It is twenty-five years since the death of Malcolm Muggeridge, and twenty since Gregory Wolfe’s excellent biography of him. Muggeridge (1903-1990) was a famous journalist, and like all such, he has faded like last year’s newspapers. (Pop quiz: Who were Walter Lippmann and H. V. Kaltenborn?) Part of Muggeridge’s fame came from converting to Christianity in general and then to Catholicism in particular. A glib and fluent journalist in print and on television, he became a glib and fluent advocate for his new faith. In his day, admirers bracketed Muggeridge with G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis, and in 1999 Joseph Pearce gave Muggeridge two chapters in his Literary Converts.
Several of Muggeridge’s books are still in print, notably Something Beautiful for God (1971), one of the first profiles of Mother Teresa. One of Muggeridge’s most popular books was a collection of religious essays, Jesus Rediscovered (1969). It includes “A Hard Bed to Lie On,” about his visit in 1967 to a Cistercian monastery in southeastern Scotland.
According to Wolfe, by the mid-1960s, Muggeridge had achieved a lifelong goal, to live a simple life. It had been a rugged struggle, Muggeridge on his many exotic travels having been compulsively fond of smoking, drinking, and philandering. He had grown up in London in a middle-class family proud of its progressive ideals, confident that the liberating powers of science and socialism were the wave of the future, under which the repressive forces of conservatism and religion would submerge and disappear.
As Muggeridge entered his sixties, he had come to see that decades of dissipation had not made him, to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, happy, healthy, and wise. He was a famous wit, but he knew that writing for satiric magazines and appearing on television talk shows is not the same as having wisdom. Flickering fame and fleeting pleasures nevertheless left him with physical ailments and an inner sense that somehow his life was empty. As have so many others, he found that the bleak emptiness could be filled only by God.
It was a sober, smoke-free, vegetarian Muggeridge, by now also faithful to his wife, who at the request of the BBC ventured north to Nunraw Abbey in Scotland. His assignment was to film a television documentary about the monks. “Nothing, I suppose, could be more alien to the spirit of this age than monasticism,” began Muggeridge, adding, “Just for that reason, it has always had a particular fascination for me.” He further explained: “The quiet, the order, the essential simplicity of a monk’s way of life, all seemed alluring in a world increasingly given over to noise, violence, and the avid pursuit of what passes for happiness.”
It all sounds very nice, but here one must pause. Nearly all Muggeridge’s writings bristle with the personal pronoun, and the reader is advised that Muggeridge on monasticism may reveal more about Muggeridge than about monasticism. Another defining feature of Muggeridge’s writing is indulging in gloomy delight that the present time (Muggeridge’s own) is the worst ever, probably the end of civilized life for long ages to come. Historical perspective helps one appreciate that, to take but one example, back in the fourteenth century, when Petrarch’s brother became a Carthusian monk, people were lamenting (or, like Chaucer, lampooning) that the world was sliding down a dark path of noise, violence, and carnal pleasures.
To resume: Muggeridge recounted his first meeting with the monks, where he briefed them on his commission from the BBC. Muggeridge wrote that he found the monks to be “a curious combination of realism and other-worldliness,” and he decided that “it is only the other-worldly who know how to cope with this world.” It was the sort of paradox he liked.
Muggeridge wrote about the relative youth of the monastic community, the abbey at Nunraw having been founded in 1946 by monks from Ireland. Yet, the situation was precarious. “Vocations are scarce today,” Muggeridge wrote, “especially in the enclosed orders, and present indications are that they will get scarcer.”
Meanwhile, the spirit of Judas was alive. “Some of the monks,” remarked Muggeridge, “take the view that the abbey is too lavishly designed, and consider that the money spent on it might have been better devoted to feeding the hungry.” Their altruism left Muggeridge unimpressed: “I was glad, I told them, that such a view had not prevailed when Chartres cathedral was being built.”
Although he had expected the monks to be serried ranks of monotonous uniformity, he eventually discovered otherwise. “Each of them, young and old,” he reported, “had his own distinctive persona within a corporate existence, dedicated, equally, to study and meditation, manual labour and worship.” One wonders whether the monks found those words to be patronizing. Imagine a visitor to some other institution noted for outward conformity, say a military base or a bank or a law firm or a faculty club, coming away and saying much the same thing: Gosh, those funny little people are really people!
Muggeridge mused on the purpose and future of the monks. “What good are they doing?” he asked. “Prayers don’t show in the Gross National Product,” he observed, and so “in an increasingly materialist world they are non-productive citizens.” It was a utilitarian judgment he would have endorsed in his younger days, when he believed that the Soviet Union was the Golden Age reborn, a belief shattered when in the 1930s he saw first-hand Joseph Stalin’s imposed famine on the Ukrainians.
“By all the laws of Freud and the psycho-prophets,” Muggeridge said, “the monks are depriving themselves of the sensual satisfactions which alone make a whole life possible; they ought to be up the wall and screaming.” He was implicitly contrasting silent, celibate monks in their twenties with his own excesses during the Roaring Twenties. “Actually, I found at Nunraw,” he concluded, “a quite exceptional peace; it is the children of affluence, not deprived monks, who howl and fret in psychiatric wards.”
Again, it sounds nice, but monks, alas, can be prey to the same demons as other people. Still, if one reads him at all, one reads Muggeridge for Muggeridge, for clever turns of phrase offering challenges to smug suburban assumptions. These days his star has dimmed, as have those of Westbrook Pegler and Orestes Brownson, once famous Catholic journalists now championed only by specialists. It is a fate to keep any writer humble.
Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B, is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno. He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.