Interview: The Sound Of Silence

When Dom Ignace persuaded the Carthusian monks of Parkminster to break their 900-year silence to record an album of their nightly chants, he could not have anticipated the reverberations it would send through his own life.y David Rose
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The Independent Culture
CARTHUSIAN MONKS are not in the habit of seeking publicity. They live solitary lives, communicating with each other only on their weekly five-hour walks, and with the outside world on the annual family visits. Apart from these occasions, they break their silence only for their thrice- daily prayers.

The Carthusians are the most contemplative and withdrawn religious order in the Catholic Church. They live an entirely enclosed existence. There are just 450 Carthusian monks and 100 Carthusian nuns worldwide, and 28 of them live in St Hugh's Charter-house, Parkminster, the only Carthusian monastery in Britain. The eldest monk at Parkminster is 97; six are in their seventies and eighties; another three in their fifties and sixties; and the rest in their late twenties and early thirties. They come from many countries, including Australia, Brazil, Poland and France. Only five are British.

Recently, however, the Parkminster monks made a foray into the outside world. They decided to break their 900-year silence to share something of their hidden lives by recording an album of their Night Office chants, In the Silence of the Word. The Night Office consists of chanting and prayers which last from midnight to 3am, every night.

The Prior approved one press interview to coincide with the launch of the CD. And so it was that I found myself driving through the autumnal West Sussex countryside towards the Parkminster spire. The entrance gate is kept shut; three statues - of St Bruno, the founder of the Carthusian order, St John the Baptist and Our Lady - stare down benignly. Inside the gates, the stillness is overwhelming.

I was led to the visitors' kitchen, bare apart from an aerial photograph of the monastery hanging on the wall and the occasional can of mandarin pieces on the shelf. It was here that I was due to meet Dom Ignace, the young Belgian Cantor of the monastery, who was responsible for the production of the CD. I was told that the prefix "Dom" - "Father" - was used to signify that Ignace was in his last month as a novitiate and was a "future father".

I expected Ignace to be reserved, and spare with his words. But he was gregarious and energetic, his gestures flamboyant, in keeping with his former career as a conductor. He bounded into the room, gangly and chaotic, wearing a slightly grubby habit, his hair close-cropped. For someone who had taken a vow of silence, he was strikingly vocal. Ignace seemed an unlikely candidate for a life of solitude.

On the table lay a copy of In the Silence of the Word. The album was recorded over three days by a friend of Ignace, from Belgium, with whom he had worked in the past. The male voices rising and falling in unison make for a beautifully austere, absorbing sound. Before joining Parkminster, Ignace had been a professional organist with several successful recordings to his name. When I praised the album, he could scarcely contain his excitement. Only afterwards did it occur to me that mine was the only praise of his work he had received.

The album project was conceived as a way of giving the monks' families a better insight into the Carthu-sian life. In addition, English Heritage had given a grant for the restoration of the monastery and had requested some kind of public access in return: the record was judged to be a form of "intellectual access". Ignace also hoped that the record - which includes hymns, psalms, responses and prayers from the Carthusians' 900-year-old repertoire - would provide a "mini-retreat" for people out in the stressful world. "It is silence in a five-inch form," he told me.

The Carthusians' plain-chant is simpler than that of the Benedictines. "It gives a fairly good picture of what our life is," said Ignace. "It's not exciting and it's a bit repetitive. If you enter it, you find out what it's all about: peace, silence, opening up."

The monks retire to bed at 8pm, to rise again at 11.30pm for half an hour's solitary prayer before leaving their cells for the Night Office. When it ends at 3am, they retire again, until 6.45am. For the purposes of recording, however, they sang during daylight hours. "It was quite a unique experience," said Ignace. "We're not used to being together for three days. The monks are not used to thinking in terms of recording and polishing up. A community of hermits does not like singing classes, and they show it. Their vocation is 20 hours a day in the cells. I've made a solemn promise that I will not stir up anything of that kind for the next 15 years."

Apart from Matins, Vespers and the Night Office, the monks spend their days alone in prayer and contemplation, in their four-square-metre cells. One corner is arranged as a mini choir-stall. The daily meal is at 11.30am: food is passed through a hatch in the cell door to avoid "unnecessary contact". Their one luxury, it seems, is as much strong home-brewed cider as they like. "That's what keeps us warm and rosy-cheeked," said the Prior.

It is seven years before a monk takes his perpetual vows, but after five years he "joins the big boys", as Ignace put it, for two years' preparation. Ignace would soon have to "go it alone", with no reassuring visits from the Prior. The next two years were to be a time "to decide whether it's worth giving your life to it forever".

Ignace joined Parkminster five years ago, at the age of 28. Two years earlier, he had completed a three-week retreat there, but had felt the life was not for him. "I thought, it's very marvellous, I admire it, but I went off to live normally," he said. When he did eventually sign up, he had been on the verge of becoming engaged to "a bright young thing" in his choir. "I was perfectly happy in that relationship," he said. "I was longing to go forward to marriage, but then came the call to give up everything for God, who is unprovable."

He explained that his calling had come when he had least expected it. "At the end, when I thought the vocation was over, it erupted, so what can you do? I had an inner conviction that I would be more effective in making the world a better place here. You need a core - you need to keep the heart throbbing at the deepest level. We are in the eye of the storm."

Now, at 33, Ignace believed that the woman he had left behind was coping better than him. "It had to be clean-cut, otherwise it would be a wound, a wound, a wound forever," he said, explaining that it would be "too dangerous" for either of them to get in touch. "If you take such a step you had better do it very neatly and just let it heal. I really want to do this life but, at the same time, I know if I started fiddling again ... I mean, I've made a choice."

Ignace began to unburden himself further. I felt distinctly uneasy: his turmoil reminded me of the inner struggles which must go on daily despite the monastery's calm exterior. "At the moment I'm having my premature mid-life crisis," he said, joggling his knees frenetically. "I'm in one of those parts when everything is very dark and you wonder what everything is about." He described the routine in the monastery as "crushing". "It's a strange, difficult life. I've battled against that for five years and I've had to give in ..." His voice trailed off.

Ignace said he missed the liberty of a bank card and a car: "the whole gamut, from profound friendship to watching football. Here there's just God. It's liberating, but not on the first day. It will take a lifetime to balance this way of life with your own personality, your desires, your vocation. So on that level, I'm still hacking in the bush."

For Ignace, making the album was "a holiday within the walls." He explained: "It was great fun but that's nothing to do with what our life is about. I haven't come here to make CDs. I've come here to search for God and pray for the world."

The one-off recording was a strange reminder of how life might have been for him had he not taken his vows. "If I was in the world I would be doing concerts, records," he said, "but I am absolutely sure in the immeasurable realm that giving up everything and living in my own being, my body and soul, the whole drama of human life to the root, is more pleasing to God. I can become a very tiny, little Christ, who tries to do his bit. I don't expect to find an explanation but there's the conviction. It's the mystery of the cross."

Monastic life, Ignace said, was the inverse of married life in terms of satisfaction. "With marriage, it's bliss at the beginning and then you wake up after 10 years and say: 'Look what I've married'. Here, the first 10 or 20 years are a little hell of egotism, but after that you become the monks they don't make any more."

Half the monks do not stay the course, but Ignace said that no time spent in the cloisters could be wasted. "People do crack up but it's good for their life," he said. "People here crack certain nuggets they would never crack in another life. If they marry, their marriage will be far more mature than it would have been."

Asked whether he was finding the interview hard to handle, Ignace smiled: "It's disruptive, but I like it. Here you are looking for God on your own, naked, but at the same time you resist it as long as you can. So I have had two hours of resistance which you provided. I don't have to feel guilty, but for two hours I haven't had to battle, which is nice. Oh, I say much too much."

Ignace reads about five novels a year. His favourite is Brideshead Revisited, which he described as "delicious". Its theme of flawed Catholi-cism has resonances with his own life: "The whole drama of life in that book, you live in your cells. I need it to enliven my thought, and ping-pong with other people." My thoughts go to the end of the novel, where Charles Ryder returns to Brides-head, and finds, among the devastation, the lamp still burning in the chapel.

Ignace's only contact with his family, apart from a few letters, was when they visited once a year for two days. One monk, whom I met later, described writing home as "sitting in a trench and firing off hand grenades". Ignace said he had never gone back home, and never would. "What we see of the world is where we walk," he said.

Once a week all the monks go for a five-hour cross-country walk. It is the only time that they are allowed to talk, but to prevent any of the monks from becoming too close, they must change walking companions every half-hour. To Ignace, the walks were a godsend. "Young ones discover that everyone is going through the same mess and the same problems," he said. "You can't live in solitude in a healthy fashion unless you have a certain quality of communal life. It's short in time, but it's one of the touchstones of a healthy life."

We had talked for two-and-a-half hours: it was time for me to go. I had a strong sense that the conversation had run on quite long enough, that perhaps my presence was unhelpful. Ignace seemed reluctant to end it, which was hardly surprising, since his next conversation with anyone from the outside world would be next July. I felt I was abandoning a little boy at boarding school. "I'll think of you every time I listen to the CD," I said, waving goodbye.

Seven weeks later, I returned to Parkminster. An elderly father unlocked the door to the visitors' kitchen. I asked after Ignace. "He's left. He's gone," came the quiet reply. "We miss him. He was a great help with the choir. You see, he was a musician and I think he wanted to go back to that."

The Prior, Dom Cyril Pierce, was reluctant to discuss Ignace's decision, simply confirming that he had gone home to Belgium "on leave of absence". He spoke of Ignace's "artistic gifts and temperament" and the difficulty of finding a way to express such talents in the contemplative, silent life. "For someone like that, there's an enormous energy which doesn't have an outlet," he said. "Writing or painting in one sense doesn't require an immediate audience, but a musician is nourished by interaction with the audience, so it's a problem. In fact, it's the great difficulty with the solitary life ... it makes it very difficult sometimes."

I spoke to another monk, Patrick Howarth. He was 43 and, like Ignace, had been in the monastery almost five years. Before joining he was a computer consultant for 10 years and, before that, a croupier for six. He said that he was glad he had joined the monastery relatively late in life. "I don't sit here thinking I'm missing out on the world." He had had a brief chat with Ignace before he left, which had left him feeling sad. "I didn't realise," he said. "All these things he was working through. In that sense, he didn't feel able to talk."

Ignace's departure seemed as unpredictable as his arrival. As Patrick put it: "I think it's God-willed if you come. I think it's God-willed if you go."

'In the Silence of the Word' is published by Darton Longman and Todd, price pounds 14.95. To order, telephone 0181 875 0155