Awe and shock

I was having coffee with a dear friend when the subject of my journey — the one chronicled here — came up. I might have brought it up.

I wanted to talk about a sermon that I had found unsatisfactory. Not “unsatisfactory” as in “D-minus work,” but as in “I came to drink deeply and was left thirsty.” Too much of it had seemed too focused on the little “I” and its ego, and not enough on God.

“I wanted awe,” I said.

“More awe,” she said.

Yes, more awe. But what could that mean? How would it look? And would I want it if I found it?

A book I finished recently comes to mind. “An Infinity of Little Hours: Five Young Men and their Trial of Faith in the Western World’s Most Austere Monastic Order” — who needs a summary when you have a subtitle like that — by Nancy Klein Maguire (Public Affairs, 2006) tells of, well, five young men who entered an English monastery of the Catholic Carthusian order in 1960 for a five-year novitiate. Only one stayed. That tells you a lot.

Why are the Carthusians the “most austere”? Not necessarily because they deny themselves food, though they fast, impressively. Not necessarily because they deny themselves material comfort, though they do. (They even wear hair shirts.)

They’re austere because they deprive themselves of companionship, and in a particularly challenging way. Each monk lives alone in a small house with a small garden, connected to a cloister that leads to the church and other common areas. A monk will spend most of his day alone in his house cell, but will join the other monks for worship and some meals. So he is not precisely a hermit.

But, for the most part, he will converse with the other monks only once a week, on a walk in the country. The rest of the time, no conversation, no greetings, not even eye contact during many hours of communal worship and chanting. The monk is surrounded by people yet alone.

Do you expect me to say, “Isn’t this true of all of us? Are we not each of us essentially alone? Is this not man’s tragedy?” Or maybe point out that the Carthusians seek solitude so that they can focus on prayer and on God? But you guessed as much. Why else?

Why else? I’d read the book because my husband had. He’d come to the end of it a little wistful. The life sounded peaceful, he said, and valuable. “If God exists,” one of the novices says, “then being a Carthusian makes sense, is rigorously coherent.” My husband appreciated that.

What I said:  “It would be nice to know what to do each day.”

What I didn’t say: “If God were to appear to me while I was in prayer in a small, cold, dark house in deep winter, I’d … I’d … I’d … I can’t imagine that.”

A failure of imagination?

Alas, I think it is a failure of awe.

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