In the famous monastery, 32 monks lead a life of asceticism obeying the very strict precepts issued more than nine hundred years ago.
At the end of a long path bordered by maple trees, we first see narrow chimneys above which flowing fumes quietly dance. Then the robust and mysterious edifice stands before our eyes, surrounded by a thick wall. Near the main entrance, a sign discourages the curious: “You cannot visit the monastery.” We must continue to follow the path on the right to a sober Calvary to better distinguish, below, La Grande Chartreuse, marrying the curves of the mountain. To the east, the 35 hermitages where the monks live which are connected to each other by a covered cloister 215 meters long. An austere rectangular building without windows is leaned against: a library of more than 60,000 books. Further north, the chapel of the dead contains the bones of the monks who have lived in the monastery since its foundation. A large church with two bell towers sits in the heart of the enclosure. At noon, the silence is broken by the sound of a bell announcing the office of sext, prayer of the sixth hour of the day. Thus flows the life of a Carthusian monk, to the rhythm of successive liturgies …
The Carthusian Order was created over nine hundred years ago by St. Bruno of Cologne. Born around the year 1030, this great scholar studied at the prestigious cathedral school of Reims. He climbed the ladder until he became rector. But the disorders within the city inconvenience him. Persuaded that one can not seek God in the disquiet of the world, he chooses to become a hermit. His first attempt is a failure. The efforts made every day to feed him prevent him from devoting himself fully to prayer. “He then becomes convinced that the best way to devote oneself to God is to create a community of hermits who share the tasks of everyday life,” says Nicolas Diederichs, Curator of the Museum of La Grande Chartreuse.
In the beginning, a dream: seven stars indicating the mountain
One day. Bruno from Cologne receives a letter from one of his former students. Hugues de Grenoble, the bishop of the city. This one tells him about the isolated lands of the Chartreuse massif, conducive to meditation. In 1084. Bruno of Cologne, accompanied by four priests, starts from the Champagne. Two lay people join the team on the way. At the same time. Hugues would have seen in a dream seven stars telling him the mountain. When the seven travelers arrive, the bishop of Grenoble understands the meaning of his mysterious dream and guides the religious towards these ideally deserted lands. Bruno and his companions elect residence at the foot of the Grand Som. near a stream. in wooden cabins. In 1132 the site is destroyed by an avalanche. The Carthusians then settle further south. 2 kilometers from the original site, on this site full of solemnity that today occupy 32 fathers and brothers. The youngest is 25 years old, the oldest is 91.
More than nine centuries after the foundation. the strict precepts of Bruno of Cologne continue to dictate the daily life of the monks. “Our main application and our vocation is to go to the silence and solitude of the cell,” he wrote in the statutes of the order. […] Inordinately ordained to contemplation, our order must preserve with extreme fidelity its separation from the world. “Each monk spends eight hours a day praying alone in his hermitage. He also consumes his meals, except for the Sunday when the religious meet in the refectory. Visits are restricted to the nearest family, and take place once or twice a year. Every week – usually on Mondays – the inhabitants of the massif can see in the distance the white silhouettes of the Carthusians, on the occasion of the Spatiamentum, the community walk of 4 hours, together in the countryside during which they may speak. They go two by two, changing partners every half hour. This permits a fraternal sharing that is an important complement to the solitary life, as well as offering a wider physical space and exercise. The tone of conversation is light-hearted and simple.
« The Cross is steady while the world is turning »
Such a life of isolation and contemplation might arouse more misunderstanding than fascination. “It’s not an escape, clarifies Nicolas Diederichs. The monks are keep abreast of all the big news on the planet through the Prior. But they decided to keep out of it so as to be more effective in prayer. The motto of the Carthusian epitomises this desire to step back from:
“Stat Crux dum volvitur orbis” (“The Cross is steady while the world is turning”). Aspirants to the monastic life knocking on the door are at first turned down. Those who persevere will have to detail their motives by mail. The statutes detail the required skills:
“When aspirants, aflame with divine love and longing to leave the world and lay hold of eternal realities, come to us, let us receive them in the same spirit. It is therefore vitally necessary that novices should find in the House where they are to be trained an example of regular observance and piety, of silence and solitude, and likewise of fraternal love; if this example is lacking, there is little hope of them being able to persevere in our life. However, candidates are to be examined carefully and prudently, in accordance with the warning of the Apostle John, “Test the spirits, to see whether they are of God.” Among the qualities, with which candidates for life in solitude should be particularly endowed, a sound and balanced judgement is of prime importance. of the applicants, only those are to be accepted who, in the judgement of the Prior and of the majority of the community, are sufficiently gifted with piety, maturity, and physical strength, to bear the burdens of the Order; they should, of course, have an aptitude for solitude, but also for life in common.” Statutes, Ch. 8, 1-3.
people authorized to cross the gate of La Grande Chartreuse are very rare. The Rhône-Alpine filmmaker Jean-Claude Garnier had obtained exceptional authorization to tour and take some images of the monastery more than twenty years ago. He recalls “the impression of entering into another world” and “the omnipresent silence, which you feel in your gut.” The German director Philip Grôning, asked the Carthusians in 1984 to make a film telling of their daily lives. The monks agreed … sixteen years later! Into Great Silence, a bare documentary, without comment or musical accompaniment, allows the viewer to better understand the life of asceticism.
Until the eighteenth century, revenues were from work in wood and iron
The most curious visitors can also visit La Correrie. annex building formerly occupied by the brothers in charge of the material life of the monastery and now transformed into a museum. There is an identical reconstruction of a Carthusian hermitage. from the bedroom (without mattresses) to the workshop-pile where the monks take advantage of their rare free time (from one to two hours a day). There are also beautiful and detailed maps of Carthusian buildings from all over the world. The order is composed of 23 monasteries, from Argentina to South Korea. through Brazil and the United States: 18 are occupied by men and 5 by women.
Translated from the French Magazine “L’Express” №3379 (06.04.2016) by a Hermit of Saint Bruno at St. Mary’s Hermitage.