The Carthusian liturgy – Which is older than the Tridentine Rite by 450 years (Marienau Charterhouse)

Crocuses stretch against the sun next to a shady piece of snow in the garden, birds chirping in every shrub. A toad on this first spring day has secured itself in the cold cloister of the Charterhouse, as one does, at a corner of the long corridor, frightened, cheeks puffed out. Normally no strangers ever come here. No manager is allowed to „dangle his soul“ in our silence. The Carthusians do not offer their „profound luck,“ as Goethe would call it, in any marketplace.

But even for ordinary fellow Christians there are no retreats or visits, nor can the priest monks be persuaded to help out a little with the pastoral care of the nearby village. „We have another task,“ says the Prior, „Representing the many who no longer have time for the living God, we stand before him for all of them.“ 

Our pastoral care is worldwide, to be honest! „For this they live in unconditional devotion, radically withdrawn.“ 

The Pope’s secretary, Georg Gänswein wanted to become a Carthusian before he was promoted to the Apostolic Palace and into one of the most unpredictable ways of life, where, however, he is not the master of his time any more than a Carthusian, who weave their minutes and seconds by day and by night to the rhythm of paradise. Completely renouncing television, radio and the Internet which they do without. The hard-drive of their memory and their networking with the world and with history are still extant and found in a large library. Night after night they rise at midnight for the first canticles of praise.

Early in the morning they return to the monastery church and celebrate the Eucharist together and again in the afternoon for Vespers. The rest of the time they pray, contemplate, read, study on their own – with a strict balance of handicrafts in their workshop or garden.

Are they archaic? Timeless? Certainly they embody an almost unbroken tradition like no one else. Every two years, its order is carefully adapted to the new challenges and requirements in the so-called General Chapters, but all major crises that have occurred have never been able to persuade the Carthusians to adapt to the zeitgeist. Worries about their growth in Germany they have none. Of course, they wear wristwatches under the long sleeves of their coarse white cowls, are well informed about the world outside of the walls, and have no fear of technological aids of any kind (where their use is required for certain jobs). But other than that, more or less everything has remained the same among them since the days of St. Bruno of Cologne, who founded his order in the 11th century. And thats why they have neither summer nor winter time, they only have pure time.

But the most precious substance of our lives is only a prelude to eternity. „Do you also celebrate the Tridentine Mass?“ We wanted to know from Brother Theodor. The porter smiles. „We have our own, we have the Carthusian liturgy. Which is 450 years older than the Tridentine Rite. The liturgical constitution of the last council have changed almost nothing at all.“ 

Brother Theodor is from North Holland. „Do not wait for those who slew St. Boniface,“ we ask, „the apostle of the Germans?“ Now he laughs loudly. „Yes, we were. That’s probably why I’m here too.“ Here, in the walled grounds of a huge forest, where the old tailor has been for over 30 years. 

Yes, they are considered the strictest order within the Catholic Church. But merriment and humour are the first thing we want to write down – and the play of light in the shadows of the cloister, the open skies above, their gardens. Anyone who would like to, should come to Buxheim in the Allgäu, near Memmingen, where a former charterhouse was converted into a museum, whose architecture 200 years after the expulsion of the Carthusians still sheds light on their secret as though kept in amber. It is one of the brightest Rococo establishments in southern Germany.

In ta small nook of the cloister, Dominikus Zimmermann has created a „little meadow“, a tiny chapel where the Risen One moves over the altar as a child and victor on the bright golden ground of heaven. There is a single glow within this jewel – and a fabulous generosity, where every monk has at his disposal, not just a cell, but his own little house for his seclusion around the cloister: in it an anteroom with a picture or a statue of Mary (who is the real Mistress of the Order), a room with work and dining table, a prayer niche, next to a straw bed. Behind it a workshop, with the stored wood for winter, which every monk himself saws and chops, a workbench, and a walled garden for their own design – and all this for just one person! Anyone who wants  to shows up here, could also consider the Carthusians as the inventors of the detached home. 

The food is handed to them at noon by Carthusian brothers, who follow another daily schedule, through a hatch next to the door into the little domain.

The partitioned rooms are almost mirrored in their structured time. Every Monday they walk together in the woods, in lively conversation.

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On Sundays and other festivals, they eat together, there are even wooden spoons and forks, so that there is no clanging noise from the „Gamelles“, on which the food is served so that it does not disturb their listening to the table reading. 

On the old portal of the refectory of Buxheim carvings show half the menu of yesteryear: bread, vegetables, fish and shellfish, no meat, but beer and wine. This has changed little. And a figure in the choir stalls shows us the Prostratio, the particular prayer position of the Carthusians, which they have retained since the Middle Ages: an angled thrown upon the floor type posture, as we often see on the sidewalks in Rome around the Vatican of the demeanour of a professional beggars who still know how to lie on the ground and supplicate correctly. Since the founding of the Order, the Prior tell us, they live „from air and from love“ (Above all, the love of our generous donors who have never abandoned us).

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Plainly they are only beggars before God. So they lie one by one in front of the altar, as do all the Priors every two years before the General Chapter at the great Charterhouse in France, where he is asked: „What do you want?“   „Mercy!“  „Stand up!“.  Afterwards, he is either granted his request (or is asked to continue for another two years). It goes without saying that the monks always address each other with the formal „You“. 

Even a certain form of nobility has been conserved within them as if encrusted in amber.

As an elite, the 300 Carthusian monks that exist worldwide would probably hardly be able to understand themselves. They are self-confident. Your probationary period lasts at least 7 years before a final commitment, and if the community thereafter refuses, in a secret ballot, to solemnly receive somebody, even the prior is powerless. In Marienau, not far from Buxheim, the monks of the only Charterhouse in Germany come from nine different nations, all religions, all professions. 

Most priests were also academics before. The highest age for entry is 45 years. „They would not have taken Saint Bruno today,“ the Prior jokes, „he was already over fifty when he founded our Order.“  

And today? Where do the new Carthusians come from? It has become difficult, he says, who once wanted to become a foreign correspondent before suddenly feeling „seduced and overwhelmed“ by God. „Because many already consider us as not being among the living. Many artisans, endowments, and even Carthusians, come through their wrongful life no longer able to fulfil the plan that God had with them before they were born, the God of life.“

The first monks from the Lower Rhine settled in Marienau in 1964, where the Old Motherhouse blocked the new runways at Düsseldorf Airport. The profit from the sale of the old parcels of land enabled the monks to acquire their clearing in the forest, during the years of the Council – and in a marriage of the ugliest architectural experiments – they built a new small monastic village, austere, classically beautiful, with a simple cemetery in the middle of the cloister.

They took their books with them, an old statue of St. Bruno from Cologne, the old Rule and the spirit of their foundation. What profit and divine enjoyment the loneliness and silence of the wasteland prepares for those who love it are known only to those who have experienced it,“ wrote Guigo of Chastel almost 70 years after the founding of the Order in 1130 in the Rule and also this: „The poor life in loneliness is difficult in the beginning, with time it becomes easier, and  is heavenly in the end.“

Is that still true? Yes, says the Prior, but the trials are difficult. „Most go again. The order remains. Some leave us after hours, others after days, some only after 20 years.“ So late? How is it possible to break away? „As in a marriage,“  says the monk, „if the dialogue withers and eventually stops.“  The dialogue with the men of this Order of Silence? „No, no, the dialogue with God, of course.“ The life of a Carthusian makes sense only through this constant conversation with Him, even if we argue and fight, even if we desperately shout at Him in desperation. But it’s over when we start to tell him! This is the end.

We live a love story. How else could we endure the hardships and loneliness? „Every day and night we wait for nothing other than this: to one day to look into the eyes of the one who loves me.“


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Attribution: Kirche In Not written by Paul Badde of Die Welt in April 2009.  The article was about the Marienau Charterhouse in Germany and translated by a Hermit of Saint Bruno at St. Mary’s Hermitage.