Untiring Sentinels of the Coming Kingdom
Report from Calabria: A Season with the Carthusian Monks
By A Priest
Pages: 160 pages
Review Author: Timothy D. Lusch
In the years before Into Great Silence (2005), Philip Gröning’s profound documentary film on life in La Grande Chartreuse, very little on the Carthusian Order had descended from the rarified air of its austere practices to popular culture. The success of Thomas Merton’s book The Seven Storey Mountain (1948) and his ensuing celebrity brought his flirtations with the Carthusians to the public eye. But the public, it seemed, was more interested in the man than the monks, though Merton did offer a glimpse into the lives of the Carthusians in The Silent Life (1957), a later and lesser known book. Even Robin Bruce Lockhart’s fascinating book, Halfway to Heaven: The Hidden Life of the Sublime Carthusians (1985), barely registered. Perhaps what the world knew most about the Carthusians, if it knew anything at all, came bottled as Chartreuse. The Carthusians have produced the liqueur in shades of green and yellow near their charterhouse in the French Alps for more than two centuries.
Our age, saturated in the ephemera of popular culture, has great need but little use for such a band of men and women devoted solely to communion with God. Neglect, though regrettable, is embraced by the Carthusians. Even by medieval standards, when monasteries were plentiful and formed the backbone of European culture and civilization, the Carthusians pursued their calling in remote places. From the order’s founding in 1084 by St. Bruno of Cologne, master at Rheims, Carthusians have sought God in the wilderness — a return to the desert of their early Christian forbears. The Carthusians’ radical detachment from the world, as Anglican Bishop Gordon Mursell observed, is “not a rejection of human love, but its transfiguration.” Likewise, Pope St. John Paul II said of the order that “in the withdrawal of monasteries and in the solitude of the cells, patiently and silently, the Carthusians weave the nuptial garment of the Church.”
Gröning and Lockhart — now joined by “A Priest” — sought to witness this weaving, if only for a time, by living with the monks. Carthusians are strictly contemplative. They have no public ministry and no tradition of hospitality. As such, visitors are rarely allowed. The monks have only one priority and keep time in accordance with it. Viewers of Into Great Silence might remember that Gröning wrote to the prior of La Grande Chartreuse in 1984 — and received a reply 16 years later!
Much is owed to Gröning’s film. It offered significantly more than a cinematic window into the daily lives of the Carthusians; it offered something of their experience. Throughout, the camera held its focus on the men, the landscape, and the life for long enough to effect a kind of meditative experience. And with little dialogue and no narration, the silence of Carthusian life somehow surrounds the viewer, enfolding him by extension into the mystery of sacred encounter. It is no exaggeration to say that Gröning singlehandedly brought the silence of the order into the noise of our world. Many more now seek what is hidden.
Report from Calabria bears resemblance to Henri Nouwen’s The Genesee Diary: Report from a Trappist Monastery (1976). While it lacks the intimacy of Fr. Nouwen’s book, it is nevertheless a personal telling due to its epistolary structure. Paradoxically, what is lost in intimacy is gained in anonymity. “A Priest” approaches his sojourn with the Carthusians in the way they approach their sojourn on earth. He writes as they live, hidden to us. Carthusians have a longstanding practice of attributing their books to “A Carthusian.” It is simply not part of their spirituality to be concerned with worldly recognition. There are exceptions, of course. We know of Bruno, the order’s founder, by letters he wrote that were subsequently attributed to him and preserved. And we know of Guigo I, fifth prior of La Grande Chartreuse; Denis; Hugh of Balma; Guigo de Ponte; and, more recently, Dom Augustin Guillerand, by their writings.
We are also acquainted by name with the novices and monks of Parkminster in England thanks to Nancy Klein Maguire’s book An Infinity of Little Hours: Five Young Men and Their Trial of Faith in the Western World’s Most Austere Monastic Order (2006). Every bit a fitting companion to Gröning’s film, it attempted to do with words what Into Great Silence did with images. A Priest strikes a balance between the two approaches in Report from Calabria. The book is a collection of letters he addresses to “Dear family and friends,” divulging details of Carthusian daily life, history, and spirituality. The letters are accompanied by dozens of photographs of the monastic community at Serra San Bruno in Calabria, Italy. They are meant to stop the reader, after interludes of information, and focus his gaze on some aspect of Carthusian life. Of course, you may breeze past these pictures on the way to refilling the coffee mug, but if you let yourself linger, the experience of this book is reminiscent of the experience of Into Great Silence.
The Carthusian monastery of Serra San Bruno is situated in a beautiful and remote region of southern Italy. The second foundation of the fledgling order, this spot was chosen by Bruno for its natural charms. He had been called to Rome in 1090 by Pope Urban II, a former student, to become his advisor. Plucked from his precious life of solitude and prayer in the Alps, Bruno could only tolerate Rome for a couple of years. He requested Urban’s permission to return to a solitary life. The Pope granted Bruno’s request conditioned on the hermit’s promise to remain nearby. In a letter to Raoul le Verd, his friend and provost at Rheims, Bruno described Calabria as a “wilderness…sufficiently distant from any center of human population.” He writes of its “agreeable location, its healthful and temperate climate,” its “gently rolling hills,” and its “shaded valleys where so many rivers flow.”
Nature and wilderness have been Carthusian companions from the beginning. The wilderness supports solitude and silence, both pillars of Carthusian spirituality. And nature offers some respite from a rigorous rule. Bruno recommended nature as a palliative to the monk who perseveres under the rule, noting, “If the bow is stretched for too long, it becomes slack and unfit for its purpose.” Thus, Bruno ensured an austerity tempered by flexibility. It allows the monk “leisure that is occupied and activity that is tranquil…nourished happily by the fruits of paradise,” engendering an experience of the peace beyond understanding.
Proximity to Rome all but guarantees papal visits. In recent years, Popes St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI visited. A bronze plaque in the refectory commemorates John Paul’s 1984 visit. The monks eat the midday meal together in the refectory every Sunday. It is customarily taken in silence. A monk informed A Priest that the only time the custom was not followed was during John Paul’s visit. The gregarious Pontiff disregarded custom to chat up the prior. Carthusians are not without humor. It is a fruit of the simplicity of their life.
Simplicity and stability, as with solitude and silence, constitute the conditions within which the Carthusian seeks God. All of which, of course, direct the Carthusian to his primary purpose of prayer. As Dom Augustin wrote in The Prayer of the Presence of God (pub. 1958), a book of elegant simplicity, “Prayer is the duty of every moment,” and it “should be continuous. It is the soul breathing.” Echoing St. Paul’s admonition to pray without ceasing, Dom Augustin demonstrated Carthusian flexibility in following a seemingly rigid command. He writes, “There is only one essential prayer: it is the movement drawing the soul upward toward God, and the relationship that follows.”
Cenobitic orders like the Benedictines and the Trappists develop their relationship with God in community. Eremitic orders like the Camaldolese live in communities with other hermits, though with few exceptions they lead a solitary life. The Carthusians are probably best described as semi-eremitic. Outside of a weekly communal hike (known as spatiamentum) and the midday meal and chanting of minor hours together on Sundays, Carthusians live in solitude. The life is different for converse and donate brothers who do manual labor. Other orders have diminished the distinction between choir monk and brother, but the Carthusians have preserved it. The structure is not merely some vestige of medieval monastic hierarchy. Rather, it is integral to a monk’s life and the centrality of the cell in Carthusian spirituality. The monks and brothers have a mutual dependence. As Lockhart observed, “In so far as Carthusian life is at all communal, it is solely so as to facilitate a solitary life.” And yet, the signature of Carthusian life — captured so beautifully in Into Great Silence — is the communal chanting of the Night Office.
The Night Office is comprised of the ancient office of Matins followed by Lauds. It begins around 11:30 PM and lasts two to three hours. The Carthusians have been praying it every night for over 900 years. It is a singular contribution to the Church and the centerpiece of their monastic practice. It is demanding, and some monks never quite get used to sleeping in shifts. Yet it is not the momentum of tradition that propels the monks; it is simply another unique expression of the Carthusian life in God. As Guigo I said, “Nothing can be done for its own sake, other than knowing and loving God.” This singleness of purpose is reflected in other Carthusian practices: anonymous burial, anonymous attribution of published works, and the total lack of interest in advancing the cause of Carthusians for sainthood. It is an adage of the order that they aim “to make saints not to publicize them.”
Singleness of purpose and dedication to the order’s customs explains why Carthusians can say with confidence, Cartusia nunquam reformata quia nunquam deformata (Never reformed because never deformed). It is also why the Church needs the silent simplicity of the Carthusians. As Pope Benedict XVI said, “From the contemplative community the ministry of pastors draws a spiritual sap that comes from God.” Some contemplative monastic branches, such as the hermits of Grandmont, have withered and died. Others, even after reforms, are not what they once were. So we must give fervent thanks to God for the Carthusians, who remain “hidden with Christ in God,” and thanks to A Priest and Ignatius Press for giving us a magnificent glimpse into their hiddenness.
A cloistered company, they are companionless,
None knoweth here the secret of his brother’s heart:
They are but come together for more loneliness,
Whose bond is solitude and silence all their part.
— from “Carthusians” by Ernest Christopher Dowson
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