The Carthusians: Solitary Lives Dedicated to Pure Contemplation

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The Carthusians: Solitary Lives Dedicated to Pure Contemplation

The world of a monk is a world of seclusion and solitude. It offers introspection and an inner peace that is so crucial in comprehending greater relig

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The world of a monk is a world of seclusion and solitude. It offers introspection and an inner peace that is so crucial in comprehending greater religious philosophy. And the lives of Carthusian monks are an ideal example of such perseverance and overcoming one’s human nature. The Order of the Carthusians is very old and closed-off from the outside world, and perfectly epitomizes the ideal life of religious devotion.

The Establishment of Order of the Carthusians

The Order of the Carthusians ( Ordo Cartusiensis) , as it is also known, is surely one of the oldest Catholic religious orders still in existence. It has a long and venerated history, one that has not changed much over the centuries.

The order was founded way back in 1084 AD, by the celebrated Bruno of Cologne. Bruno was a well-known religious teacher and the head of the Episcopal school at Reims. He ran this school for nearly twenty years, and during this time acquired a formidable reputation. Bruno was known as a renowned theologian, philosopher, and above all as a devoted monk and mystic.

During his time at Reims, he had many students under him that would later reach great fame. Pope Urban II is undoubtedly the most famous of the pupils Bruno instructed.

The apparition of Mary before the kneeling Bruno of Cologne, founder of the Order of the Carthusians. (Sebastiano Ricci / Public domain )

Later in Bruno’s life, his former student and very close friend, Pope Urban II, would offer him a small piece of land where he could build a hermitage. The land offered was quite remote and lonesome, located high in the French Chartreuse Valley, in the mountain massif of the same name. Set at the very foot of this mountainous area, this location was in many ways perfect for a hermitage devoted to a solitary life of religious contemplation. This was the very beginning of the Order of the Carthusians but only the start.

With just six monks, Bruno of Cologne began to laboriously build a basic hermitage on the site awarded to him. In the beginning it was a few simple cabins made of logs. However, Bruno followed his own vision, and designed the overall layout in a new way: the individual sleeping quarters all faced a gallery. Via this gallery, the monks could access all the communal areas of the hermitage, without suffering the weather. Also, such an arrangement allowed for greater solitude and peace for the monks. Such a layout would later become an iconic part of the Order of the Carthusians and a main feature of all their hermitages.

From these humble origins, the order grew steadily. The location in the Chartreuse valley near Grenoble became in time the Grande Chartreuse, the head monastery of the order.

Grande-Chartreuse, the headquarters of the Order of the Carthusians in France. (Uolir / Adobe Stock)

Grande-Chartreuse, the headquarters of the Order of the Carthusians in France. ( Uolir / Adobe Stock)

Sadly, the first hermitage built by Bruno did not stand the test of time. In 1132 AD it was destroyed by an avalanche, with 7 monks losing their lives in the event. The hermitage was rebuilt anew by the fifth prior, Guigo of Saint Romain.

Over the course of the centuries, the Grande Chartreuse grew into a splendid and elaborate monastery. Quite remote and surrounded by the dense forests of the French Alp landscape, this hermitage is, in many ways, cut off from the outside world. Life there is all about peace, silence, and solitude, the defining features of monastic life.

No outside visitors are allowed to enter the hermitage, ever. Furthermore, motor vehicles are forbidden on the surrounding roads. In essence, nothing of the world around the Grande Chartreuse can get past its high, medieval walls .

St. Hugh's Charterhouse, the only Carthusian charterhouse that remains in Britain of the ten once established there. (Antiquary / CC BY-SA 4.0)

St. Hugh’s Charterhouse, the only Carthusian charterhouse that remains in Britain of the ten once established there. (Antiquary / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

The Development of and Life in the World of the Carthusians

As a religious order the Carthusian Order grew steadily over time. It expanded to include both monks and nuns and spread out to 23 hermitages.

Carthusian hermitages are commonly known as charterhouses, a word directly related to the Carthusian Order. Of these 23 charterhouses, 5 are reserved for nuns only, and the other 18 are for the monks. These are spread out over three continents, with the highest number, six, in France alone. Interestingly, there were at one time a total of ten Carthusian monasteries in the British Isles. Sadly, following the Reformation, Carthusians were persecuted en masse, and their priories sacked, most of them falling into oblivion afterwards. Today, only the St Hugh’s Charterhouse in Parkminster, West Sussex remains alive and active.

The life in a Carthusian monastery is all about daily routine and the following of rules. More importantly, Carthusian monk life is centered on silence and solitary introspection. Musical instruments are banned, and a deep silence generally permeates Carthusian hermitages or charterhouses.

The monastic community is largely based on the pre-established concept of the lavras in Palestine. Just like these lavras, the Carthusian charterhouse is made up of many individual cells that are built around a cloister, an enclosed garden surrounded by walkways. In this way, each individual monastic cell opens onto the same hallway, which allows monks to quickly reach other parts of the monastery, such as the chapter room, the church, or the refectory.

This layout is simple and efficient. Of course, other buildings related to the life within a monastic community are built adjacent to the central complex and can include anything ranging from stables to outbuildings, protective walls, and workshops.

Building at the Grande Chartreuse monastery. (Uolir / Adobe Stock)

Building at the Grande Chartreuse monastery. ( Uolir / Adobe Stock)

Pure contemplation is at the very core of the Carthusian monk’s life and worldview. And for pure contemplation pure silence is essential. To ensure these are possible, the Carthusians place a particular emphasis on solitude and silence. Even so, there is a maintained balance amongst the monks, with predefined roles that ensure a functional communal life.

This means that the monks are divided between the hermits, i.e., the choir monks whose primary role is to pray, and the lay brothers, monks whose primary tasks were manual labor and secular matters.

Furthermore, there are no abbots amongst the Carthusians. Each charterhouse is run by a prior. For many centuries, the numbers of monks in a charterhouse did not change, following a somewhat strict rule that limited 8 lay brothers to every 10 choir monks.

A Day of Prayer, A Day of Peace

The daily routine of a Carthusian monk is generally filled with humility, peace, and contemplation, in addition to all the rules fleshed out in the Order’s statutes. To ordinary people from the outside world, such a day might seem odd or strangely devoid of life and emotion. But for a monk devoted to spiritual matters, the silence and the pure life within the charterhouse walls are an open way for introspection, and the exploration of the deepest philosophical and religious questions.

Each monk has his own cell, a small living space built following a strict pattern. These cells are tiny, generally two stories, and devoid of luxuries, everything within them is there for a purpose.

Usually, there is a smaller, one-room lower floor that contains a wood stove and firewood, and a small workshop, usually for lay brothers. Most of the monks within a Carthusian charterhouse are required to engage in some type of trade or manual labor.

The small second-floor room contains a bed, a table, a study desk, a choir stall, and a small entryway that has an image of the Virgin Mary. Here the monk can pray in solitude.

Another unique feature of a Carthusian monk’s cell is a “personal” high walled garden. Here a monk is allowed to meditate and contemplate or grow flowers and vegetables for both himself and the whole monastic community. This garden work is seen as a form of physical exercise.

The emphasis on solitude and purity can go to the extremes here. This is perfectly showcased with the so-called “turn,” a small revolving compartment next to the door of each monk’s cell. This compartment allows for food and necessities to be given to the monk without any physical contact or meeting to be made. These necessities can be requested by a note to a lay brother, who can take the note through the compartment and procure the basic requests made, such as fresh bread or water.

The members of the Carthusian Order do not eat meat, ever. Throughout the larger part of the year, monks receive just two meals per day: lunch and supper. This is decreased to just one meal during fasting days.

A monk (or nun) will spend the main part of the day in his (her) cell. His (her) routine consists of prayer, meditation, meals, writing, studying, and lastly work within the garden or manual labor. The cell is left only three times per day, for prayers in the chapel. Through this basic routine, one can understand that solitude and silence are a great part of a Carthusian monk’s (or nun’s) entire life.

Only once per week are members of the charterhouse allowed to go on a communal walk around the countryside. During this time, they are permitted to talk amongst themselves. Moreover, on Sundays, meals are taken communally. However, they are eaten in utter silence.

Just once per year, a monk can receive a visit from immediate family members, while two times per year, the community engages in an entire day of recreation.

The world-famous Chartreuse liqueur made by a select few Carthusian charterhouses. (Brent Hofacker / Adobe Stock)

The world-famous Chartreuse liqueur made by a select few Carthusian charterhouses. ( Brent Hofacker / Adobe Stock)

Liquor and Solitary Life: A Match Made in Heaven?

Of course, no community can survive and thrive without basic needs being met. If every monk spent their entire day in seclusion and prayer, the charterhouse would soon come to a standstill. That’s where the lay brothers come into play. While still being monks that live a life of solitary prayer in their cells and in the chapel, the lay brothers have a different daily routine and a few additional tasks. They do all types of manual labor in the monastery and provide material assistance to other choir monks.

Typically, they are responsible for cooking meals, managing supplies, running the stables/animal pens (if there are sheep for example), tending the gardens, doing laundry, and conducting repairs within the charterhouse. Even with all these tasks, lay brothers nevertheless live a life of solitude equal to the choir monks.

One of the unique aspects of the Carthusian Order by far is the manufacture of their world-famous Chartreuse liqueur . This strong alcoholic drink gets its name from the order and has been traditionally made only by the monks at the Grande Chartreuse and other “select” charterhouses.

The recipe for the liquor was given to the monks in the mid 1600’s, and was refined by 1737, when official production of the drink began. The recipe is based on distilled alcohol infused with roughly 130 medicinal mountain herbs and flowers, aged in wood casks, which gives it its unique flavor and benefits. Nevertheless, it is a highly alcoholic drink, to be drunk in small amounts or in cocktails.

The monks of the Grande Chartreuse are involved with the production of the liquor, and there are established distilleries elsewhere in Europe. The Chartreuse liquor is prized and somewhat expensive: it goes for around 60 dollars (50 euros) per bottle. In 2015, the order sold 1.5 million bottles, with all the proceeds going to the order’s charity works, and the maintenance of the order itself.

A life of great silence allows for a life of pure religious contemplation. (emerald_media / Adobe Stock)

A life of great silence allows for a life of pure religious contemplation. ( emerald_media / Adobe Stock)

Into the Great Silence

The monastic life within the Carthusian Order remained mostly unchanged since it was originally established. In many ways, it is the purest of all Catholic religious orders, with its clear emphasis on silence and spirituality. And since it is essentially cut-off from the outside world, not much is known about life within the monastery.

A partial glimpse into that life was revealed in 2005, with the release of the film “Into Great Silence,” made by documentary filmmaker Philip Gröning. He proposed the idea for the film to the monks of the order in 1984. They said they will consider it. It took the monks 16 years to consider the idea fully, until they finally agreed. Gröning accepted even after all that time had passed.

The documentary has no spoken commentary and no added sound effects. It has no artificial lighting either. It is, in essence, a direct glimpse into the daily routines of a Carthusian monk: the silence, the prayers, and the unbreakable peace of solitude.

In the world of modern religion, much can interfere with its original purpose and the peace that complements it. Many modern monasteries are filled with tourists and the usual hubbub of a busy urban life. In such circumstances, the gist of the monastic seclusion and contemplation are lost or very hard to preserve.

The members of the Carthusian Order managed to preserve this lifestyle over many centuries. The turbulent periods of history did not manage to push them off their path. The monks always managed to return to their charterhouses and continue a life of absolute purity.

Perhaps, we can peer into their small world and learn a thing or two?

Top image: The life of a Carthusian monk is a life of solitude, prayer, and silence.             Source: Nomad_Soul / Adobe Stock

By Aleksa Vučković

References

Ravier, A. 1995. Biography of Bruno. [Online] Available at:
http://transfiguration.chartreux.org/SaintBruno.htm#longbio
Unknown. 2006. The Wound of Love: A Carthusian Miscellany. Gracewing Publishing.
Various. 1997. Carthusian Spirituality: The Writings of Hugh of Balma and Guigo de Ponte. Paulist Press.
Webster, R.D. 1913. The Carthusian Order. Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 3.

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