When you are very young, you think old people must feel inside as old as they appear on the outside. But as you move towards agedness yourself, you realize that this is entirely wrong. People remain young on the inside, no matter how old they appear. The idea of "old" people is therefore a misapprehension of our culture, which sees the split instant of a human lifetime as something elongated, divided into decades and years, persistently defined by a number. But there are no "old people." Everyone is young. The only clue you have about this is your own journey as a subjective intelligence looking out. You wait for a change to descend, some radical shift of thinking which will fit with your balding head or wrinkling face. But it doesn’t come: you get giddier and more childish. I had this insight very strongly at Mount Melleray, when I realized that all these men, like myself, were teenagers, or maybe children, in their heads.
Thursday, the penultimate day of the retreat, I elect to get up at 4 a.m. for vigils. There’s no compulsion, but I think I should show my face one morning anyway. I’ve done compline every evening, and am becoming familiar with the singing style, but things seem just that little more ragged before dawn. There is something slightly more bracing about the 4 a.m. experience: the church empty but for a dozen monks (the very older ones are excused the early session) and me, and the inescapable weight of night over everything. I look around the faces and calculate roughly how many mornings like this they will each have put in — roughly 25,000 in more than a couple of instances. For a moment I am staggered by the enormity of this commitment, and the wager with life it represents. I think of the description of Father Columban Heaney, one of the Mount Melleray monks, in his booklet Personal Prayer, on what the theologian Ronald Knox called the "prayer of stupidity": "Spending time in this kind of prayer appears to be so stupid. There is nothing to show for it, and it all seems to be a sheer waste of time. But it is not a waste of time."
These men, I find myself thinking, are at the opposite point of human possibility to everything we take for granted as true and real. They bear witness to the strangeness of being, reminding us of this structural peculiarity of reality without any hint of moralism or rancour. "Look how odd the world really is!" they seem to exclaim. "Don’t become too distracted by anything, for then you will miss this strangeness!" Doggedly, they stand in silent contemplation as the world beckons them, mocks them, stares at them in puzzlement. They smile, or look away shyly. But they stay. They know why they are here.
More than once, I found myself wondering how it would feel to be here on, say, my 12,367th morning. It seems unconscionable. I cannot conceive of a degree of certitude that would enable me to do it. Even from the little I have learned about the lives of these men, I understand but vaguely how they see things. I know I am imposing my own ideas on a reality I but look into as into a passing canal barge.
There are aspects of the monkish life that recommend themselves to me: the predictability and weightlessness. But I am old enough to know that this is just a part of my psyche crying out for things no longer accessible in the great outdoors. I see through myself and know that I want these things in addition to the life I now have, which is not quite the deal the monk signs up to.
I look around the faces of these good men. I wonder if they ever have such thoughts. Does the trickle of news from the outside ever bring them to a point of doubt in themselves? Does their inevitable knowledge of the incomprehension of the external world cause them to feel even a hint of the restlessness I’m feeling now? Only the return of the Savior, it strikes me, could adequately justify what these men have committed of themselves. And, what, I find myself briefly wondering, if He has no plans to come back? Where would that leave these great men and what they have made of their lives? I shudder at the implications of the question and delve back into the psalm to suppress the sense of absurdity that threatens to engulf me.