The Southeast Alaska Catholic
October 14, 2011
Off and on since 1985 I’ve been corresponding with a friend, who, like me, paints icons. I try to write every few months and I try to make sure to send him a card early enough so that it will arrive in his mailbox by October 6th.
The last time I heard from him was in 2008 and the time before that was a long letter in 2006 on the occasion of my ordination. My friend, Fr. Bruno, is a Carthusian monk, so I don’t expect to receive a lot of mail – he has a limited number of letters he can write each year.
I send him a card every year on October 6th which is the feast day of St. Bruno, the founder of the Carthusian order of monks and nuns and is also Fr. Bruno’s name day as well. Their history stretches back a thousand years to their Bruno, their founder, who, with two other companions established a monastery in the high mountains of northeastern France.
Their goal was to find God by living a solitary life alone while sharing a common monastic life together. This accounts for some of the distinctive aspects of the Carthusian life. Within the Carthusians can be found two kinds of monks: choir monks and lay brothers. Each choir monk has a separate two-story cell, with bedroom, oratory and study over a workshop and a woodyard (each monk bucks and splits the firewood needed to heat his cell). Each monk also has a small enclosed garden which he tends himself. Choir monks leave their individual enclosure twice daily: to communal celebration of the eucharist and to sing the night office in the middle of the night. Twice a day a lay brother delivers a simple meal, which he wordlessly passes through a small hatch in the wall of the cell. Choir monks observe continual silence, except for prayer and the occasional brief conversation necessary for the smooth functioning of the monastery.
Lay brothers also live a life of silence and prayer but devote themselves to the various tasks needed to keep the monastery functioning. Each day they prepare the meals, clean the common areas, maintain the monastery buildings, care for sick and infirm monks and interact as necessary with the outside world.
On Sundays and solemnities, all of the monks share a common meal. Once a week the choir monks take a walk of several hours duration during which all are expected to converse with one other. Once a month the entire community of choir monks and lay brothers leaves the monastery for a longer hike together, during which the ban on talking is lifted.
Carthusian monks do not have an apostolate in the Church other than to grow in holiness while seeking ever deeper communion with God in prayer, solitude and silence. Hidden in Christ in life, even in death each monk is buried anonymously without a headstone or any other marker indicating his name. Instead, a simple wooden cross is placed at the head of the grave.
While there is a steady trickle of applicants, admission to the Carthusian order is not easy. The monks only admit those they are reasonably confident can persevere in their austere, isolated and penitential way of life. Yet only a few of those who enter as postulants eventually make their solemn profession.
While it is clear that God calls very few of us to a total life of prayer, silence and solitude, the Carthusians (and other similar contemplative orders within the Church) witness to the indispensability of solitude, silence and prayer in the life of every follower of Jesus. Regardless of our state of life, each of us needs space and time that, in the words of the Carthusian statutes, will, “invite the quiet listening of the heart so that God may enter all its doors and passages.”
I’m grateful for the Carthusians and other contemplative orders in the Church. Amid the relentless clamor of an anxious world, solitude and silence creates a still place in our lives where we can freely confess before the God who loves us our own inner fears, weaknesses and poverty. This inner vulnerability before God is difficult to attain because it requires me to surrender myself to God. It requires much humility, much purification and much self-knowledge. But it is a great blessing as well, because at last, without fear, I can allow God to shape me into the person that he created me to be.
A couple of Christmases ago, my son Miguel and daughter Phoebe were eager for me to open the present they had gotten for me. They’d written on the inside of the gift tag: To Dad. From your friends, the Carthusian Fathers. Under the wrapping paper I discovered first a rectangular wooden box, with a carefully-fitted sliding cover. Nestled inside the box was a bottle of green liqueur, first distilled by the monks of the Grand Chartreuse (Charterhouse) to treat the sick and now to financially support the monastery.
Resources on Solitude
- To learn more about the Carthusians, I would recommend two books: Hear Our Silence: A Portrait of the Carthusians by John Skinner 1995 Harper Collins and The Wound of Love: a Carthusian Miscellany Cistercian Publications, Kalamazoo, Michigan 1995
- The 2007 documentary Into Great Silence provides an almost wordless immersion into the life of the monks at the Grande Chartreuse.
- Also see the official Carthusian website: http://www.chartreux.org
- For more on solitude and the Christian life: The Hermitage Within A Monk Cistercian, Publications, Kalamazoo, Michigan 1999
- A useful introduction to contemplation is the classic book: New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton New Directions 1961