Monday, May 27, 2013

Christian Renewal From the Desert - Carthusian Spirituality

"All Christian renewal expresses itself by an exodus into the desert" - A Carthusian.

Several months ago, a young man from the neighborhood named Jeremy stopped into our parish office and told our administrator that he wanted to talk to the pastor.  Because of my day job, I don't spend a lot of time in the office at St. Luke, but I just happened to be there that day.  Over the next 30 minutes or so, Jeremy told me how he was trying to discern his calling, and how he had been reading the Desert Fathers and Thomas Merton. 

We hit it off, and the next time we met, he showed me another book he was reading, "The Call of Silent Love."  The interesting thing about this book is that there was no author listed - the book simply noted that it was by "A Carthusian" and was translated from French to English by "An Anglican Solitary." Jeremy's introduction of this book to me has opened up a new and fascinating world - the world of Carthusian spirituality.

I knew a little about Carthusuan spirituality, mainly through watching the documentary film "Into Great Silence"  

The film does a beautiful job of documenting the contemplative life of the Carthusian monks at their Grande Chartreuse monastery in France, but it does not attempt to explain why the monks live that life.  I ordered a copy of "The Call of Silent Love" and, as beautiful as the film is, the book is perhaps an even greater example of the beauty of the Carthusian life.

The book begins by explaining the beginnings of the Carthusian order, as founded by St. Bruno in the Eleventh Century. Essentially, the Carthusian order represents a radical return to the spirituality of the desert, where the monks live a life marked by prayer, contemplation, and silence. While they follow a similar pattern of daily prayer to Benedictines, they do not follow the Rule of St. Benedict; instead, they follow their own rule called the "Statutes."

In coming blog articles, I will write about some of the details of Carthusian spirituality, but for now, I will begin with a taste of the kind of beauty found within the book. Here is the book's description of their monastic setting:

"The valley is narrow and has something of the clear sightlines of a cathedral nave about it: a vault of light encased within steep walls rising 1000 metres like arms outstretched in prayer.

The first hermitage was built at a spot higher up the valley, in the sanctuary.  Great trees upheld the vault of heaven. Water poured from a crystal fountain. The incense of smoke from wood fires rose slowly. The small sounds of the natural world only enhanced the silence, an attentive listening to all that is. A place of prayer, a place of God. One could not live there without being marked by the One who dwells there." (p. 5).

So, thank you to Jeremy for getting me to read about the beautiful world of the Carthusians.


  1. Very interesting. Re. Thomas Merton -- my advice -- and you can take it or leave it -- is caution. The reason the Franciscans didn't take him is that they found out he lied to them about his past -- an illegitimate child in England, during the War, something like that. There is an allusion to this in the new intro of Seven Story Mountain. In the 60s, as a monk, he started getting into what we now call New Age -- back then it was all about Eastern Spirituality, Hari Krishnas, Bhagavad Gita, etc. (I was there.) Then he died. All very strange. I like to stick with the Classics.

  2. So far, what I have read from Merton has been fine. You're certainly not alone in questioning Merton's orthodoxy late in life, but his theology expressed in the Alaskan Journal (from September 1968, just a couple of months before his death) seemed orthodox to me. In that Journal he commented on his upcoming trip to Asia, and I gathered his intent upon return to the US was to go into deeper isolation, so he was scouting out places for a possible new hermitage in Alaska.

    At times I wonder from his writings whether he would have been a better fit in Eastern Orthodoxy. Their hesychastic tradition would have been a good fit for his interest in mysticism, so perhaps he would not have felt like he needed to explore non-Christian Eastern spirituality to satisfy his mystical leanings. Either that or he should have become a Carthusian (which I think he did consider at one point).

    At any rate, the Seven Storey Mountain is an all-time classic, and his writings from that same time period about the different monastic orders (Waters of Siloe, The Sign of Jonas) are good as well.

  3. This is all very interesting to me. Without going into detail, I am self-educated, and I "came of age" during the turbulent times in the Catholic Church after Vatican II and before the Catechism in 1994. I believe that when history is written, that period will be seen as a particularly nasty era in the Catholic Church. It was the period that incubated the Abuse Scandal.

    I know that I have a lot to learn. As for my views about Merton, I picked them up in the Hard-scrabble Department of Theology at the School of Hard Knocks.

    When I see people like you beginning to appear on the scene, I have a lot of hope for the future.

  4. Thanks. I have a lot to learn also, and your prayers are appreciated.