Feast Day: October 6th
In 1984, a German Flimmaker wrote to the original Carthusian monastery, located in a valley of the French alps, miles from the nearest vehicular roads, the Grande Chartreuse – famed for its rigorous prayer and silence, and 500-year-old 130-flavor liquor recipe of the same name – and asked if he could stay at the monastery and unobtrusively film the daily life of the monks. They wrote back to him 16 years later and gave him permission to come. The final film is almost three hours long, and is almost entirely silent … because the life of the monks is almost entirely silent. Their silence had begun almost 1000 years before.
We begin not in Chartreuse, but in Cologne. Our story begins with a young priest of that diocese, ordained around the year 1055, now tasked with overseeing the schools of the diocese. Fr. Bruno had been giving a good education and comfortable upbringing, so perhaps he was the right man for the job, in any case he stayed in that position for almost two decades, gradually acquiring a reputation as a philosopher, theologian, and adviser for his pupils and diocese. 20 years into his priesthood, he moved up to being Chancellor for the Archdiocese of Reims. So far, so ordinary.
But then a violent, power-hungry, man was named the new bishop of Reims. The clergy of the diocese pushed back against the vicious bishop, who responded by having his mobs tear down their homes and sell their possessions. Meanwhile, Henry IV, the Holy Roman Emperor had just declared the election of the Pope Gregory VII invalid and demanded he abdicate. Gregory excommunicated Henry, who pressured the bishop of Utrecht into excommunicating the pope. Lightning destroyed the cathedral of Utrecht and the bishop died a month after. Let’s just say it wasn’t a great time to be the chancellor there in Reims…
Still, God was at work in the lousy situation, not only in the eventual removal of the bad bishop, but in the movement that he was beginning in Bruno’s heart. 25 years a priest, he had become a canon during the preceding years – living in community with the other priests of the cathedral – and now found himself drawn to deepen that life of focus on the Lord and his brother priests. Three priests and two laymen, in the middle of their stable and ordinary lives were catapulted into religious life in the midst of the machinations of the distracted and disordered hierarchy of the Church of their day. They had providentially crossed the path of St. Hugh, the holy bishop of Grenoble, who gave them an isolated piece of property up in the rocky alps in the northern reaches of his diocese.
500 years later, there would be built the spectacular, silent, Monastery of the Grande Chartreuse, built upon the alpine rocks from which it received its name, and the harried, hardworking, humbled chancellor-now-hermit from Cologne who had sought God there. 500 years later, now surviving for almost a millennia, the order remains an inspiration to every Christian of the priority of prayer, and openness to the graces given in crazy times.
“How lovely is your dwelling place” [Psalm 84] is taken to refer not so much to the Jerusalem temple as the heavenly dwelling of God in heaven according to the spiritual sense or meaning of Scripture. To reach the courts of the house of the Lord, we must climb the steps of virtue and good works.
– St. Bruno, Commentary on Psalms [Ps. 83: Edit. Cartusiae de Pratis, 1891, 376-377]
– Fr. Rankin first saw “Into Great Silence” as a teenager. Of course, 3 hours of silently watching monks walk and work and worship was not, at first, an exciting prospect. Yet it was captivating. There was a profundity and contentment revealed in their simple lives that no amount of activity has ever given me. One scene sticks in my mind: the weekly spatiamentum when the monks all hike together up in the hills and are allowed to chat with each other. Beautifully, the silence they cherished was the foundation for the joy they found sledding and joking and being brothers to each other.