Then chairman of The Catholic Herald, Peter Sheppard, had been invited by Fr Michael Seed to visit the Carthusian monks of Parkminster. His report on his visit to England’s silent monastery appeared in the issue of 30 June 2006.
Can you imagine spending every day in silence, in private prayer? As Fr Michael Seed and I sat drinking tea with the Prior of Parkminster and one of the other monks (I will not name him because Carthusians are anonymous) I suddenly realised what a unique experience we had been given.
I had been allowed six hours in the most silent monastery in the country where guests are, as a rule, unwelcome.
I had come to Parkminster at the suggestion of Fr Michael, who proposed the visit as part of my penance. I am one of the most unlikely candidates for a silent order and hopelessly wedded to material things. Perhaps that was why Fr Michael chose the most extreme of all monasteries for this visit?
We had arrived in my Bentley Continental GT which I parked in the drive. The throaty purr of the engines was immediately detected by our host (not the Prior) who was in ecstasy over the car. If you don’t know about these things, the Bentley GT is a 200mph silver cat of a car. It was the monk’s absolutely innocent delight, without any form of covetousness of material things, which was so endearing.
Parkminster is a beautiful Romanesque honey-stone monastery built in a great hurry to accommodate two communities which were about to be expelled from the Continent in 1873.
It is supposed to have the largest quadrangle in Europe with miles of covered cloisters. A monk came around the corner on a bicycle, this being the quickest way of getting around. I wondered why there was a need to rush in a place like this where peace and tranquility are the order of the day. In the centre of the quad is a great square lawn which would be the pride of a Cambridge college gardener.
Our host monk took us straight in for lunch. We went into a vast, though rather empty, kitchen where wooden boxes were lined up each bearing the name of a monk. The boxes allow meals to be delivered through a hatch to the monks’ individual residences, minimising the need for contact or conversation.
Scanning the kitchen shelves, I was rather depressed to see packets of Brake Brothers instant soups. Our host explained that food was “not of great importance” and that they bought prepared food and reheated it. Jamie Oliver: unfortunately your services are not required.
We sat down alone and ate our lunch, which was washed down with apple wine l2 degrees proof, three or four times the strength of cider.
The monks don’t eat with guests and, in any case, this being a Friday, they only had bread and water.
After lunch we were taken on a private tour of the monastery. Fortunately our host had a dispensation to talk to us and he enthusiastically described the life of the community within this vast building. There are 20 monks and seven postulants at Parkminster waiting to take their vows. It takes a lot of space to ensure that they can experience solitude so each monk has a hermitage — the size of a typical three-bedroom Victorian terraced house and a garden.
Each priest also has his own chapel for saying daily Mass in addition to the daily Conventual Mass concelebrated with the community.
We were invited to Vespers in the church. As we entered, a monk was standing in the middle in front of the High Altar tolling the bell and as more monks arrived they each took it in turn to ring the bell. Fr Michael and 1 made our way to the stall at the back so that we were sitting opposite the altar between two rows of monks.
The stalls were very curious. You don’t sit but lean back and the floor under the lectern beneath you is sloping, which makes kneeling rather uncomfortable.
The monks were wearing their distinctive cream linen and wool habits with cowls over their heads. The six postulants wore black caps on their shaved heads. One young visitor still had a full head of dark curly hair.
Large books of plainsong were given to us but I didn’t want to interfere with the monks’ lives through singing a wrong note so I stayed quiet during the distinctive Carthusian chanting.
After Mass it was a climb up hundreds of steps to the top of the monastery tower, a landmark used by aircraft from Gatwick Airport.
“The architecture of Parkminster visibly expresses the spiritual ideal and the soaring tower surmounted by a cross proclaims the upwards elevation of the ensemble through Jesus Christ towards God,” our host told us.
Up we went, past the clock mechanism, beyond the bells, to the clock and then outside through a small opening where, beneath us, the whole architecture of the Charterhouse was laid out: the huge main cloister, the church, chapter house, library, refectory and each of the hermitages with their little gardens.
Our host showed us round his own garden where he had planted flowers around a carefully designed stone and concrete path which he had made himself. His garden could not he overlooked and here he could spend some quiet time in the afternoon.
We went into his house. Through the front door is a long passage, maybe 40 feet long. Here, he explained, was where he could get exercise when it was raining. In a corner was his coal store and, around the corner, two rooms containing lots of woodworking machines and tools. The monk told us that he often made essential items for the monastery. There was also a hatch for putting through his food box.
Upstairs was a room about 15ft by 12ft called the cubiculum which is where the monk spends most of his time. Here he prays, studies, eats and sleeps.
It was a simple room with a bed hidden behind curtains and a shower room around the corner. Hanging up was the heavy cream woolen winter habit, but as this was spring he was wearing his elegant linen one. In one corner was a coal and wood burning stove. He explained that it heated up water but because the tank was in the roof, the room remained cold. I suggested they needed to fix up a radiator in the room and he enthusiastically agreed.
He then took us off to the vast library with examples of books over a thousand years old and on to the cemetery where simple, unnamed plots are marked with crosses.
Nearby was the printing works, for which Parkminster was once famous, but which has not been in use for decades. The Victorian presses stand idle, with piles of printed sheets waiting to be bound.
The Prior joined us in the refectory. He is a very ascetic and rather beautiful man in his late forties. He is very thin, being unenthusiastic about eating, and of course is sporting the shaved head which these days is rather fashionable. Apparently the Carthusians don’t like having to choose one of their own so the appointment of a Prior to lead them is made from abroad.
I asked about St Bruno — founder of the Carthusians. The Prior smiled ironically as he told us that St Bruno, having founded the most strict of silent orders, was called to be a bishop after only seven years. He, on the other hand, has been a Carthusian for 25 years, as had our host.
The Prior explained that although English is spoken in the Charterhouse there are 20 different nationalities between the 28 monks.
I asked if they ever talk. A pope in the twelfth century was said to be so concerned at their extreme asceticism that he insisted that the Carthusians took a weekly two-hour walk and spoke to each other. This they do, in an orderly way in pairs.
But today the Prior’s main concern is noise. When Parkminster was built, there was no Gatwick Airport and no M23 — in fact, no mechanical vehicles of any sort.
He has considered selling the monastery to a hotel. “They could put a swimming pool in the middle of the quadrangle,” he mused. I was horrified, of course, but for a non-materialist these things are not important. The holy Prior longs to be in a desert where there is no sound, except perhaps for the quiet harmony of plain chant.
As we loaded up the Bentley with six bottles of exclusive Parkminster apple wine, our host produced his camera.
I photographed Fr Seed with the monk in front of the car holding a copy of a book entitled To Be Rich You Must Be Poor.
Time, I reflected, to rethink.
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