact, almost as soon as I found myself alone in my cell – it slowly dawned on me: this wasn’t going to be much fun. The isolation is almost total. Not only is there no contact with the outside world – no newspapers, radio, TV or internet – but very few concessions to the basic comforts of modern life that the rest of us take for granted. There is electricity – it was put in during the 1970s – but no hot water or central heating. Food is simple, furnishing minimal and certainly not soft. There are no carpets, curtains, or comfy armchairs. My iron bedstead was tiny, the lumpy horsehair mattress and coarse blankets, covered in patches, looked as if they could have been as old as the monastery itself. Having said that, my cell was not completely devoid of creature comforts. A little stack of logs lay neatly piled beside the wood-burning stove, and – appropriately enough – a copy of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers was waiting for me on the desk.

For the first few days, however, I was miserable. Disappointed with myself for not enjoying it, and stunned by what seemed to be a joyless and implacable regime, it felt like an endurance test. It wasn’t only the solitude and the silence that got to me, but the feeling of being totally cut off from the world. I’m not averse to spending time on my own at home. I don’t feel the need for constant company and distraction; I’m quite content to just get on with doing my own thing. But in such circumstances, and even if I don’t see anybody all day, I can still make phone calls, listen to music, read the papers, or go for a walk. Not here.

But I persevered.

Many don’t apparently, and Carthusians delight in stories of people who come to them with all sorts of romantic notions of being a monk, imagining they want nothing more than to spend the rest of their days in silent contemplation, only to beg to be let out again as soon as possible. I may have been tempted to run away myself on a couple of occasions, especially to begin with, but I was determined to do my time and I’m glad that I did. As one of the brethren later pointed out, there is a big difference between seeking an experience, and seeking that which it is an experience of. After a period of acclimatisation – probably about a week – I gradually began to appreciate life in the artificial desert of the Charterhouse, although the severity of the discipline never really became any easier to endure. Clearly it would take a lot longer than a month to get used to getting up at midnight to spend three hours in church. Not to mention the lack of coffee, having no choice about what I ate (and to be honest, monastic catering can leave a little to be desired), nothing but bread and water on Fridays, and cold showers. But far harder than all these physical privations was the mental discipline of just being present. This was what Dom Cyril, the Novice Master would always emphasise when he dropped by every few days to check up on me.

“Just be here,” he would say, echoing Abba Moses, the desert father who famously said: ‘Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.’ And for the first week or so he would always ask, “Are you here yet?” It took me a little while to understand what he really meant. Completely removed from all the business of everyday life, I became very aware that most of my time was being spent elsewhere: thinking about all the things I could or should be doing, the people I might have been seeing, what I would do when I got out, and so on. Indeed, much of this idle daydreaming was taken up with making plans for the future, surely the most pointless of enterprises and a clear sign of a distracted and unfocused mind. But slowly I began to notice how the silence, discipline, and ironically even the enclosure itself – which seemed so restrictive at first – actually allowed for the opening up of a new interior space, free and still, that I am not normally aware of.

For all the emphasis on silence and solitude, however, the Carthusians are still a community, and the communal aspect of their life is vitally important. As well as gathering in church three times a day, they also go for a long walk through the local countryside on Monday afternoons. This is the only time they are able to talk to one another, and apart from chopping logs for the winter, or gardening, it may also be the only physical exercise they get. During my first week I wasn’t allowed to join the walk – Dom Cyril wanted me to settle in properly first – so by the time I did get to go, I had already been there nine days. Nine days without meeting any of the other people that I nevertheless knew were there, sharing the silence around me. Nine days without being able to put names to any of the faces of the shadowy figures with whom I spent four and a half hours in church every day. And yet at the same time, because everyone always sits in the same place, during those nine days I became very familiar with the monks on either side of me – just from their physical presence – even though I didn’t even know the most basic thing about them: their names.

By the second week, I was a little apprehensive about going on the walk. What would we talk about? Would it feel awkward breaking the silence? What if no one said anything? We paired up and set off. After so many days with no conversation at all, I suddenly became acutely aware of the extent to which we take our normal social interaction for granted, and that we must fail to really hear one another as a result – not to mention how banal and disposable much of our everyday chatter is. Walking in twos, and changing partners every half hour, these brief but intense encounters allowed no time for commerce in mundane pleasantries: after the most cursory of introductions we just plunged straight in. I was amazed by the amount of information that could be exchanged in such a short period of time. In a single afternoon I discussed everything from the Spanish civil war to popular Hollywood movies. I also heard half a dozen fascinating life-stories.

In spite of the fact that I had found the life a little too challenging at times, as I sat in church for the last few services before I was due to leave, I suddenly realised how much I’d got used to and grown to love the place. I knew then that I’d look back on my month with great fondness for years to come, feeling very fortunate to have shared for a brief moment in the lives of a great bunch of ordinary people doing an extraordinary thing. I tried to think of the most appropriate word to sum up the month. ‘Fun’ wouldn’t have been strictly accurate, while ‘interesting’ is just banal. Then on the morning of my departure, it suddenly came to me: inspirational, in the proper sense of the word. It was a truly special time. But I didn’t fully appreciate quite how special it was until afterwards.

My first day back in the ‘real’ world felt very odd indeed. I had been looking forward to going home; looking forward to drinking coffee, listening to music, and well, everything really. But it was actually all rather bewildering. Not to mention noisy. The religious life is intense; that’s what I like about it, and at Parkminster it’s even more intense than at most places. That’s why I found it so difficult to begin with. Like neat spirits, it was too strong for me. But then I got used to it. That didn’t mean the intensity lessened, just that I didn’t notice it so much. Until I left, that is. And then, readjusting to normal life was as difficult and as unhappy as it had been to adjust to life in the Charterhouse during those first couple of days. I actually found myself missing the place – the exact reverse of my arrival – and I felt incredibly sad.

The religious life is either totally mad or truly sane. Sometimes it’s really hard to know which.

This article is based on an extract from my book Tantalus and the Pelican: exploring monastic spirituality today, 2009.

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