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

The Carthusians today would not have accepted St. Bruno as he was over 50 years old. Our limit is 45 years of age… Said the Prior

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 „For this they live in unconditional devotion, radically withdrawn.“ 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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Seeking God in the Desert…

Living in the desert will be a way of focusing our activity in our search for God …

In the IV century A.D., the deserts of Syria were descended upon by people who went „hunting for God“.[1]  Asceticism and monastic life, in solitude, were the ways of faith. These are the years of early Christianity, when faith had to be lived before it could become a philosophical topic.

sant'antonio di tebeSt. Anthony the Great (Coma AD 251 – † AD 356 Mount Colzim), guardian of his sister, swineherd, Abbot and the Father of all Monks, centenarian; He was a religious figure who lived between 251 and 356 A.D., was the first to initiate a solitary desertification and an ascetical lifestyle. The desert being a difficult place to live and filled with many demons. St. Athanasius in his „Life of St. Anthony“ wrote, praising the saint for his great capacity to resist the seductions of demons who hounded him unceasingly. Anthony had been able to confront both the deceptions of demons, when one appeared as an emissary of the faith, and the assaults that the demons reigned upon him at night.[2]

Jesus is tested in the Desert

And Jesus being full of the Holy Ghost, returned from the Jordan, and was led by the Spirit into the desert,  For the space of forty days; and was tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing in those days; and when they were ended, he was hungry.“ Luke 4:1-2

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And when Jesus left Jordan, He was filled with the Holy Spirit, which guided Him into the desert, staying for over a month, he was constantly tempted by the devil and his minions, but the angels had taken care of Him. He had had nothing to eat during this period, but when it was over, he was extremely hungry. The devil tempting Him again said: „If thou be the Son of God, say to this stone that it be made bread.“ (Luke 4:3) Jesus replied to him: „It is written, that Man liveth not by bread alone, but by every word of God.“(Luke 4:4).[3]

In this article we used the Gospel according to Luke, yet we will also find these narrations made by both the apostles Matthew and Mark.

The places mentioned in the Bible are not just beautiful and arid landscapes that fill our minds eye, but important intersections that are very significant.

The shades below tremble, the waters and their inhabitants.  Sheol is naked before God, and Abaddon has no covering.  He stretches out Zaphon [Or the North] over the void, and hangs the earth upon nothing.[4]

The words of Job (26:7) are an example of the literature within the Old Testament that reserve unpropitious attributes to the sea. This place, in fact, is believed to be inhabited by dragons, a place of evil and before being „liberated“ by Biblical judgments, the waters are considered as evil by those who, in the Bible, had faith, one such example is Augustine.[5]

I do not intend to discuss the significance of the sites inside the Bible here, because the Old and New Testaments have already been subjected to exegetical and in-depth studies for many centuries, therefore inserting any explanations or afterthoughts at this point and would prove to be purposeless. In fact, what I am focused upon is to make particular observations of the Biblical desert and to the lives that have developed here through the practice of monasticism from the 4th to the 6th century and endeavour to comprehend it on a purely anthropological level.

Savage nature often appears within the Bible, yet among all the diversity that can be visualised, the desert remains the most recondite. To determine the value of this place and its perplexing character as a space where both God and demons intervene.[6]

It is precisely this force which has guided the history of ancient Christianity, groups of faithful interested in discovering and meeting God, yet far from societal life. The monks were the main performers of this trend. Their faith projected clear coordinates in the empty environment of the desert, both good and evil appeared distinctly clear in their characteristics.[7]

To be extraordinary is the will that the faithful have to get away from everything they know to embrace dangerous and unknown ways, escape from the familiar and insert themselves in a new fathomless place, to lose themselves.[8]

It can be said that we know a place when we have established a connection with it; a place is first and foremost a relationship between two actors: that is us and the landscape. When this element disappears, or when we are faced with something that escapes our interconnection, when it apparently either rejects or cannot be integrated into bonds, then we can say that, we are lost.[9]

One of the most natural consequence is to be afraid of that which we do not know, of the relationships we cannot develop. Precisely for this reason that which is unknown is usually confined and the processes that disconnect that which is familiar, our home, from that which is not, the way out, are guarded, just like a surveillance camera or an alarm which protect our exits.[10]

We cannot know whether the monks and hermits were afraid of the unknown or not, but we can be sure of their desire to discover closeness to God. Precisely for this reason they are willing to undergo the difficulties ascended in the desert.

What matters is that, thanks to faith, the desert place could be put in order, it could become familiar. Thanks to faith it is possible to sleep on the stone and to fast becauseil deserto these practices contribute to defining the experience of faith. Scanning religious action, ensuring that this impregnates every aspect of one’s life, is the way to live God and make the desert their own.

The narrow space that becomes a habitable place seems to undergo a direct passage that changes its situation under the desire for sanctity by an individual. In reality, things are more complex as they are based on the idea of transforming the unknown into known through relations and especially intentionality.

The monk who chooses to live in the desert is the one who takes an ambiguous and almost unknown biblical element, to then project his wills and desires into it. Wanting to move to a place to find God is not very different from changing one’s state or to try one’s luck: once inserted into the new environment in which we have already envisaged the success we are hoping for, we will work harder and we will be more careful to see it happen.[11]

It is the same mechanism that underlies a magical ritual, such as for example the blessing of soil before its cultivation. Without speculating on the authenticity or effectiveness of ritual and displacement, the acts, the movements that we are going to carry out will for us cover special meanings and will be catalysts of our intentionality.[12]

Living in the desert will be a way of focusing our activity in our search for God and this activity will allow us to show our purpose as we move upon the landscape.

The ascetic life is the pre-eminent mechanism that is used to make the unfamiliar known by inserting it into the familiar, incorporating it. Faith will be the frame and mechanism that the monk uses to narrate and to give meaning to the unknown.

For this reason the monastic surge which from the 4th to the 6th centuries will invade the narrow places can count on a simple and strong faith and will at the same time be feared by the authority for its independence.[13]

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Review: Richard of Saint Victor: The Book of the Patriarchs, The Mystical Ark. By Grover Alfonso Zinn

“focusing more on the object of contemplation, on the possibilities that man has at his disposal”

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Richard of St. Victor (CWS): The Book of the Patriarchs, The Mystical Ark, Book Three of the Trinity (Classics of Western Spirituality Series) Paulist Press, Paperback – 1 Jan 1979 – Author: Grover Alfonso Zinn


Richard of San Vittore C.R.S.A., (Ireland or Scotland, c. 1110 – † Paris, 10 Mar 1173) was a Canon Regular of Saint Augustine of the twelfth century. Originally from Scotland, he entered the abbey of San Vittore, near Paris, where he also became Prior in 1162. Less well known than Hugh of San Vittore, he distinguished himself for a series of ascetical and mystical works, as well as for a De Trinitate. In a previous work Benjamin Minor, had discussed how to prepare one’s soul for contemplation. Here instead, in the Benjamin Major, he directly addresses his favourite theme.

The title of the work should actually be The Ark of the Covenant, because the letter „A“ makes an allegorical reading of the Ark built by Moses according to the divine specifications (cf. Ex 25:10-22). Such a reading was favoured by the different elements that made up the ark: the acacia wood structure; the purest gold overlay; the four golden rings; the two bars of acacia wood again covered with gold; the propitiatory of purest gold and the two golden cherubs with spread wings covering the Oracle and looking towards one another. This structure suggested the idea of an order, not however static, but dynamic.

Thus, Richard develops one of the most cherished themes of spirituality, beginning with Origen, namely that spiritual life is a journey, made of beginnings, successive stages and a conquest of the final goal. The image that dominates these pages is therefore “the metaphor of movement” (p.22). Following the Augustinian school, the A. favours an anthropological perspective, „focusing more on the object of contemplation, on the possibilities that man has at his disposal“ (p.21).

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Miniature of Hugh of Saint Victor teaching the young canons of Richard’s abbey

Where to start, then? As a good medieval, Richard answers: from the senses, yes from the five senses. There is nothing in the mind that does not start from the senses first. Here too there is a long tradition, that of the „spiritual senses“, initiated by Origen, used by Augustine (just reread the sero te amavi!) And developed by Bonaventura. To contemplate with the senses is to see, to feel, to taste, to touch things for what they are, that is to say creatures that bear within themselves the trace of the Creator. This is the first step. The term is given by the “possibility of man to return to communion with God” (page XI). And it is really a question of „returning home“, since man was created „in the image of God“ and „according to his likeness“.

It is a path, however, that must take into account the historical condition of man, who, despite this internal push towards God, feels the resistances of his finitude, and above all of his pride, who does not want to recognise himself dependent on the other. But when the Other is God, that is the Good, the Truth and the Love, recognising oneself as dependent is not humiliation, but elevation. Therefore, although he is surrounded by grace, from beginning to end, man remains free. Richard’s claims about human freedom are surprising, because „while rationality has been blurred and conditioned by sin, freedom has not been minimally compromised: man has remained free, despite being in a condition made weak by sin“ (p. XIV).

The Preface by Abbot Prof. Jean Chatillon (1912- +1988) of the Institut Catholique, Paris, is an excellent premise to the understanding of a text in many respects far from today’s sensibility, but for other aspects still current. Labelling Richard „as a great spiritual figure, perhaps one of the greatest, of a Christian Medieval time that included so many.“  Suffice it to recall that „until the time of Teresa of Avila, Richard was considered the reference point for mystical theology and the doctrine of contemplation“. This is confirmed by some very prestigious witnesses, for example, by Dante Aligheri, who in the 10th canto of Paradise, vv. 130-132, does not hesitate in affirming that Richard “a considerar fu più viro“, as well as St. Bonaventure himself, who considers him „‚master’ in contemplation“ (page XXI).

Regarding the translator, Father Antonio Orazzo S.J., we know how reliable his work is, given his long association with patristic and medieval authors. However, it deserves pointing out what he himself notes, that is, that for the biblical texts he followed his own translation, to make the commentary to the text uniform as it was read by Riccardo. Recourse to modern translations of the Bible, which are based on the Vulgate, as many do, are very often different from the Hebrew text, and can render the patristic or medieval author’s argument incomprehensible.

The Testimony of a Cenobite

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By Frá Ugo-Maria ESB (csr)

The monastery is a desert with as many dwellings as the number of elect that are called to remain in it. It is a populated desert, with a peculiar distribution of gifts and an organisation „its purpose is for the monks to be intimately united to Christ, because only in the intimate love of each one for the Lord Jesus can the peculiar gifts of the Eremitic vocation flourish.“

The dialogue with the Word has preceded us in everything. Without consulting our will and desire, it embodied our encouragement for consecration. And in the present continues to shape our future by diverse channels; the most ordinary of all, that of fraternal life. It is the place where Love is verified. In that school and in the school of the Word is where you learn what Love is.

The Prologue to the Rule of Saint Benedict begins with this exhortation: “Listen carefully, my son, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart.”

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Listen carefully my son…

Benedict seems to say: that with the open “ear” one you will notice the abyss of their nothingness, where other will gird you and lift you upon the rungs of a ladder, to a new heaven which is yet to be explored. Guardini described Christian intimacy as a reality coming from the „Other“: the hidden Trinity, who is the one who creates it within man. To enable the monk to access this he must develop his sense of hearing more than any other. That is why he will be, is bound  to silence more than anyone else: Silence, is considered one of the most peculiar values of Contemplative Orders; assures the monk of solitude within the community; favours the remembrance of God and fraternal communion; open their mind to the inspirations of the Holy Spirit; which stimulates the attention of the heart and solitary prayer with God alone.

Why else would St. Bernard have said in one of his letters that „he had  learned more by working among the beeches of the forest than by reading many books“? Hard work, and silence for the contemplative, have always been, the „school“ of contemplation. Those who allow themselves to be instructed within that school, and allow themselves to be united with the Word, learn, above all, not to separate knowledge from surrender, and to make the most platitudinous „service of praise“.

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Bro. Cellerar.

St. Benedict in „Qualifications of the Monastery Cellarer“ ch. 31 s. 14 of his Rule, reminds the cellarer of the monastery that „A kind word is better than the best gift (Cf. Sirach 18:17).“ When a brother who has asked for something „unreasonable“ is denied what he asks for, the kind word transforms a formal gesture of denial into a word of affirmation that exceeds our limited possibilities of good. In this way we cooperate with the „yes“ of Christ. He exceeds all measure of good.

All of us, to some extent have had experience of people away from everything „commonplace“ and self esteem, in extreme situations with no real apparent way out, yet have been a channel for hope. Neither was his donation born by a human calculation. To the one who in this way has been neighbour to his neighbours, a biblical psalm (Psalms 111:4) gives him the name of „merciful“ „compassionate“ and „just“. The righteous has been a risen „light“ in the midst of resistant darkness deserves the praise as „the righteous.“

In the school of Love, however, the „thorns of scandal“ are not lacking: Maintaining unity among the brothers depends on a mutual and sincere commitment to reconciliation so that the thorns of the scandals disappear from the community, the brothers will not hold any resentment, but will make peace as soon as possible with his brother in discord.

Benedict promptly encourages us to make peace with our brother in discord. This cannot always be achieved. When discord has sown wounds, such a situation can be metamorphosed into years of dissension. Although some rules of courtesy in the treatment of others are respected, the experience of isolation and emptiness leads to a partial death of the soul: what a contemporary author once called „the dark night of the cenobite.“ We have all gone through it. And, sometimes, we are not always left unharmed by the experience …

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St Peter

When violence overwhelms tenderness, the Word does not cease its unrelenting fervour for reconciliation. It always works. To those who fall into a spiral of criticism and bitter disappointment about the common life, grace will ask them to imitate the sentiments of St. Peter in the synagogue of Capernaum before the harsh language shift in the Bread of Life discourse: for Peter its a hard language as well, upalatable, but, unlike those who leave, he knows that “words of eternal life” sometimes hide behind a pitiful appearance. It is advantageous to meditate upon this: „It is better to keep silence and be [a Christian] than to talk and not to be(Benedict XVI writes from Vatican City on Robert Cardinal Sarah’s book The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise). In our Christian lives, our purpose is not about understanding what to do, but to be – to stay – to understand“; Cephas was one who chose to stay!

That is why a baptised person should never be easily removed from their path by any of their peers, even if the small „reasons“ that assist us confront us with that decision. Basically, deciding to stay in love – as William de Saint-Thierry says in a famous „Meditativae orationes“ [Meditations on Prayer], – is to have located the “place” at a specific time of the day and set up our tent there, just as Andrew and John the first disciples did: «Rabbi, where do you live?». „Come,“ said he, „and you will see.“ «Do not you think that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?». «We thank you, Lord, we have found your place: your place is the Father, and the place of your Father is you».

The hermits of Saint Bruno pray fervently that others young and old, may find that safe and secluded place which most seek.  We will never stop thanking the Lord for the gift of the vocation that he given us „not to put anything before“ Christ, and that He may bring us all together to Eternal Life.

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Feat of St. Paul the Hermit – 15 Jan 2019p

Saint Paul the Hermit – Feast day January 15

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St Paul of Thebes

St. Jerome wrote, or at least translated from the Greek, a little biography of St. Paul the Hermit. Some speculate that he did so in order to establish St. Paul’s reputation as the “first hermit” and to let the world know that the great St. Anthony had a predecessor. Others regard the story as so full of fables that they treat Paul as a type of a third-to- fourth-century hermit rather than as a historical individual.

A Christian from his youth, Paul was orphaned at age 15. In 250 the persecution by Decius forced him into hiding, first at a friend’s house and then, fearing exposure, to a cave in the Egyptian desert. He had planned to return home after things quieted down, but the peaceful solitude of the desert seduced him to stay. A palm tree and a spring near his cave provided him food, clothing, and water until he turned 43. After that time, as it had happened for Elias, a raven brought him half a loaf of bread each day.

In Paul’s 90th year in the desert his presence was revealed to St. Anthony, who immediately went to find him. Anthony met Paul in his cave, and the two hermits became friends overnight. They shared a whole loaf of bread brought by the raven, discussed world events, and prayed. Anthony thought he had found a companion, but Paul knew that God had sent Anthony to help him die. The biography described their meeting:

Blessed Paul said to Anthony: “For a long time now, I have known that you dwelled in these regions. And for a long time God had promised you to me for a companion. Since my hour of eternal sleep has arrived, and because I have always desired ‘to be dissolved and to be with Christ’ (see Philippians 1:23), having ‘finished the course, . . . a crown of justice’ (see 2 Timothy 4:7–8) remains for me. You have been sent by God to bury my miserable body, rather to return earth to earth.”

Anthony listened to these words with tears and groans, begging Paul not to leave him behind, but to accept him as a companion on that journey. Paul answered: “You ought not seek your own interests but those of another. It is indeed profitable for you to cast off the burden of the flesh to follow the Lamb, but it is also profitable for the rest of your brethren that they may be the more instructed by your example. I beg of you, hasten, if is not too much to ask, and bring back the cloak which Athanasius the bishop gave you, to wrap about my wretched body.” Now, blessed Paul made this request, not because he cared at all whether or not his body decayed covered up or naked, since for a long time now he had been wearing garments woven from palm leaves, but because he wanted to spare Anthony the grief of witnessing his death.

Anthony went to get the cloak. When he returned he found Paul kneeling with arms outstretched, but already dead. Two lions dug Paul’s grave and Anthony buried him. But he kept Paul’s outer garment woven from palm leaves, which he treasured from that time and which he always wore on great feast days.

Paul was spared a lonely death because he found a friend in Anthony. His experience suggests that we become friends with the sick and elderly and provide them companionship in their last days. And that we make friends with younger people ourselves as insurance against loneliness in the autumn of our lives.

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Review: What is the responsibility of every Christian in society today? “The Benedict Option” and the Donatist heresy.

The Benedict OptionOn the 14th of March 2017, a book entitled The Benedict Option was published in the United States, which then sparked a great debate [1]. The book’s name refers to St. Benedict of Nursia (c. 480- † 547 A.D.). David Brooks of The New Yorker defined the book as “the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade” [2]. The book basically attempts to advance a course of action for the Christian faithful and their communities not only in safeguarding their principles and their religious traditions, but also prosper within an extremely secularised society. It is therefore worthwhile taking the time to ponder over this book so as to get the measure of it.

The author of the book is Rod Dreher, a 51 year old American writer, editor and journalist for The American Conservative magazine, he also contributes to magazines and newspapers such as National Review and The Wall Street Journal. Dreher, in “The Benedict Option”, appears to suggest that Christians, within “local” and “small” communities, should prepare themselves to live in a post-Christian society, operating as a “parallel polis“, capable of “exercising the virtues” as a “counter-cultural” force within a world that is now noticeably and at times  vehemently rejecting Christianity.

The author has the merit of analysing the problem of Christian life in the face of the challenges of growing world secularisation. Dreher is commendable, his intent on imagining a modern world which is non individualistic but a communal life is very commendable. Equally commendable is his desire to give a Christian witness. The “option” of Dreher is a kind of re-adaptation of the rule and the charism of St. Benedict in our time.

Inspired by After Virtue (1981) by Alasdair MacIntyre, Dreher bases the “Benedict Option” on a narrative that interprets the history of the past and our present time. The “dark ages” following the fall of the Roman Empire are put in parallel and our presumed post-Christian era. According to Dreher, in founding his monastic Order St Benedict “responded” to the “collapse of Roman civilisation“. That response consisted in the recreation of small communities of virtuous men, in which civilisation would be preserved to prosper in later times [3].

In this sense, the author maintains, with a certain stylistic finesse, that Christians in the West should “separate” from the “official order“, without however departing completely from society. This is not about building a “closed community“. Rather, Dreher insists on the construction of “common practices” and “institutions” that are able to “overthrow” the “isolation” experienced by the communities of faithful Christians today [4].

Even if the “Benedict Option” could be acceptable within contemporary American society, it certainly seems to be based on a very simplified and debatable narration of the Benedictine charism. According to Dreher, “Benedict’s political option starts with recognising that Western society is post-Christian” [5]. And he bases this option in our time, not only by interpreting contemporary Western societies as the beginning of an “obscure post-Christian era“, but also by stating that the rule of St. Benedict is a response to paganism [6].

The risk of a “small group”

However, it must also be said that the father of Western monasticism, despite the original elements of his rule, has become part of a pre-existing tradition. Cenobitic monasticism appeared and flourished not primarily as a “response” to the fall of the Roman Empire in the dark barbarian age, but during the imperial Christian era, soon after the end of the persecution of the early Church.

In fact, just as before him, Pachomius and Basil, St. Benedict did not act in a reactive way, in response to the uncultivated pagans who were destroying the Empire [7], but in continuity with the so-called “tradition of white martyrdom” . The cenobite monks sought a way to offer their lives to God, in a later historical context different from that of the primitive Church of the martyrs.

The proponents of the “Benedict Option“, as already described, tend to see an analogy between the dark ages that followed the Roman era and our society. It is difficult to remain indifferent to the “apocalyptic” tone with which Dreher expounds his thesis. The “dark ages” of our time, the inevitability of becoming “poorer” and “more marginalized“, the need to learn from the opponents of the communist tyranny in Czechoslovakia, the use of terms such as “anti-political policies” or “parallel polis“», The prediction of losing “careers” due to subtle “persecutions“, the underlining of the damages of technology, of the internet and of sexual libertine practice … all these statements are made within the narration of a persecuted Church, analogous to what happened to the first martyrs.

If it is true that contemporary Christians can learn from the Benedictine rule and adapt it to current times, it is also true that exalting the reality of persecution could entail a risk: that of perceiving one’s “small group” as the true and better Church of the others. Ultimately, this is the risk of arrogance, connected to an ecclesial sin against unity and communion.

The Donatist temptation and the reaction of Augustine

This was precisely the temptation of the Donatist heresy. The “donatist’s” were a religious movement born in Africa, circa 311 A.D., from the ideas of the bishop of Numidia Donatus Magnus of Casae Nigrae. It was born in an age of persecution. Donato made a harsh criticism of those bishops who had not resisted the persecutions of Diocletian and who had handed over the sacred books to the Roman magistrates. According to the followers of Donato, the sacraments administered by these bishops would not have been valid. This position presupposed, therefore, that the sacraments did not work in themselves, but that their validity depended on the dignity of those who administered them.

As noted by the theologian Fr. Yves Marie-Joseph Congar O.P., the Donatists exalted the act of martyrdom, tended to rigidity and moral purity, and manifested a strong hostility towards secular authorities and institutions [8]. For the Donatists, the persecution of the Church has been an important criterion for corroborating its belonging to the true Church of Christ. In fact, they were proud of being persecuted and felt connected to the Church of the martyrs. It should be added that this sentiment was entirely justified by the violent opposition that the imperial authorities had unleashed against them [9].

St. Augustine opposed their sacramental theology, citing Cyprian – the great martyr praised by the schismatics – in order to show that martyrdom and, in general, persecution are fruitful only when required by grace and lived in union with the Church. According to the bishop of Hippo, unity, charity and humility are intrinsically linked to each other. Therefore, those who are schismatic fall into an ecclesial sin, breaking unity (and, consequently, charity and humility) [10]. For Augustine, the great sin of the schismatics would be that of pride or arrogance: the belief that one is right in opposition to all the others, thus destroying communion.

On the one hand, Augustine proposes a more articulate and cohesive theology of that of the Donatists, showing them that the only persecutions could not attest to their fidelity to the Church of Christ: charity and humility are indispensable for seeking unity. On the other hand, he seems to find a coherent way to praise the martyrdom of the early Church, while at the same time managing to adapt the Church’s practices and traditions to the new historical epoch.

At the end of this controversy, the Church chose to reintegrate these traditores, after some penance,  rather than drive them away [11].

When rigidity is at the cost of unity and peace

Without, of course, falling into heresy, in Dreher we can see the echoes of Donato’s voice: “If today’s Churches want to survive the new dark age, they must stop ‘being normal’. We will need to engage more deeply in our faith, and we will need to do it in ways that appear strange to contemporary eyes. If we rediscover the past, if we recover liturgical worship and asceticism, if we focus our lives on the ecclesial community and if we strengthen the discipline of the Church, we will succeed, with God’s grace, to return that special people we should always have been. This focus on Christian formation will not only result in stronger Christians, but also a new evangelisation, because salt will regain its taste.” [12].

In their desire to identify themselves with the primitive Church of the persecuted martyrs, the Donatists did not accept a different way of living and practicing faith. Even in the new historical context, in which the persecution was over, they felt that their persecuted being gave confirmation of their being true and good Christians. In doing so, those schismatic Christians constituted a small party of “pure people“. By contrasting integer to profanus as the main difference between those ‘who did‘ and those ‘who did not‘ belong to the Church, the Donatists tended to admit only irreproachable members.

A firm reply from Augustine

To their rigidity and to the emphasis on asceticism, Augustine gave some answers that can be very useful to reread today. The Bishop of Hippo makes two distinctions, which the Donatists were not able to do. In the first place, it distinguishes between the present historical Church and the future eschatological Church. The pure Church, made up only of irreprehensible men, comes true at the end of time in the ecclesia qualis future est. Now, in the present age, God is patient and allows different kinds of men and women to participate in the ecclesia talis nunc est. The present Church is pro mixta societas, or a society mixed with good and bad people. A Church is made up of the best and worst (or the not so virtuous) believers. [13]

While Dreher’s “Benedict Option” seeks to build communities in which discipline is “strengthened“, in order to ensure a Christianity that is supposed to be truer and healthier, Augustine’s writings addressed to the Donatists underline other aspects such as example, patience towards sinners, also in consideration of the value of maintaining communion.

Augustine notes the arrogance of those who want to separate the good from the bad, the “right” from the “unjust” before the opportune time. In this context he asks for “humility“, “patience” and “tolerance“. Humility appears to be a fundamental Christian virtue, without which unity and communion are not possible within the mystical body of Christ. The Bishop of Hippo relies heavily on the authority of Cyprian, and shows how this martyr attempted to accept different opinions in order to maintain the unity of the Church. [14]

The “Benedict Option” does not automatically imply the arrogance that Augustine perceived in the attitude of the Donatists. However, the appeal for a “strengthening of discipline in the Church” echoes the Donatist moral rigidity. Moreover, the desire to build small communities of “strong Christians” could erase the importance of Christian virtues such as humility, patience and tolerance – which stand out in Augustine’s writings -, compromising the communion among believers and the formation of peace relations in the world.

The emphasis on “purity” and the hostility toward secular institutions

A further characteristic of the Donatist attitude that greatly struck the Dominican theologian Fr. Yves Marie-Joseph Congar O.P., concerns the hostility towards secular institutions. The Donatists tended to refuse to collaborate with the authorities of the Empire, which represented pagan powers for them. In their theological perspective, the purity of a Christian practice implied the refusal to participate, collaborate or engage with the pagans in their non-Christian institutions.

In this sense, the Donatists were indeed a “parallel polis“. On the contrary, Catholics like Augustine remained linked to some imperial institutions and felt compelled to consider the Donatists as schismatic Christians.

This emphasis on purity, as a precaution against any contamination from any element external to the Christian environment, is connected to the interpretation that the donatists gave the theological concept of “catholicity“. According to them, “Catholic” indicated perfection and sacramental fullness. In this sense, the Donatists believed that “true Catholicism” was limited only to their small local Church in North Africa.

Following Otto’s theology, Augustine proposed another interpretation of “catholicity“, highlighting universality as the unity of the whole Church as the mystical body of Christ [15]. He insisted that local Churches throughout the world should be in communion in order to realise Bible prophecies regarding the effectiveness of the proclamation of Christ’s Resurrection. [16]

All in all, Augustine’s argument sought to show that the Donatists, even if they had been more virtuous than all the other Christian faithful, could never have had the exclusive of the true Church. He wanted to make it clear that isolating himself from other Christians and from society in general was not a positive sign.

Although Dreher does not advocate the isolation of Christian communities, his “Benedict option” requires “separation” from political powers and secular institutions, to the point of developing life as much as possible within Christian institutions, in which Christian entrepreneurs they mainly employ workers belonging to their own Churches [17]. Furthermore, the emphasis placed on the negative aspects of technology and the internet can be understood as a warning not to be contaminated by pagan culture. Thus, this option could “close” the Christian communities.

In this sense, for Dreher, the principle of defence of religious freedom serves to establish the possibility of existing and acting for institutions that conform to the “Benedict Option“. Dreher is not interested in establishing a real dialogue with those who have a different cultural and religious background and follow different lifestyles. It is difficult even to imagine a possibility of collaboration with people of different options.

Consequently, a pessimistic view of contemporary society weighs on the “Benedict Option“. Although the affirmation of religious freedom is essential, if Christians are to be able to practice their faith, Dreher does not seem interested in showing the importance of true dialogue, which springs from the human dignity from which all liberties derive. Although the Internet may be “the most radical, destructive and revolutionary technology” that a Christian must avoid and limit, especially for children [18], Dreher’s option does not propose a way of life within this new “place” and to evangelise it.

Looking at the Donatist controversy, it is clear that the option of Augustine, in particular, and the Catholic Church, in general, are not designed to establish distinctions between being a good citizen and being a good Christian. Naturally, as Christians, we must be cautious in collaborating with people and with secular institutions. We can refer to Dreher’s metaphor: Christians should not “burn incense to Caesar” [19]. However, finding ways that “do not compromise” our Christian “consciences“, in the context of the “Benedict option“, risks preventing the development of healthy relations with all men of good will and social commitment together with them. Proper attention to the devotions of popular religiosity and a propensity for open dialogue outside the Church seem to justify, at least, options other than Dreher’s.

And what about social injustices?

The “Benedict Option” also runs the risk of “establishing” (or “re-establishing“) strong Christian communities and practices at the expense of organised social assistance. Obviously, Christian practices and institutions should not be reduced to “NGO” style social activities. However, this does not mean that Christian practices and institutions can remain indifferent to the poor and the most marginalised in Western society and, indeed, throughout the world.

According to Yves Congar, the Donatists did not care much about social injustice [20]. Dreher’s book seems to find a way to safeguard, animate and activate Christian practices, but it is not easy to see how such practices can take into account the “preferential option for the poor“.

In the context of increasing globalisation, Christian faithful could opt for the expansion of their relations with other communities, even outside their Churches, in order to increase synergies for the construction of peace and justice. This could also be a way to live, practice and witness Christian virtues and true faith.

The importance of humility and mercy

Dreher states that “the Benedict option must ultimately be a matter of love” [21]. No one who recognises himself in the Christian tradition could disagree with this statement. And yet the “Benedict Option” is not immune to the recurring risks inherent in moral rigidity and countercultural forces. The main risk of such attitudes concerns the lack of communion, unity and peace within the Church and with the society in which we live.

For Pope Francis’, mercy is “the message of Jesus“, “it is the strongest message of the Lord” [22]. If Augustine disapproved of the rigidity that the Donatists adopted at the expense of the Church’s unity, even today Pope Francis is working to introduce more merciful practices to the wounds and difficulties that contemporary men and women experience. This spiritual attitude can not be reduced to a political strategy: it has a biblical and theological foundation.

Answering to Peter that asks him how many times the disciple should forgive, Jesus says: «I say not to thee, till seven times; but till seventy times seven times.» (Matthew 18:22). After having said this, Jesus recounts the parable of the “ruthless servant“, who, despite having received the forgiveness of his master, is unable to forgive his neighbour. In the end, he is condemned by his master (cf. Matthew 18:23-35).

For the Pope, “the parable contains a profound teaching for each of us. Jesus affirms that mercy is not only the action of the Father, but becomes the criterion for understanding who his true sons are“. [23] Perhaps, in the effort to re-establish “small” communities in which members are “strong” Christians and act as a sort of “parallel society“, believers may deviate from this criterion. Faced with God and the whole world, Christians must be credible in witnessing to God’s merciful nature, making it possible to experience it within Christian institutions.

There is no doubt that secularism is a great challenge and in some cases even a threat for Christian communities today. Pope Francis seems to be responding to the secularisation of the modern world with a perceivably humble attitude, with dialogue followed by gestures of goodness and greater understanding towards all [well nearly all as there are still many marginalised religious groups today]: perhaps this is one evangelical “option” open to today’s Christians.

Continue reading “Review: What is the responsibility of every Christian in society today? “The Benedict Option” and the Donatist heresy.”

The Carthusians – Lower Franconia

This is a translation of Prof. James Hogg’s article in “Historisches Lexikon Bayerns” I do not take credit for the article other than it’s translation which I hope will do Prof. Hogg justice, assist other (non german speakers) to read his articles on the this fascinating austere Catholic Religious Order.  I therefore dedicate this translation to Prof. Hogg and to all the future Carthusians, their supporters and friends.  May the good Lord accompany you in your knowledge seeking walk and being always guided by the Holy Spirit.  Pax +

 


Continue reading “The Carthusians – Lower Franconia”

And Jesus unrolled the scroll …

What we affirm is that Jesus inaugurated a new world … which has yet to mature and grow to full size, to replace the ancient world.

A look at Luke 1:1-4; 4:16-21)

Often, the Gospel of Luke emphasises the Jewish roots of Jesus. This is an aspect that has often been minimised or obscured during the centuries of church history. Today only He re-enters the light. On March 6th, 1982, Pope St. John Paul told delegates of episcopal conferences and other experts, meeting in Rome to study relations between the Church and Judaism: „Jesus was and always remained a Jew“, his ministry was deliberately limited to „the lost sheep of the house of Israel!(Matthew 15:24).

What we have just heard, it is the evocation of a liturgy in the synagogue — a scene as taken from life.

What happen’s today on the Sabbath day in all the synagogues of the world, is exactly the same as in the days of Jesus?

gospel of luke 3ad greek
Gospel of Luke 3AD Greek papyrus

The essential moment is the reading of the Tôrah (תּוֹרָה instruction). The scroll manuscript (ספרי תורה Sifrei Tôrah) is taken out of the holy ark (אָרוֹן קׄדֶש Aron kodesh) in which they are ordinarily housed; we symbolically „divest“ the Tôrah of the rich fabric that always covers it; and unroll the parchment until we arrive at the reading of the day. Several men may take turns to assist the reader throughout this pericope. The entire Pentateuch is indeed divided into 52 sections —and even 53, to cover all Sabbaths of the year. And when we finish, we start again: the last verses of Deuteronomy follow the beginning of Genesis.

Thus the integral text of the Pentateuch is heard by the Jewish (יְהוּדִים Yehudim) faithful each year.

Then comes the „second reading,“ taken from the Prophets. It is also not chosen at random, but corresponds to the text of the Torah that has just been proclaimed. Some exegetes thus sought to determine which Shabbat it was, in our passage from the Gospel of Luke. It’s actually difficult to know because it we know that the liturgical cycles have undergone several changes over the centuries.

 

Be that as it may, Jesus is invited to read the section of the Prophets, taken that day from Isaiah. I insist on it: he does not choose this passage (as one might do to have a quick read), but he stops at the intended section. And, if I may say so, it was perfect timing: which in our minds summons up Messianic times through the voice of a prophet sent by God, and vested for this mission by the power of the Holy Spirit. Yet it is exactly this power of the Spirit that Jesus had just received on the banks of the River Jordan!

At the same time, the passage of Isaiah reverberates like a schedule for Him. Yes, it is He who proclaims a year of grace from the Lord, who announces liberation for the captives, returns sight to the blind, and who returns freedom to the oppressed!

The entire synagogue had their eyes on Him.“  As a matter of fact, it was customary at the time that the one who recited the second reading would articulate a few words for reflection. What will this native son say?

A single sentence, but charged with meaning: „Today this scripture is fulfilled in your ears.“

This will allow us to meditate upon a very important but somewhat difficult theme of our Christian confession of faith: that of the fulfilment of the Scriptures..

We gladly proclaim: Jesus came to fulfil all that was announced in the Bible, especially in the prophets. It is the Risen Himself who teaches it to the two disciples at Emmaus: „And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded to them in all the scriptures, the things that were concerning him.“ (Luke 24:27). And the epistle to the Hebrews adds: „God, who, at sundry times and in divers manners, spoke in times past to the fathers by the prophets, last of all; In these days hath spoken to us by his Son …,“ (Hebrews 1:1-2).

Yet if this really was the case … the story should simply have ended! We would have had nothing left  to wait or hope for … 

In reality, it would not be erronous to say that „everything has been accomplished“, but at the same time we must be able to recognise … that there is still a lack of fulfilment. It is true that Jesus restored sight to the blind and announced the release to the captives – whatever their captivity may be. Yet there are still many blind people and many prisoners around us!

What we affirm is that Jesus inaugurated a new world … which has yet to mature and grow to full size, to replace the ancient world.

Let us again cast an eye over the very first verse of the Acts of the Apostles, interpreting it correctly: „The former treatise I made, O Theophilus, of all things which Jesus began to do and to teach …“ Yes, you heard correctly: Jesus was just beginning. To put it a little familiarly: he did not finish the job! Apart from that, the book of Acts will reveal the apostles to us, in particular Peter and Paul, they who do the same as Him especially when healing the sick.

And what is quite extraordinary is that the book of Acts is incomplete: it stops mid-sentence, without a conclusion! Its an unfinished book…!

Unquestionably, we are able to see within this inconsistency an auspicious meaning: it is up to the successive Christian generations to „continue“ this story, and to continue in particular „what Jesus had only just began to do and teach“.

At the same time, it is the entire history of the Church up to our days, the whole history of Christian holiness, which represents this „continuation“. From this viewpoint, we can better understand the final reflection of the Gospel of John: „But there are also many other things which Jesus did; which, if they were written every one, the world itself, I think, would not be able to contain the books that should be written.“ (John 21:25).

Yes, it’s up to us and our responsibility to „finish the job“ and to bring about this new world of justice and peace we call the Kingdom of God!

Ven. P. D. Marcellin Theeuwes O. Cart., the 72nd successor of St. Bruno has passed away…

Stat Crux Dum Voltitus Orbis

Dom Marcellin Theeuwes O. Cart., the 72nd successor of St. Bruno, has passed away. He died after a long illness on January 2 at the southern French Charterhouse of Méounes-lès-Montrieux.

Our Lord and heavenly Father, Marcellin is gone now from this earthly dwelling and has left behind those who mourn his absence.  Grant that we may hold his memory dear, never bitter for what we have lost nor in regret for the past, but always in hope of the eternal Kingdom where you will bring us together again.  Through Christ our Lord. R/. Amen.

Jacobus Johannes Maria Theeuwes, known by family and friends Jac, was born on 12 May 1936 in Gilze-Rijen, between Breda and Tilburg in the Netherlands, he was the youngest son. He had six older brothers.

From a very early age, Jac felt a monastic vocation. He made contact with the then flourishing Cistercian Abbey Marienkroon. This monastery had a good reputation and a great attraction for young men in those years. Jac Theeuwes devoted himself in Marienkroon theological studies. In this monastic atmosphere he became attentive through spiritual reading both on the Carthusian order and on its deep spirituality. He felt the call to live in a deeper solitude. The way of life of the Carthusians seemed to correspond to his calling.

Jac decided to become a Carthusian and enters on December 7, 1961 in the Charterhouse Selignac (Department Ain, France). He was ordained a priest on June 25, 1966; On December 8 of the same year he makes his solemn profession and received the religious name Marcellin. The monks of his monastery recognised his many talents and he soon became procurator in Selignac.

On June 11, 1973 Dom Marcellin was sent in the same function in the southern French Charterhouse Mougères. This monastery, located in the middle of the Languedoc vineyards, would be vacated and transferred to another religious order. Dom Marcellin was responsible for ensuring a smooth retreat in November 1977, as well as a good transition of the monastery to the community of the Sisters of the Monastic Family of Bethlehem, of the Assumption of the Virgin and of Saint Bruno.

dom marcellino
Dom Marcellin (center) in 2002 during the inauguration of the statue of Saint Bruno at the Grand Logis (Monastery of La Grande Chartreuse).

After completing this discipline he returned to the Order on 17 November 1977 as a procurator in the Charterhouse of Montrieux in the Department of Var. The monks of this Charterhouse elected him as their prior on April 27, 1983.

When the Carthusian Prior General Dom André Poisson (1923-2005) stepped down from this position in 1997 as Prior of La Grande Chartreuse, the Carthusians elected Dom Marcellin, who was esteemed throughout the Order, as their new Prior entrusted to the order of the Prior of the Great Charterhouse and the Reverendus Pater, the Prior General of the Carthusian Order.

During his time as Prior various important decisions were made. Some Charterhouses had to be closed. There were new male monasteries in Argentina, Brazil and Korea; in Asia they also opened a women’s charterhouse. More opportunities were increasingly created for the nuns, comparable to that of the monks, to live in individual houses, so allowing them greater solitude.

For health reasons, Dom Marcellin Theeuwes resigned in September 2012 from his posts and asked for mercy, to acceptance of his resignation. It was granted to him – by the Order but also by the Holy See.

His last years he spent again in the Charterhouse Montrieux, where he served his brothers as Prior. He died on 2 January 2019 after a long illness.

Requiescat In Pace et Amore