Ever fancied taking up the habit? The Carthusian monastery of St Hugh's Charterhouse, near Cowfold in Sussex, is looking to recruit fresh novices, Completed in 1883 to house 200 monks, today there are only about 20 - plus a cow. With some of the fathers getting on a bit, the monastery needs a new batch of postulants to carry the English Carthusian tradition into the next century.
Despite being the largest monastery in England, the sprawling mass of Charterhouse is cleverly secluded. The soaring spire which protrudes above the tree tops is the only clue as to what lies beyond. On the inside, the building comprises a labyrinth of passages and cloisters, libraries, chapels, winding stairwells and inner courtyards.
In theory, anyone can join the community (one monk was a computer consultant in a former life, on a salary of 45K a year). Applicants should approach in writing and must fill in questionnaires.
"It is a question of weeding out the weirdos," Father Cyril, the prior, insists. Apparently, being a practising Catholic is not necessary. Some are not even Catholics at all, coming more by way of Tibet than Rome. What the individual must demonstrate is emotional stability and the desire to embark upon a spiritual journey. "There has to be some sort of perception of the realities of God," Father Cyril adds.
Having passed the correspondence stage the Order then invites the applicant to visit the monastery for a short retreat - to "live the life". This generally lasts for about a month and is a period of almost complete solitude, spent in a few spartan rooms. Praying, studying, reciting the offices and working are the order of the day. Even meals are pushed through a small hatch to avoid interaction with fellow human beings.
Most aspiring monks don't last more than three days according to Father Cyril. "Often the bloke does a vanishing act," he explains. "They panic and think, `this is for the rest of my life, I must be absolutely mad and I've got to get out of here - it's all a mistake.'" Evidently, the test lies in whether a person has an interior life as well as a spiritual calling.
The more purposeful applicants are asked to join the community as postulants. This is the beginning of a long and arduous formation process which can last from anything between 10 and 15 years. After a year, a postulant may take the characteristic white habit of the Carthusians and become a novice (shaved heads and beards are no longer insisted on). Those with a true vocation will go on to take up the Profession and finally become the Grand Professed. Latin and theology are absorbed along the way.
"By this time, if you can't get down to a pretty deep level of faith, you'll go mad," Father Cyril explains.
Living as a monk you will dress in coarse robes, eat a simple vegetarian diet, freeze in winter and boil in summer. You will catch two or three hours sleep at a time at most, as for two hours from 11.45pm you are required to sing the Night Office in a procession through the long dark cloisters. The rest of the day is divided up into collective and secluded prayers and masses. Any free time is spent tilling the garden or on carpentry and study work.
The up side is that you can expect to live to a grand old age and enjoy good health - one Polish monk who joined the Order when he was 30 is now 97. Another sprightly member continues to climb the steeple in his mid-seventies.
Taking my leave, downstairs in the cloister I bump into a jovial monk who comes over and, touching my elbow, says "Don't worry, the first forty years are the hardest. But this is my fiftieth." Then, with a nod and a knowing wink, he roars with laughter.
Information from: St Hugh's Charterhouse, Parkminster, Partridge Green, Horsham, Sussex RH13 8EB
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