In the pantheon of Catholic religious orders—Carmelites, Claretians, Camoldolese, Cistercians, Capuchin and Conventual Franciscans, Clunaics, Canons Regular, Clerics Regular—the Carthusians stand out as one of the oldest most austere.
The Carthusians are, in fact, so far removed from “the world” that they don’t allow visitors, retreatants, or oblates. They work and pray, and pray and work on a two-level model: the choir monks pray as hermits nearly non-stop—all the liturgical hours as well as the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary, daily Mass and the Rosary—while the lay monks keep the monastery (or “charterhouse”) humming by making it possible for their choir brothers to pray all day and night.
As their own literature reads: “Who is called to such a life as this?”
Not many people. There is one Carthusian monastery in the entire United States: The Charterhouse of the Transfiguration in Vermont. There are about 320 Carthusian monks in the entire world today.
Still, there is the attraction of the unknown. In 2006 the Franco-German documentary “Into Great Silence” was released to much critical acclaim. It takes the viewer into La Grande Chartreuse, the motherhouse of the Carthusian Order located in the most remote area of France. And at almost three hours long, it gives the viewer a glimpse of the history of the place.
It’s a long history, and an unbroken history at that. The Carthusians are that rarest of breeds—a pre-Reformation religious order that has never splintered or undergone a major or even a minor revision. As the saying goes, the Carthusians were never re-formed because they were never de-formed.
However, that they were ever formed at all is remarkable. Bruno, born in Cologne about 1030, became a canon and then diocesan chancellor before realizing that he wanted just one thing: a life of perfect solitude and contemplation. There would be no half-measures, no going out into the world—not even for the Corporal Works of Mercy. Bruno wanted purity not only of life, but of prayer. In short, he wanted to imitate the earliest Fathers of the Desert.
It is here that the contemporary reader may fall into the trap of thinking that Bruno in particular, and monks and cloistered religious in general, are “running away from reality” or “flying the world”, but that’s not quite true. If anything, with all the distractions removed, the Carthusian runs smack INTO reality—and it’s a tough one. It’s a hermit’s life, blended with very occasional communal prayer (including Mass), along with once a month “family days”, when the monks talk to one another.
But why did Bruno do what he did?
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