EXCERPT: THE SILENT LIFE BY THOMAS MERTON
Thomas Merton: THE SILENT LIFE (1957)
III – THE HERMIT LIFE
Strictly speaking the Carthusians are not and have never been considered a branch of the Benedictine family. St Bruno, the founder of the Grande Chartreuse, spent some time in a priory dependent on the Benedictine Abbey of Molesme, when he was deciding his vocation. But the group which he led into the rugged wilderness of the Alps north of Grenoble were to be hermits in the strict sense of the word, hermits who would bring back to life something of the forgotten purity of the contemplative life as it was once led in the deserts of Egypt.
However, there are several traits in the Carthusian character which bring it, in fact, quite close to the spirit of St Benedict. First of all, the Carthusians, while insisting perhaps more than anyone else in the Western Church upon silence and solitude, have always lived as hermits-community. The spokesmen of the Order point out that the Carthusian life combines the advantages of eremitical solitude and of the common life. Lanspergius, for instance, says:
Like St Benedict in his Rule, the Carthusians divide their time between manual labor, the chanting of the Divine office, and spiritual reading or study. Finally, their spirit is altogether one with that of St Benedict in its simplicity, its humility and its combination of austerity and discretion.
To say this is simply to say that among the Carthusians we find the same authentic monastic tradition that we find in St Benedict and although there are significant differences of modality between the two orders, no book about Western monasticism would be complete without some mention of the Carthusians.
As a matter of fact the Church has always considered, and has sometimes openly declared, that the Carthusians have been the only monastic order to preserve faithfully the true monastic ideal in all its perfection during centuries in which the other orders fell into decay. The fact that the Carthusians have never needed a reform has long since become proverbial. Cartusia num quam reformata quia numquam de f ormata. “The Charterhouse has never been reformed because it has never been deformed.” The enthusiastic praises which Pius XI heaped upon the Order when approving its new constitutions in 1924 are not equalled in any other similar document. The solitary life was termed, by Pope Pius XI, the “most holy form of life,” sanctissimum vitae genus. And he said of the Carthusians:
It is hardly necessary to say what great hope and expectation the Carthusian monks inspire in us, seeing that since they keep the Rule of their Order not only accurately but also with generous ardor, and since that Rule easily carries those that observe it to the higher degree of sanctity, it is impossible that those religious should not become and remain most powerful pleaders with our most merciful God for all Christendom.(Apostolic Constitution Umbratilem, July 8, 1924).
The Carthusians, then, occupy a place of special eminence among the monastic Orders not only because of the intrinsic perfection of their Rule of life, but also because of the extraordinary fidelity of the Order to that Rule.
What are the special peculiarities of the Carthusian way of life?
While remaining within the traditional monastic framework, the Carthusian life is led almost entirely in the solitude of the monk’s cell. The Charterhouse is a compact enough unit to be called a monastery rather than a hermitage. But the monks live, nevertheless, in hermitages. Each cell is in fact a small cottage. The cells are united by a common cloister, and the aspect presented by the average Charterhouse is that of a small, well- ordered village with a church and a block of large buildings at one end, and a series of little roofs huddled around the rectangle of the great cloister. Each cell has its own enclosed garden, and the monk neither sees nor hears what is going on next door. He lives, in fact, all by himself. His cottage is relatively spacious. On the ground floor he has a wood shed and a workshop where he exercises his craft, if he has one. There is also a sheltered porch in which he walks when the place is snowed under-which frequently happens, since the Charterhouse is built by preference in the mountains. On the second floor he has, one might be tempted to think, too many rooms. One of them, the Ave Maria, is hardly used at all: it is a kind of antechamber to the real cell where the monk spends most of his time. But by a charming and ancient custom, this antechamber, dedicated to the Virgin Mother of God and containing her image, is a place where the monk pauses in prayer on his way in and out of the cell. Carthusian mysticism thinks of the monk’s life of solitude as hidden within the Heart of the Virgin Mother.
The real “cell” is a bedroom and sitting room with two alcoves, one an oratory and the other a study. In the one the monk kneels in meditation or recites the day hours of the canonical office with all the ceremonies that are performed when the monks are together in choir. In the other he has his desk, a shelf of books-the Bible, a volume or two of the Fathers, or some theology, some favorite spiritual reading-Ruysbroeck, perhaps, or St John of the Cross, or the Imitation of Christ. And with these one might find almost anything else under the sun if the monk has some special interest, or if he recognizes in himself a need for some light reading. Provided that it is serious and can reasonably be fitted in some way into the monk’s life of contemplation, any book may find its way into a Carthusian cell. It is not necessary that the monk confine himself entirely within the limits of conventional piety.
Here, in this central apartment, the monk studies, and meditates, and rests, and takes his meals and recites a good part of the daily office and other appointed prayers.
He usually leaves the cell only three times in twenty-four hours.
First, he rises from a brief four hour sleep about ten-thirty at night, and after some preliminary prayers in his cell he goes to the choir where, with the other monks he chants the long, slow office of Vigils. Pius XI praises the Carthusian choir as he praises everything else about the Order, and he gives us a picture of the monks, chanting in solemn masculine tones, voce viva et rotunda without the accompaniment of an organ. Other reports have described the Carthusian chant as having something of the character of a lamentation. Benedictine and Cistercian visitors to the Charterhouse sometimes let fall the remark that “the Carthusians never have any chant practice-it interferes with their solitude” and the implication is that these visitors have found the Carthusian chant not to their liking. Whatever may be the merits of these various views, the Carthusians have always been quite frank in preferring their solitude to everything else, and regarding even the pleasure of beautiful chant as an expendable luxury, if it has to be bought at the price of chant-practices and other distractions of the cenobium.
After the Vigils, which last from two to three hours each night, the Carthusian returns to his cell to complete his night’s rest. He will rise and say Prime in his cell in the early morning hours, and then he will again go to Church to sing the conventual Mass. If he is a priest, he will say his own Mass in a chapel attached to the Church and if he is not a priest he will serve Mass and receive Communion. Then he will return again to his cell and spend the rest of his day there until Vespers when, for the last time, he will once again chant the office in choir. This takes place in the middle of the afternoon.
In short, the Carthusian spends nineteen or twenty hours of his day within the limits of his small cottage and garden, seeing no one, speak ing to no one, alone with God.
Of course, there may be exceptions. The monk may have an employment or office that obliges him to speak from time to time. He may receive a visitor, occasionally. Once a week there is a three-hour spatiamentum – a walk in the country around the Charterhouse, in which everyone must take part. On these walks the monks not only get exercise, but they talk together and the talk, though on a high plane, is not necessarily lugubrious and dull. In other words, it is a necessary break in the monk’s solitude. On certain feast days, the monks chant all the day hours in choir together and take their dinner in a common refectory. There is also a sermon preached (in Latin) to the community assembled in chapter.
It is clear that the Carthusian life is notable above all for its single-minded insistence on silence and solitude. All monastic orders recognize that the monk is supposed to live in some sense alone with God. The Carthusians take this obligation as literally as they can. Although they agree with St Benedict that “nothing is to be preferred to the work of God-(the divine office),” they interpret this in a characteristically eremitical fashion. For a long time the Carthusians had no conventual Mass, and the priests of the Order were rarely allowed to say Mass, because the solitude and silence of the cell were regarded as being more important even than Mass. Such an attitude is understood with difficulty today, but we must remember that the Carthusian, even though he may be a priest, is always and primarily a solitary. His chief function in the Church is not to celebrate the liturgical mysteries so much as to live, in silence and alone the mystery of the Church’s life “hidden with Christ in God.” (Col. 3:3) And in the early days of the Order, when these restrictions were in effect, the idea of “saying Mass” always apparently implied the celebration of Mass with a congregation present.
The spirit of the Carthusians can easily be deduced from the life which they lead. It is a spirit of solitude, silence, simplicity, austerity, aloneness with God. The intransigeance of the Carthusian’s flight from the world and from the rest of mankind is meant to purify his heart from all the passions and distractions which necessarily afflict those who are involved in the affairs of the world-or even in the busy, relatively complicated life of a cenobitic monastery. All the legislation which surrounds the Carthusian, and has surrounded him for centuries like an impenetrable wall, is designed to protect his solitude against even those laudable and apparently reasonable enterprises which so often tend to corrupt the purity of the monastic life.
For instance the Carthusians, have always been adamant in refusing dignities and marks of favor and attention from the rest of the Church. While the Benedictines and Cistercians are justly proud of the fact that their Abbots have the pontifical dignity and can celebrate Mass with all the pomp of a bishop, the Carthusians have consistently rejected any such favors. In fact they have refused to allow their houses to be raised to the rank of abbeys, precisely in order to avoid the consequences that might follow.
In order not to attract attention, and to avoid drawing crowds of visitors and postulants, the Carthusians have insisted on keeping their monasteries small and obscure. They have an uncommon distaste for all publicity, and if they are proclaimed as the most perfect of all the Orders in the Church, the proclaiming of the fact is not done by the Carthusians themselves but by others.
The Carthusians have never paid much attention to the apparent sanctity of their members. They have always thought it more important to be saints than to be called saints-another point in which they agree with St Benedict (The Carthusians have an adage, “Non sanctos patefacere sed multos sanctos facere.” “To make saints, not to publicize them.” And St. Benedict tells the monk “not to desire to be called a saint, but to be one.”)
Therefore the Carthusians have never taken any steps to procure the canonization of their saints. They do not even have a Menologium, or private catalogue of the holiest men of the Order. When a monk of exceptional virtue dies, the highest public honor he receives in the Order is a laconic comment: laudabiliter vixit. In good American we would translate this as: “He did all right.” Finally, the Carthusian does not even have the personal distinction of a grave marked with his own name. He is laid away in the cemetery under a plain unmarked cross, and vanishes into anonymity.
The Carthusians have never encouraged any form of work that would bring them back into contact with the outside world. They do not preach retreats, they do not maintain parishes, and when, at times, Carthusians have gained a reputation as spiritual directors, their superiors have intervened to put a stop to it all. The one work of the Carthusian monk that might possibly involve him in fame, is writing. From the beginning the Carthusians have devoted themselves to the copying of manuscripts and the writing of books. Yet here too important qualifications must be made. The greatest writer in the Order, St Bernard’s friend the laconic Guigo, was practically the only Carthusian writer for centuries. His “meditations” are mere aphorisms, which can be contained within the pages of a very small volume. Later, writers like Denis de Ryckel, were far less reserved. Yet when one looks into the forty odd volumes of Denis the Carthusian, one gets the impression that with him writing was something like the basket weaving of the early solitaries-a mechanical action that kept him busy and that had no particular reference to an admiring public. Denis could write a book on any subject, much as a pious housewife might knit a sweater or a pair of socks. One feels that when he had finished a book he was quite indifferent about what happened to it, and would have been just as content to see it burned as to see it printed. This same spirit seems to have guided all the numerous Carthusian writers whose names are on record and whose works have either disappeared or survive only in manuscript. They are unknown, they are never read and the reason is that they did not really write to be read. They worked like the Desert Father in Cassian who, at the end of each year, used to burn all the baskets he had woven and start over again. Today, if a Carthusian writes something for publication, it never appears under any name.
In short, the Carthusians have never thought that the perfection of the spiritual life and true purity of heart could be preserved merely by what is called the “practice of interior solitude.” The ancient Customs of the Order, the Consuetudines written in the 12th century by Prior Guigo of the Grande Chartreuse, end with a beautiful panegyric on solitude-physical solitude.(Consuetudines Guigonis, c.80, P.L. 153:758. 138) Here we read that nowhere better than in true solitude does the monk discover the hidden sweetness of the psalms, the value of study and reading, intense fervor in prayer, the delicate sense of spiritual realities in meditation, the ecstasy of contemplation and the purifying tears of compunction. The purpose of Carthusian solitude is found in these words and in their context. Like every other monk, the Carthusian is the son and follower of the ancient prophets, of Moses and Elias, of John the Baptist, of Jesus Himself who fasted in the desert and spent many nights alone on the mountain in prayer. The purpose of Carthusian solitude is to place the soul in a state of silence and receptivity that will open its spiritual depths to the action of the Holy Spirit who makes known the mysteries of the Kingdom of God and teaches us the unsearchable riches of the love and the wisdom of Christ.
Commenting on this chapter of Guigo, Dom Innocent Le Masson summarizes it and defines the Carthusian spirit in the following terms:
The principles of the Carthusian life are quiet (quies) or rest from worldly things and desires, solitude which removes us from the company of men and from the sight of vanities, silence from useless speaking, and the quest for supernal realities (superiorum appetitio) that is to say seeking and delighting in the things that are above. All other matters are passed over (by Guigo in this text) because he considers them accidental to the true sub stance of the Carthusian vocation which is obedience, offered up in quiet, in silence and in solitude (Commentary on the Consuetudines, c.80, P.L. 153:756).
From the very beginning the Carthusians realized that this vocation was a very uncommon one and that the Carthusian life would never be popular or well understood. In the same commentary just quoted, Dom Lemasson remarks that God alone can make monks and hermits, and that human expedients to increase the number of Carthusian vocations would only end in the ruin of the Order. The Carthusians have, in fact, always been the most exacting of all Orders in their admission of candidates, on the ground that “many are called to the faith but very few are foreordained to become Carthusians.” (Dom Le Masson, loc. cit. col. 759.) As a result they may have seemed extremely exclusive and snobbish, in comparison to other Orders, but in fact the great prudence which they have always exercised in this matter of vocations has been one of the chief reasons why the Order has never needed a reform.
If we pause a moment to look a little more closely at this singular grace of the Carthusians, we will see that it cannot be explained merely by fidelity to their Constitutions and to the principles of their founders. It is true that the Carthusians have been exceptionally loyal to their traditional ideal. But mere fidelity to a Rule can itself end by distorting and eventually destroying the life for which the Rule was written, unless it is constantly supported by the interior spirit by which the rule was inspired.
The Carthusians have been preserved not only by their rigid exterior discipline, but by the inner flexibility which has accompanied it. They have been saved not merely by human will clinging firmly to a Law, but above all by the humility of hearts that abandoned themselves to the Spirit Who dictated the Law. Looking at the Carthusians from the outside, one might be tempted to imagine them proud. But when one knows a little more about them and their life, one understands that only a very humble man could stand Carthusian solitude without going crazy. For the solitude of the Charterhouse will always have a devastating effect on pride that seeks to be alone with itself. Such pride will crumble into schizophrenia in the uninterrupted silence of the cell. It is in any case true that the great temptation of all solitaries is something much worse than pride-it is the madness that lies beyond pride, and the solitary must know how to keep his balance and his sense of humor. Only humility can give him that peace. Strong with the strength of Christ’s humility, which is at the same time Christ’s truth, the monk can face his solitude without supporting himself by unconsciously magical or illuministic habits of mind. In other words, he can bear the purification of solitude which slowly and inexorably separates faith from illusion. He can sustain the dreadful searching of soul that strips him of his vanities and selfdeceptions, and he can peacefully accept the fact that when his false ideas of himself are gone he has practically nothing else left. But then he is ready for the encounter with reality: the Truth and the Holiness of God, which he must learn to confront in the depths of his own nothingness.
What one finds in the Charterhouse, then, is not a collection of great mystics and men of dazzling spiritual gifts, but simple and rugged souls whose mysticism is all swallowed up in a faith too big and too simple for visions. The more spectacular gifts have been left for lesser spirits, who move in the world of action.
When the Carthusians landed in America for the first time in 1951, it could be said that the Church in the United States had finally come of age. The Carthusian foundation at Whitingham, Vermont, is still in the experimental stage: but it is a stage of such primitive simplicity that one feels the founders will look back to it with great happiness in years to come.
[Note of the Editor: evidently the following lines, written in 1957, have become inaccurate or obsolete 50 years later.]
There is as yet no real Charterhouse at Whitingham. There is a lonely farmhouse, “Sky Farm” is what it is called, and this accommodates guests and postulants. Further back in the woods are a group of shanties – four of them in all. These are the cells. They are built on the probable site of the future Charterhouse, and have none of the elaborateness and self-contained security of the true Carthusian cottage. Here the hermits live in peace, keeping the austere Carthusian rule with only those modifications demanded by the provisional nature of their dwelling. Meanwhile postulants present themselves from time to time, are tested for a few months, then sent to Europe for their novitiate. In the last four years, practically all those chosen have failed to meet the requirements of the Order or sustain the hardships of fasting, cold, and solitude in the frozen silence of an Alpine winter. But here and there a survivor makes his vows and becomes a professed Carthusian. The cornerstone of the American community is one of the founders of Whitingham, a former Benedictine who taught psychiatry at the Catholic University in Washington. Dom Thomas Verner Moore left Washington for Spain in 1948, and was received as a novice at the Spanish Charterhouse of Miraflores, near Burgos, and he has undoubtedly been one of the guiding spirits in the American foundation.
The Charterhouse in America will have to meet the great temptations which this country offers to all the monastic orders – publicity, technology, popularity, commercialism, machines and the awful impulsion to throw everything overboard for the sake of fame and prosperity (masking as an “apostolate of example”). One feels that the Carthusians are equipped, as no other Order, to resist this attack of the world upon the monastic spirit. The whole monastic structure in America may eventually depend on their doing so successfully.
(From: Thomas Merton, The Silent Life, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York, p. 127-144. © 1957 by The Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani. Reprinted by kind permission.)
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