The Monk of Chartreux or the Prior’s Ring

Flaubert GustaveLe Moine des Chartreux — Œuvres de jeunesse (Édition Conard, 1910) By Gustave Flaubert translated from the French by Fr. Hugh ESB. Gustave Flaubert (1821 — †1881) was a French novelist. He was considered to be highly influential, and was considered the leading exponent of literary realism in France. He is known especially for his debut novel Madame Bovary (1857), his Correspondence, and his scrupulous devotion to his style and aesthetics. Flaubert famously avoided the inexact, the abstract and the vaguely inapt expression, and scrupulously eschewed the cliché. [Ed. Fr. Hugh hopes that this translation does credit to Flaubert’s original. **This moral story is for teaching purposes only and bares no relation to the Carthusian Order whatsoever although titled as such by Flaubert. The pictures used are purely for illustrative purposes which bare no relation to Flauberts’ original work**.]


Memento MoriEight days had already passed since the crypt of La Grande-Chartreuse had resounded with the Litany of the Faiful Departed, at the prior’s funeral, when Brother Bernardo, lying in his cell, remembered this whole scene of mourning, and the smallest circumstances of this sad day came to his memory, fresh and still recent.

From there he saw his long robe, his belt of rope, his white beard, his bed of marble and his hands crossed on his chest; at this thought he stopped. It was this same thought that had been torturing him for so long, that is to say for a few days, that would not allow him a moment of sleep, not an hour of rest; the same thought that he would have wanted to erase, to destroy for everyone, and which was represented there, always stronger and more powerful, because it was beautiful and graceful. He got up, knelt and sought some rest in prayer. Oh! no, it was in vain; always there, always there!

He went to his window to see if the charm of a quiet night, if the silence of sleeping nature would not inspire his soul more rest than prayer or the sight of a Christ. No! and yet the air was pure, the sky clear, the moon serene; the countryside was beautiful, a few huts, a wood and a vast castle formed the horizon.

A Prior's Ring found at Pilton Devon in 1867
A Prior’s Ring found at Pilton Devon in 1867

His forehead wrinkled, and he thought again of the prior’s tomb; the same image came to his mind, and his lips convulsively stammered out a few words that were dying just as they were born: “Oh, have it! hold it! own it! dream of a world in a prison, think of life in a sepulchre! Yes, I will go, I will take this ring!”

Indeed, was it not natural that this poor man, who did not have a reality to enjoy, wished illusions to dream? And we knew in the convent that this prior’s ring was linked to memories of youth and love, which his piety had not been able to get rid of, because after the dampened passion there remains within the heart of the man the inviolable roots which are linked to old memories like ivy which, although dead, embraces the oak on which it grew!

“Oh! continued Bernardo, looking at the forest, perhaps there was a young man walking in there, longing for his life of happiness, lovingly contemplating and ecstatic a pure and azure sky, covered in his golden robe; he can carry his eyes far afield where vigour and the future breathe, without them falling with disdain on the bars of a man’s cage!”

Žiče Charterhouse - Slovenske KonjiceThen looking at the castles “Oh! in there there are men who live, perhaps the waltz leaps on the parquet, twitchy and delirious. There are women who swirl entrained within the arms of their dancers; there are lackeys with gold liveries, horses whose adornment may have cost more hours of work than my hours of boredom; there are chandeliers with a thousand reflections, diamonds shining in the glass; there are roses of life!”

Then he returned to his bed, seeking sleep; and he saw in a corner the shining ring, as if Satan was presenting it to him persistently. He turned around, and he still saw the ring in all of its splendour.

Barely breathing, he sat down. “Now,” he thought, looking at the moon reflected on the bars of his cell and on the tin christ hanging over his bed, now there are those who live happy and content, without thinking of the day before, or the day after, on life, on eternity, and who live for the day whose joys they gather like the perfume which exudes from a flower. But let’s go! everything is sleeping, the day will soon arise (hardly, it was only just midnight)”, and it seemed to him that dawn had intrude into his cell and his ring, a memory of the world, who was going to live with him in the tomb of his life .

Monk with lanternImmediately he took a bag of tools and the key to the crypt, which he had obtained, lit a lantern, went down the stairs and arrived at the door of the church which he opened with a trembling hand.


Every step he took seemed to be the step of someone walking behind him, and he turned, shivering, as pale as the dead men around him.

Crypt of the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin in Rome

He arrived panting at the door of the crypt, opened and closed it.

He went down all the steps; on the last he stopped and he looked into a horizon of sepulchres, – and his gaze looked elsewhere, and he still saw only death, and still death. “Quick, quick, let’s open the tomb!” because perhaps they will soon notice my absence, maybe they are already on my trail! He wanted to take his lantern and go up a step, but the lantern slipped from his hands and he could not lift his foot; he listened, and heard only the distant cry of owls and nighthawks, mingled with the whistling of the wind which thundered beneath the arches. He began to trembled like the Leaf, his teeth chattered, his legs bent under him, because all that reminded him of life then was the death of his soul in torture. Finally he advanced and began to count the graves and read the inscriptions. With each marble he touched, it seemed to him that the dead man would wake up to condemn and curse him. Yet he arrives at the prior’s grave, opens it, uncovers him of his shroud … the ring is there which shines as in his dreams.

“Where then is the amercement,” he said, “of taking something from a corpse?” Does he enjoy his ring, since he has no life, no memories, no world to dream of? And he seized that cold, emaciated hand, stopped for a moment longer and looked with difficulty at the white beard, an air of majesty spread over the old man’s face. Oh! It was then that he would have liked there to be no remorse or conscience within the hearts of men, that he would have wanted to forget the past, this very present, and think only of the future and of his dreams! And he touched the hand of the corpse!

He tore off the ring, frantically put it on his finger, then recovered his pincers and put the coffin back in place. Immediately he heard the bell which reminded the monks of the Nocturn prayer, got up … but he felt himself strongly grasped by the hem of his robe; he fell backwards only to crack his skull against the wall of the crypt, and his blood bedabbled over the prior’s coffin.

A year passed, then two, then several, until the crypt was opened to bury yet anotherThe dead monk prior. A skeleton was found surrounded by a robe, the bottom of which was caught on a nail of a neighbouring coffin; his skull was horribly mutilated, a ring was on his finger. They dug the ground on the very same spot and buried the skeleton out of pity; in the evening a De Profundis was said for the rest of the soul of the unknown body which had been found within the crypt.

Well! he wanted both the ring and to have life; he had lived, he had dreamed, he feared, he waited, to own in agony is to live; to him as for many others, his wealth was in the grave, and his hopes were shattered under a shroud of death.

the monks journey - carrying the coffin of St. Cuthbert-to-the-Cathedral-Durham-460x247

Father Ugo-Maria’s thoughts and comments based on Matthew 6:19-24: Here we are effectively dealing with worldly possessions, and the controlling thought is summed up in Matthew 6:24: the disciple can serve only one master and must choose between God and wealth. This parable points to the need of a disciple to be enlightened by Jesus’ teaching on the transitory nature of earthly riches. Nowhere has Jesus  ever denied the reality of human needs, but He does forbid us from making them the object of overwrought care and, in effect, allowing yourself to become a slave to the objects you desire. Don’t bother laying up treasures on earth for yourselves, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in to steal, instead save up treasures in heaven for yourselves, where there are no moths nor rust which destroys and where thieves cannot gain access to steal. You see where your treasure is, is also where your heart and mind will be. It’s impossible to serve two masters [have you ever had two managers at the same time? I had two supervising managers whilst lecturing at Oxford and it was horrendous], you will either hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and riches. What ever would you do with your accumulated wealth once you are dead anyway? 

I hope you’ve enjoyed this story.  God Bless. 

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