Catholic Culture News
Catholic Culture News

Silence and Solitude

by Phil Lawler


A reporter's unforgettable visit to a Carthusian monastery in Vermont. Unchanged in 900 years, the austere beauty of the Carthusian way of life promises to endure, as an oasis of hope for a society thirsting for the absolute.

Larger Work

Catholic World Report

Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, 2001

Early each October, thousands of tourists head for northern New England to enjoy the peak of the "foliage season." If they pass through southern Vermont (as so many do) they will enjoy the picturesque villages with their town greens, old clapboard houses, and white church spires; they will probably pause to pick through the antique shops or sample the wares at ice-cream parlors located in renovated barns at the side of the winding roads; they may stop to take a picture of a wooden covered bridge, or to buy a quart of the local elixir, maple syrup. But primarily they come to Vermont to see the trees: the explosion of autumn color that is more memorable here than anywhere else in the world.

The best way to enjoy the New England scenery is to find a prominent hill (or "mountain," as the local residents will call it), and look down across the valley to see the full palette of nature's colors on display. So the tourists who drive north on Route 7 from Arlington, Vermont, are sure to notice that Mount Equinox, a 3,800 foot peak, dominates the surrounding area and promises spectacular views. Many motorists turn off the highway onto a small, private toll road that zig-zags up to the peak and back.

Little do those tourists realize that once they pass the tollgate, they are on the property of a Carthusian monastery, where a handful of monks have shut themselves off from the world to worship God in solitude and silence. The toll road never passes closer than a mile from the monastery, and the access road to the Charterhouse of the Transfiguration is inconspicuously placed behind a house on the roadside, with a locked gate to discourage the curious.

Unlike some other contemplative orders, the Carthusians do not offer retreats, run a bookstore, or encourage lay people to visit their chapels. Guests are rare at the monastery. Each monk may receive a visit from his family twice a year. Otherwise--except on rare occasions--the only people who enter the Charterhouse are the young men who feel a call to the Carthusian way of life.

This autumn, however, one of those "rare occasions" arose. The Carthusians are celebrating the 900th anniversary of the death of St. Bruno, the founder of their order. Feeling the call to "share our joy with the entire Church," the Carthusians made the unprecedented and utterly uncharacteristic decision to invite a reporter into their monastery.

(When I pointed out the incongruity of a "publicity campaign" by Carthusian monks, the prior, Father Lorenzo Maria De La Rosa, Jr, readily acknowledged that the situation was anomalous. "I do not foresee another such media involvement after this year," he told me "In fact, given our lifestyle, it is logical for us to think that perhaps the next one will be next century, for our celebration of St. Bruno's 10th centenary!")

An unbroken tradition

In 1084 St Hugh, the bishop of Grenoble, had a mysterious vision in which God showed him a building in the unpopulated mountains of nearby Carthusia, lit by seven stars. St. Hugh did not understand the meaning of this vision until he was visited by seven men: St. Bruno and his six original companions, who were looking for a place where they could follow the example of the Desert Fathers, living in seclusion and devoting themselves utterly to prayer. St. Hugh led the young monks to the place he had seen in his vision, and the first monastery of the new order was formed there. The world headquarters of the order are still in the same place, known as the Grand Chartreuse. ("Chartreuse" is a French version of "Carthusia;" the English corruption of the name yields "charterhouse.")

"It is not possible for a man to keep his mind firmly fixed on one Person if, beforehand, he has not perseveringly kept his body in one place," the Carthusian statues teach. "And if the mind is to draw near to Him in Whom there is neither change nor shadow of alteration, it must adhere unshakably to its undertaking." So when a monk enters the charterhouse, he comes to stay. If he perseveres in this rigorous vocation he will never leave the grounds of the monastery--not even for his father's funeral or his sister's wedding. When he dies he will be buried on the monastery grounds, in a grave marked by a simple cross. By choice he will have virtually no contact with the outside world; he will be alone with God.

Since the death of St. Bruno on October 7, 1101, the fundamental patterns of Carthusian life have not changed. The monks gather in the monastery church for their daily community Mass and the chanting of the canonical hours. Otherwise--for 19 hours a day--they live in complete solitude. On Sundays and holy days the community gathers in the refectory for a common meal, at during one monk reads from the Church Fathers. On Mondays the monks take a walk together through the monastery grounds. There are occasional community meetings, and an occasional exchange of conversation between the monks working on a project, or between a novice and the novice-master, or between the prior and the layman who handles the shopping for the community. But otherwise the monks do not speak; the norm at all times is silence.

The schedule for a monk's day conveys both the simplicity and the rigor of the Carthusian life:

  • 11:30 pm: The monk rises and prays the Matins of Our Lady in his cell.
  • 12:15 midnight: He goes to the church for the communal chanting of Matins and Lauds
  • 2:00- 3:00 pm: After the community chanting (which can take from 1 to 2 hours, he prays the Lauds of Our Lady alone, then returns to bed.
  • 6:30 am: He rises for the hour of Prime (alone), and prepares himself for Mass.
  • 7:45 am: The community Mass is celebrated in the church. Afterward, each monk celebrates Mass alone in one of the monastery's tiny chapels. The members of the community who are not priests are assigned to serve at one of these private Masses.
  • 9:00 am: He returns to his cell for mental prayer, the solitary prayer of Terce, spiritual reading, and manual work.
  • 11:30 am: He prays Sext, and then has his main (and perhaps only) meal of the day.
  • 2:00 pm: He prays None, continues his manual labor and spiritual reading, and ends the afternoon with the Vespers of Our Lady.
  • 5:00 pm: The community gathers in the church again for Vespers.
  • 5:30: Back in his cell, the monk prays in solitude. Between Easter and the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross (September 14), he has a simple collation of bread and water; for the rest of the year, his midday meal is the only one.
  • 8:00 pm: The monk prays Compline alone, then retires.

The details of the Carthusian life only emphasize its rigor. The monks never eat meat. They fast on bread and water every Friday. Their single meal is deliberately simple fare--a soup, a vegetable dish, and some form of egg or fish--without any sauce or spice to add special flavors. Except on Sundays and holy days they eat alone. They wear hairshirts. They wear simple habits--wool in the winter, cotton in summer--on top of whatever simple clothing they receive from friends and benefactors. Their cells are unheated except for a wood stove which they maintain for themselves.

"A private dialogue in stone"

The design of a Carthusian monastery is a distinct architectural challenge. The entire complex is made up of a series of cells, or hermitages, that open onto a central cloister, which in turn connects with the church, private chapels, refectory, and library. The individual cells are small two-story units of identical design. On the first floor each cell has a workshop, and a storage area; a door opens out onto the monk's private, enclosed garden. Upstairs is a small anteroom (called the "Ave Maria," because the Carthusians have the custom of praying the Hail Mary there every time they enter their cells) and a larger room called the cubiculum containing a simple bed, desk, chair, and oratory. There is a wood stove, a small closet, and a toilet--but no shower.

Beside the door that leads to the cloister there is a passage in the wall: a "food box" into which one monk can place the daily meal, and the monk within can receive it without any conversation. At the end of the garden there is another doorway, at which one of the monks who works outdoors will leave rough-cut logs from the surrounding woods. In his workshop the monk will split those logs, then cut them down to the appropriate size for the wood stove in his cubiculum. In Vermont, the process of cutting and splitting wood provides not only useful exercise, but necessary heat to ward off the long bitter winter on the mountain. The gardens also offer physical activity, and they furnish much of the food that the community will eat.

At the Charterhouse of the Transfiguration, architect Victor Christ-Janier used local materials--large slabs of unfinished granite from local Vermont quarries--to give the monastery a feeling of simplicity, permanence, and austere beauty. When the monastery was finished in 1970, one architectural critic called attention to the ingenuity of Christ-Janier's design, but lamented that few people would ever have the opportunity to see his architectural triumph. The Charterhouse, the critic wrote, is "a private dialogue in stone and does not encourage eavesdropping."

For the Carthusians inside those thick granite walls, another private dialogue is paramount: the quiet conversation between the monk and God. The Prior reports that some would-be novice are frightened by the stark design, and the massive stones that surround them. One visitor left quickly, realizing that he could not live in a place that reminded him so much of a tomb.

And in a sense the monastery is a tomb of sorts. When he enters the Carthusian order, the monk leaves the old world behind him forever. He can cherish no worldly ambitions inside these walls. Only God will know how he spends his days in the privacy of his cell. One of the first members of the Carthusian community in Vermont had been a member of the European nobility; his name was mentioned in gossip columns, years ago, as a possible marital partner for Queen Elizabeth II. Now he lies buried in an unmarked grave, visited only by his brother monks.

Life in the cell can be frightening to an outsider, but the monk who is called to this unique way of life finds, as the years pass, that he has come to love his private hermitage. The cell, one monk told me, "is the water, and we are the fish; we cannot live for long away from it." The cell becomes the monk's home, both physical and spiritual. The Prior, whose duties require some regular communication with the outside world, admits that he would be delighted to recover the more lasting silence of the ordinary monk's cell, "if I receive mercy"--that is, if he is replaced as the community's superior.

After the admittedly difficult months of the novitiate, the Carthusian monks adapt to their new world. The weight and permanence of those granite walls reinforce the radical commitment that they have made, foreclosing all other options. A monk knows that he cannot expect help from outside his cell; he cannot wait for some change in his routine; he cannot hope for any change in his circumstances. His life has only one meaning and one object. He must, as one Carthusian tersely put it, "Get to God, or get out!"

For those who endure, the Carthusian vocation promises extraordinary rewards, which an outsider cannot hope fully to understand. St. Bruno wrote:

What advantages and delights the solitude and the silence of the hermitage bring to those who love it, they only know who have had the experience of it…. Here it is that God repays his athletes for their struggles, with the longed-for reward: with that peace, I mean, which the world knows not, and with joy in the Holy Ghost.

Discerning a vocation

Very few men are called to this rigorous life. Mount Equinox is home to the only Carthusian monastery in America; there are only 30 in the entire world. Yet despite the fact that the order does absolutely nothing to recruit new members, each Carthusian foundation receives letters from men who are interested in exploring the life of solitude. These men travel from all around the world to find the monasteries, which are typically hidden in remote mountain regions like Vermont. Some aspirants are members of other monastic orders who feel the call to a greater degree of austerity; others are single laymen, or diocesan priests. The community in Vermont now includes monks from France, Spain, Norway, Holland, the Philippines, Korea, Canada, and Ethiopia as well as the US.

Every year, the Prior reports, the Charterhouse of the Transfiguration receives between 50 and 80 letters from men who want to know more about the Carthusian way of life. If the preliminary correspondence is promising, the candidate is invited to spend a 30-day retreat at the monastery. From that point he might embark on an aspirancy of a few months' duration, followed by at least a year as a postulant and another year as a novice. Then there is the simple profession of vows, for a period of three years (which might be prolonged in an individual case), a renewal of those simple vows for another two years, and finally the solemn perpetual profession.

The aspiring monk is free to leave at any time before he takes his vows, and many do leave quickly. One young enthusiast lasted only two hours before he fled from Mount Equinox! The Prior explains that some young men have an idealized vision of contemplative life, and their illusions are quickly shattered by the stark realities of everyday Carthusian existence.

Anyone interested in the Carthusian order must undergo psychological screening before he enters the monastery as an aspirant, and only mature candidates are encouraged. The Novice Master is also careful to watch over his charges, vigilant for signs of spiritual or psychological problems. As one mature monk put it, "It is very dangerous to be here, if you don't have a real vocation to this way of life."

There is one occasion when the monks speak to each other at length: at the community meetings when they gather to discuss, and ultimately to vote on, whether a postulant should be allows to become a novice, or a novice should take his first vows. These meetings are surrounded by intense prayer, too, as the monks struggle to distinguish between an "attraction" to the contemplative life and a genuine "vocation" to their order. "We're very much aware that this can be a life-or-death decision," one monk remarks.

The Prior explains:

These people may have all the wonderful gifts and talents that can earmark a "success" in living and persevering in the Carthusian life. However, as we discern more closely and prayerfully, we discover one thing they lack, which in truth is the most essential in a vocation: that is, the grace of a call. That can be turned the other way. One may not be so gifted and talented; he has nothing except that one essential.

The Prior is confident that young men will continue to experience the unique call to the Carthusian life of prayer and penance. In an age marked by constant activity and competition for material welfare, some young men will find the life of silence and interior prayer even more attractive. "We may be underestimating the capacity of the young," he believes, "by not inviting them to dare, to go beyond themselves, to enter into the depths of their being, to aspire for something noble and higher."

An austere beauty

Because the walls of the hermitage shield the monk from all outside distractions, he is left to struggle with his imagination. This is the daily battle of the Carthusian: the fight to ward off distractions and extraneous impulses, and achieve what one elderly monk characterized as a "serene equilibrium" of the interior life.

By all accounts it is a constant and demanding battle. When I spoke with three monks about the Carthusian way of life, one refers matter-of-factly to "when you're lying on the floor of your cell, sobbing…" The other two monks nodded quietly; they knew--from personal experience, presumably--exactly what he meant.

(The monks labored to explain their daily battles to this reporter. Our discussion was marked by more than the usual number of minor misunderstandings. Was this because the Carthusians have so little practice in conversation, or because their way of life is so foreign to a layman? I cannot say.)

The daily quest to master one's impulses can involve simple matters, such as the struggle to remain alert at prayer. It can involve the minor details of communal life. As one Carthusian author observed, the life of solitude does not afford many opportunities for conflicts between personalities, but "when it does, the overexcitement of the cell and the lack of opportunity to 'talk it over' can magnify it out of all proportion." Or an unexpected variation in the daily routine can cause a visceral reaction in the monk--prompting him to realize how little control he has over his emotions.

The more draining battles, however, occur on a plane that a layman can scarcely imagine. All alone, having given everything that he has to God, the monk finds that he confronts a crisis of faith. A monk writes: "When the attack is leveled at the theological virtues he feels that it is the end of everything. There is nothing left in life or in death--nothing but fearful anguish."

The only answer to these attacks on one's faith, the Carthusian knows, is surrender to God's providence. "That's why when one does not have a certain level of spiritual and psychological maturity, the cruel master that is solitude will throw him out," the Prior says. "He perseveres who fights backs in humility, completely at the mercy of God's tender grace."

An idealist living outside the monastery might dream of a contemplative life marked by mystical raptures, the Prior continues; the realist, surrounded by granite, knows that the everyday struggle is more mundane. At first a young monk might concentrate on achieving certain experiences and emotions in his life of prayer; with time he learns that these experiences themselves are ephemeral, and only his dedication to prayer matters. The beginner looks for the consolations of God; the experienced monk addresses himself to the God of consolations.

Yet for those who do persevere there are ample spiritual rewards. When the world is closed out, the interior life opens up, and the monks enjoy a deep sense of peace which they find hard to communicate in words. When I ask the three monks whether I have missed any important aspects of their life during the course of my interview, an answer bursts immediately from the youngest. "Talk about the beauty," he insists.

There is one other aspect of Carthusian life, the monks agree, that cannot be passed without mention. Every monk nourishes a deep practical devotion to the Virgin Mary. Carthusians have clung to the tradition of reciting the "Little Office" of the Virgin before the regular canonical hours. They also feel that Mary guides them through their solitary lives each day. "When I think of what I'd do without the Blessed Mother," one monk says, and his voice trails off. The three monks sit in silence for a moment, shaking their heads, as if an absurdity has been introduced into the conversation. A Carthusian life unaided by Mary is unthinkable.

"Sentinel of the coming kingdom"

The Charterhouse of the Transfiguration now has electric lights and a fax machine. But in every essential matter, the monastery is no different from the original Carthusian foundation, the Grand Chartreuse, as it was built nine centuries ago. The tonsured monks still wear the familiar habit; they still use chant from the ancient, enormous Latin psalters. Even the liturgy has not changed; the monks use their own Carthusian rite: a simple celebration, based on the liturgy of the Latin rite as it was observed in Grenoble during the time of St. Bruno. The ancient disciplines of the order--the silence, the hairshirts, the fasts--have not been relaxed. Pope John Paul II paid tribute to the steadfast witness of the Carthusians in a letter he wrote to celebrate the 900th anniversary of St. Bruno's death: "Untiring sentinel of the coming kingdom, seeking to 'be' before 'doing,' the Carthusian Order gives the Church strength and courage in her mission…"

The Carthusian order has never really experienced a reform, the monks proudly say, it has not been necessary. The order "has no need of reform because it was never deformed." Yet the monks have embraced the teachings of Vatican II, and the documents of that Council have now joined the Scriptures, the Carthusian statutes, and the works of the Church Fathers as approved spiritual reading for the monks. In that respect the witness of the Carthusians weighs heavily against those dissatisfied Catholics who complain that a rigorous traditional spirituality is incompatible with the message of the Council.

The library of the Charterhouse is well stocked with Church documents and theological works. But there are no newspapers or current periodicals on the shelves. The Prior keeps informed by subscribing to the diocesan newspaper and (we are proud to add) Catholic World Report; he shares a few articles with the other monks, to give them the little information that they need about the outside world.

The monks also receive a fair amount of "news" in the form of prayer requests. The fax machine on Mount Equinox brings messages from people all over the world--the vast majority of whom the monks have never met--asking for prayers. The intentions mentioned in these petitions range from the health of a family pet to the evangelization of Africa. At times, when the requests come at a feverish pace, the monks know that the world is facing a crisis of some sort. Within hours after the terrorist attacks of September 11, the fax machine was buzzing with urgent messages--from Britain, Indonesia, France, and Australia as well as the US--asking the Carthusians to pray for world peace.

The Carthusians honor all these prayer requests. But they are conscious that their witness, and their role in the universal Church, goes beyond their responses to particular appeals for intercessory prayer. As one monk put it, contemplative prayer cannot be "tied down" to any particular cause. The prayer and the witness of these monks is as seamless and unchanging as the granite that surrounds them. The Statutes of the Carthusians captures the role of the order in the universal Church: "Apart from all, to all we are united, so that it is in the name of all that we stand before the living God."

© Catholic World Report

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