Be holy rather than being defined as such – Carthusians, life and how to die properly.

A lesson that we must learn from the Carthusian way of life, especially in these exceptional days…

Even when everything seems to fail, the monks remained steadfast in glorifying God.

As a novice over twenty-five years ago, after my first silent retreat, required of all first-year novices, I was sent to a monastery for three weeks. The novice master explained to us that in the past after the retreat some novices had felt compelled to enter Monastic life. I had always wanted to be the kind of religious whom centres his life upon God only and to lead an ascetical life. I hoped to be the type of person who leads an austerely simple, and non-materialist life.

In the monastery where I stayed (Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance) for three weeks there was a bell which rang as if it were the end of the world before each of the eight moments of prayer in which the monks gathered for the Divine Office, it reminded me of the time I was stationed on HMS Illustrious, where the ships klaxon became an object of annoyance to me. At first I wanted to silence that bell, thinking to myself surely it defeats the object of our retreat, yet after a while it became reassuring to hear it, when I left it became difficult to organise my life without it.

Over the years, and especially during this exceptional period of uncertainty due to the corona virus pandemic, however, I have remained in love with a specific group of monks founded by Saint Bruno: the Carthusians, are the most austere monastic orders within the Catholic Church. I was told by a Jesuit friend that the founder of the Jesuits, St. Ignatius Loyola had also considered joining the Carthusians after his conversion, he apparently adopted many ideas from Carthusian Consuetudines and their spirituality to create the Jesuit order.

Much can be learned from monastic orders such as the Carthusians. Quarantined Catholics are turning to monastic orders, male and female, to understand how to lead a life characterised by stability in a world in crisis and also inside a home where children and pets are running around all day in a semi chaotic manner. Contemplatives teach us to praise God in every circumstance without reservation, and at all times, to find abundance within scarcity and solidarity within solitude. These days I find the Carthusian motto, Stat crux dum volvitur orbis (“The Cross stands steady while the world turns”) particularly comforting.

However, there is a general life lesson that we often seem to overlook: and that is that monks teach us how to die. It is no exaggeration to say that Carthusian monks, for example, live as if they were already dead. In fact upon entering the order one becomes dead to the world. In other words, with their radical renunciation of the attachments of the world, they practice living life in Heaven — a life with God — upon Earth.

For centuries, the structure of their daily life has remained relatively unchanged. Their day’s are spent mostly in silence which are divided into nine scheduled times of prayer, with a time for Mass, meals, manual work, study and recreation. Despite the bubonic plague (“Black Death”) which killed almost a thousand Carthusians, the turbulence of the Protestant Reformation, the persecution during the French Revolution, their continued expulsion throughout Europe due to political upheaval and the mass destruction which ensued two world wars, Carthusian life and prayer has remained relatively constant and unchanged for nine centuries until today. Even when everything was falling apart, the monks remained steadfast in glorifying God. They resisted destruction and despair, continually dying to themselves and living within God’s presence.

The Carthusians try to die as they had lived — a life known only to God and to their brothers. For example, if a Carthusian publishes a work before dying, he attributes it to “a Carthusian monk”. It avoids any honour or situation of self aggrandisement, or recognition to an individual both inside and outside of the monastery. When he dies, his body is placed directly into the ground without a coffin, and marked only with a cross without a name written upon it. It is said that a Carthusian should “be holy rather than being defined as such”. For this reason, there are probably no more than 16 canonised Carthusian saints. Following the example of Christ, the Carthusian always points to the Father.

In the book Tuesdays with Morrie, a memoir by the author Mitch Albom about a series of visits he made to his former sociology professor Morrie Schwartz, as Schwartz’s health gradually deteriorated, eventually dying of Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, he uses a most memorable line which sums up what monks testify to our world every day: “The truth is that once you’ve learnt how to die, you’ve learnt how to live.” This is also reflected in the Talmudic statement that has perplexed people throughout the ages: “Whoever wants to live, must make himself dead” (Tamid 32a). Look at three things and you won’t come to sin… where you are going [to the grave] (Ethics of the Fathers, 3:1).

The “Ethics of the Fathers” does not say where you will be going in the future, but where you are already going. From the moment we are born, we begin a journey whose destination is our eventual death and entry into the afterlife. As the Talmud Chapter 2: Mishna 15: Part 2 states: Repent one day before your death. ‘Does a person therefore know when his day of death will occur?’ No of course we do not, ‘Then we should repent today, perhaps we will die tomorrow! Thus, all of our days must be full of repentance!

In our future, from today onwards we should constantly praise God with our whole being. That praise begins here and continues into the life to come. God, consistent in His love and His providence, knows the heart of His creatures and always keeps His word. Whilst everything else, as we know, will pass.

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