The Carthusian day begins at an hour when much of the world is carousing or just starting to sleep off the excesses of a materialistic day. At 11:45 p.m. the monk rises from his austere bed to say the Little Office of Our Lady, then, leaving his cell, he wends his way through the cloisters to the monastery church. The choir stalls fill up, the professed monks in their white habits, the Novices in their black cloaks. The church is in almost total darkness, the only light coming from the sanctuary lamp and the shaded low lamps in the choir. After a period of deep silence the chanting of the long night vigil of Matins and Lauds begins. The chanting carries, in its cadences, soaring praises of God, then sinks down to lowly supplication. At times it almost seems to break into a sobbing of repentance before pouring itself out in heartfelt whispers of love. The singing, steeped in Gregorian antiquity, has a holiness all its own, and as a sung office proceeds it is impossible not to sense how the fervour of the Psalms takes over, enveloping not only the monks but also the listener in the tribune. (Robin Bruce Lockhart, “Halfway to Heaven: The Hidden Life of the Carthusians”
The life of the Carthusian monks is known above all as a life of recluses, of hermits totally separated from the world. In their life of solitude and silence, they are essentially imagined in the cell, dedicated to prayer and solitude. But the balance of Carthusian life lies precisely in the significant space of time that is dedicated to community prayer and liturgical celebration.
“The purity of the Carthusian chant… has been jealously maintained for centuries; slower, lower-pitched and less melismatic than the Benedictine chant, it is considered more deeply spiritual by those who have heard both.”
“The seventeenth-century Cardinal Bona, who undertook vast research into liturgy, records that it was the Carthusian chant which Christ recommended in His revelations to Saint Bridget, the patron saint of Sweden.”
“No organ or other musical instrument accompanies the chant, and in his liturgy the Carthusian seems to be projected by its sacred power to a point where eternity meets his temporal existence.” Even Benedictines, renowned for their singing, admit to the greater spirituality of the Carthusian chant.
When St. Bruno entered the desert with his six companions, he was following in the footsteps of the monks of old, who had been completely dedicated to silence and a poverty of spirit. But the particular grace of the Carthusian first Fathers was to introduce into this form of life a daily Liturgy, which without detracting from the austerity of the eremitical vocation, would nonetheless join it, in a more visible way, to the hymn of praise which Christ the High Priest entrusted to his Church. The Carthusians have maintained their Liturgy, as being thoroughly in accord with their solitary contemplative life.
Those few whom are admitted to attend an office in the Charterhouse are often caught by the atmosphere that is released from it. The listener is as if projected out of time, into a dimension that could belong to the Middle Ages, struck by the power of singing, its calm, its slowness, its unity, its solemnity, and a feeling of great primitive beauty. The song does not immediately appear as melodious, but is marked by a certain roughness, underlined by the noise of the stalls and the creaking planks. Carthusian chant is always impressive and moving.
In their own words, when the Carthusians celebrate the divine worship in choir, or recite the Office in cell, it is the prayer of the Church which is being offered by their lips; for the prayer of Christ is one, and through the Sacred Liturgy, this one prayer is wholly present within each member. But among solitary monks, liturgical acts manifest in a special manner the nature of the Church within which the person is directed and subjected to the divine, the visible to the invisible, action to contemplation. (Statutes book VI, §41:2)
For those who sing the Office every day in the Charterhouse, the experience is different. The unknown and surprising side has been dampened by the monotony of habit. The Sung Office is no longer an exceptional experience lived in an exceptional place, but a daily work. Over time, the perception is refined and the “defects” of the singing become more and more evident. Singing is then perceived as too slow or too fast, disconnected and lacking in unity, according to various points of view. The defects of others, or one’s own, are annoying. The patina of habit tends to make one forget the immense beauty of singing. Sometimes, however, real moments of grace come to those who are attentive, and the song rises, free, simple and beautiful. It no longer expresses prayer, it is prayer.
What place does singing have in the life of Carthusian monks?
Carthusian monks spend a lot of time singing in choir and cell. They gather to sing the Mass in the morning, then to sing the Office of Vespers at the end of the day, and at night for the long Office of Readings and Lauds. It is the common activity that takes the most time in the life of the monks.
The Carthusian Order insists on giving singing and liturgy an essential place in the life of the monk. There is often a tendency to think that music and singing are nothing more than an embellishment of the liturgy, and only serve to enhance the splendour of the ceremonies. But this is not the function attributed to singing in the Carthusian liturgy. Not only is Gregorian chant inseparable from the liturgy – it is not an ornament – but it is considered an essential spiritual instrument. The Statutes specify it thus:
“Let us observe this manner of chanting, singing in the sight of the most Holy Trinity and the holy angels, penetrated with fear of God and aflame with a deep desire. May the songs we sing raise our minds to the contemplation of eternal realities, and our voices blend into one cry of jubilation before God our Creator.” (Statutes book VI, §52:25)
When the Statutes speak of “eternal realities”, it is a paraphrase to designate God, since he alone has existed throughout all of eternity. Now, contemplation of God is the ultimate goal of the monk’s search, which is to “see God face to face”, as it is said of Moses in the Bible. The Statutes therefore state precisely that singing can elevate the spirit to contemplation of God, that is, to the highest one can expect here below.
One might be surprised to read that singing is capable of bringing the spirit to such heights. When we talk about contemplation, we think first of all of ascesis, prayer, and the grace of God. In ascesis, the soul and body are purified to allow them an encounter with God. In prayer, a dialogue is established. between the soul and God. Finally, God’s grace grants us to see him.
In what way can the Carthusian chant be considered an ascesis, prayer and a grace for the monk, to the point of allowing him to contemplate upon “God” alone?
Singing as ascesis
The novice discovers the liturgy as an unknown land. This musical world is so special that it takes time to assimilate all the details and all the subtleties, through humble, patient, persevering work.
Whatever his musical and intellectual abilities, the monk will always be confronted with his wealth and poverty. By recognising his limitations, the monk will be able to grow through singing.
A brother, coming from a very humble origin and not who cannot read music, has a very warm voice, very well placed and exact. Music flows from his heart without him reflecting on it. But its cross will be learning how to read notes, which will often be experienced as an insurmountable barrier.
Another monk, belonging to a family of musicians, and having a musical culture, can read the notes easily, and acquires the repertoire without difficulty. But he finds it hard to put his voice right, to enter into a relationship with it. His struggle and his suffering will consist in realising in his own voice what he hears in his musical intuition.
Still another, endowed with great musical sensitivity and a beautiful voice, is out of tune and after only three notes is wrong, picking up the melody higher or lower. For him, the apprenticeship of listening and the coherence of the melody could last for years.
The liturgy requires a lot of humility and is not the place where one can “shine” and affirm one’s superiority. Certainly, some “understand” musical things better than others, but every monk has at least one gift that is his own. Putting all these riches in common – even those that seem humbler – opens up a new spiritual dimension. On the contrary, an attitude that proposes a certain type of aesthetic perfection blocks the opening to grace contained in the song.
Singing in common is often accompanied by suffering. The sensitivity of some is wounded by the apparent mediocrity of the song of the others, or by their apparent indifference to the rules that have been repeated for years. The cross of the others is the intolerance of the former. Perfectionists who have the intuition of what singing could be have a long career of suffering ahead of them, as they do not always listen to the perfection that is at work in the liturgy day by day.
The practice of singing in everyday life shows itself as a merciless mirror of the community. All tensions and differences crystallise there. Conversely, the work on singing in view of the unity of voices and choirs has a positive influence on interpersonal relationships and underlying conflicts. Hence the insistence of the Carthusian Order on continuous training of the choir and monks. Such a formation does not have a musical or aesthetic perfection in view, but rather an apprenticeship in listening to others in view of the unity of voices and souls in a single purpose: praise of God in the community of brothers.
Singing as a prayer
During the celebration of the liturgy, the monk’s personal prayer is integrated and merged with the prayer of the community, which becomes, through the liturgical act, the prayer of the Church. Liturgical prayer and personal prayer are not antagonistic, but they are often in tension, according to the way in which the monk prays and the way in which he lives community prayer. Some monks, especially at the beginning, feel a nuisance in front of the liturgy, not finding the link with their own spirituality. Indeed, some novices have the impression that the liturgy hinders their interior search with all the external solicitations of the ceremonies: What should be done? What should we sing? How should you sing it? Who has to sing?
The texts that the liturgy proposes, psalms, hymns and prayers, are studied by the monk in his cell. This prayerful study – the lectio divina – allows him to assimilate them and to find the resonances of these essentially biblical words with his own inner spiritual world. This makes it possible to connect the community liturgy to interior prayer. And then, with habit, the liturgy requires less and less efforts of concentration and allows us to open up an interior space of freedom. Finally, the prayer of the brothers sustains and sustains personal prayer, in a visible and invisible way.
During the celebration of the Office, the monk is asked to live the words of the psalms from within and make them his own. But it would be illusory to expect the spirit to constantly identify itself with the words and images of the psalms, when you think that some Offices involve up to twenty of them, full of cries, sufferings, struggles, joys, doubts. The aim, however, is not to raise awareness of all these emotions. This the Statutes say very clearly. Prayer is in these images and in these emotions, but it is placed above all beyond, in an interior calm where the gaze of God meets the gaze of man. The song, with its regularity, its slow rhythm, its alternations from one choir to another, works in depth to eliminate mental wanderings, to fix attention and to pacify the heart, the place of encounter with God.
Singing as a grace
Deep prayer is placed beyond the psalmist’s images and emotions, it is a gaze of silent love exchanged between the person praying and God. Without it being justified or explained, the communal experience of singing brings in in the interior movement of music, which is of the same nature as the flow of love which unites the Father to the Son and in which man participates in prayer. But this is not automatic: the singing technique and the learning of the repertoire are one thing, the deep inner movement of the music — which is of a spiritual nature — is another thing. To access it, one needs a lot of humility, abandonment … and above all the help of grace.
Grace is always at work in song. It is perceptible in those moments of unity and harmony that involve the community while singing. Grace is at work in the great process of personal and community learning, to the point that it can witness a beauty that would not have been considered possible. The grace is there, in that way of being present to God that community singing favours.
The experience of singing is inseparable from the Holy Spirit, otherwise known as the “divine breath“. I have often been struck by the action of the Holy Spirit in singing, with the monks I made work. A monk sings something, then, focusing on his body, on his breathing, on his listening, something in him relaxes and abandons itself. And suddenly, the movement of the Spirit, underlying the music, takes him, and he is carried by it. His singing becomes beautiful, harmonious, despite the defects of voice, accuracy or notes. Suddenly his song has passed into another dimension. It became spiritual. This is also the case in community song: suddenly all heaviness disappears, and the choir is carried by the same inner breath. The Carthusian chant then becomes a spiritual instrument, marked by asceticism, prayer and grace, as well as the solitary life.
Supported by the Gregorian movement, the monk’s soul, purified by the ascesis of singing, joins that of the brothers to become a single prayer, a single movement of love towards the Father.