Thought for the Day – 6 October – The Memorial of St Bruno (c 1030-1101)
Into Great Silence with Saint Bruno the Carthusian
THE KEY ELEMENT of Carthusian spirituality is SOLITUDE, which is required for a total and absolute dedication to God alone. As his name implies, the “monachos” devotes himself to one purpose only: God. He makes himself completely available for God, in a life of prayer and penance. He renounces social contacts, travelling, newspapers, radio and television, telephone, ad lib conversations, correspondence, even spiritual, instrumental music, writing and intellectual work, as much as is feasible within the limits of psychological balance and Christian charity, all this to be alone with God.
Solitude implies SILENCE. Silence is the other key element of Carthusian spirituality. Silence is not lived in any absolute way in the charterhouse. Carthusians speak with their brothers and their superiors when they need to, they speak whenever material life, work or their soul require it. The text that follows explains that the silence of solitude is lived in the charterhouse as an inner requirement in order to be able to hear and to listen to God alone and to let Him utter a Word in our soul, a Word that transcends all human discourse.
Silence in the Statutes:
What divine exultation
The solitude and silence of the desert
Hold in store for those who love it!
(Saint Bruno to Raoul)
Saint Bruno wrote his letters with all the warmth in his heart and they are filled with indirect indications of what the Lord had given him to see and to know. This is especially true of the impassioned praise of the benefits of silence he sends to Raoul: “only those who have experienced them can know”. And immediately he goes on to show how much he himself knows about it. Saint Bruno was a man of silence. He knew its secret. The Carthusian Statutes contain many references to the beauty of silence and to its sacredness in our life.
Keeping silent is not a spontaneous or natural attitude. It demands a decision and a purpose. To enter into silence, we must want it and we must know why we want it. If we intend to become men of silence, we must assume responsibility for our quest.
Here is what silence truly is: to let the Lord utter within us a word which is equal to Himself. It reaches us, we don’t know which way it followed, we cannot discern its traits with any precision, the very Word of God comes and resonates in our heart.
This is why we can never be content with only the silence of the lips. It would “be merely pharisaic, were it not the outward expression of that purity of heart, to which alone is it promised to see God. To attain this, great abnegation is required, especially of the natural curiosity that men feel about human affairs. We should not allow our minds to wander through the world in search of news and gossip; on the contrary, our part is to remain hidden in the shelter of the Lord’s presence” (St 6.4). It is indeed so easy to just remain in cell, while the mind is roaming all over the world. Who has not experienced this? We are still not in silence, even if our lips are closed and our hands rest on our lap. “On the contrary, our part is to remain hidden in the shelter of the Lord’s presence” (St. 6.2) Recollection does not require only a rigourous control over our imagination: we must quiet down all our tumultuous and undisciplined faculties of knowledge and of speech.
Silence is wrought by God but it is more than this, as we have said: it is the Word of God. The example of Mary at the feet of the Lord is a light unto us : “let Martha bear with her sister, as she follows in the steps of Christ, in stillness knows that he is God” (St 3.9) Mary has truly entered silence : beyond the words uttered by Jesus, she truly perceives that He Himself is the Eternal Son. Her efforts were not in vain : “She purifies her spirit, prays in the depths of her soul, seeks to hear what God may speak within her” (St 3.9).
(Translated from: « Le Silence selon les Statuts », Paroles de Chartreux, A.A.V.C., Correrie de la Grande Chartreuse, pp. 73-82)
Finally, there is the head-scratcher that is an epic three-hour documentary: 2006’s Into Great Silence is either the best insight into the Carthusian daily life (and a kick-start for vocations) or the ultimate sell-out (it took the producers 18 years before obtaining permission to film inside La Grande Chartreuse). So after nearly 1,000 years of complete secrecy, anyone can now see inside the Motherhouse founded by St Bruno himself.
Still, the Carthusians survive. What more can be said about an Order whose salient features are silence and solitude and who await our Lord’s second coming in prayerful penance? St. Bruno can be proud of his achievement—but he would never be accused of pride.
St Bruno pray for us, that we too may learn to hear the Word in the silence of our hearts!