The Carthusians are an ancient and important monastic Order in the Catholic Church, founded in France in 1084 by Saint Bruno of Cologne. The Order was and continues to be a mostly hidden one, since its monks and nuns follow a life of strict solitude and prayer. For the most part Carthusians remain in their cell, though they gather in church for Mass and some of the Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours each day. There are also some other communal activities, described below.
The Carthusian Order gained wider notice and publicity by the release in 2005 of the documentary film, “Into the Great Silence,” directed by Philip Groning. His documentary portrays the life of prayer and work of the Carthusian monks of the Grande Chartreuse high in the French Alps, where the Order began and continues to exist. In essence, all Carthusian monasteries follow the same style of monastic life as filmed by Groning.
It took sixteen years for the monks to grant permission to Groning to film at the Grande Charterhouse, as Carthusians monasteries are also called, and Groning spent six months by himself in 2002 and 2003 filming there. He then spent two years editing the footage, and the end result is largely a “silent film,” fitting enough for a mostly “silent Order.” Nearly three hours long, the film immediately received critical acclaim and was widely shown throughout the world. It remained in many cinemas much longer than originally thought or expected and was given numerous awards as well. For anyone not knowing much about the Carthusians, “Into the Great Silence” is the film to see, now available in DVD and other formats, I presume.
Today Carthusian monasteries number eighteen for monks and five for nuns, located in the following countries: Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany, Italy, Korea, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, England, USA. Over the centuries since its origin, more than three hundred Carthusian monasteries of monks or nuns have been founded. Though the number of Charterhouses is much smaller today, all those still existing live a strict life of prayer, solitude, work and study in their respective monasteries. The habit of the Carthusian Order, quite similar to the Benedictine habit, has always been white, as a sign of reform and of dedication to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Italy, and more specifically, Calabria in southern Italy, has a special “claim to fame” regarding the Carthusians, because Saint Bruno made a foundation at Serra San Bruno, as it is now called, lived there for ten years, and died there on October 6th, 1101. Bruno was canonized in 1623 and the anniversary of his death, October 6th, was assigned as his feast day in the Universal Church.
Long a fan of the Carthusians, though never feeling a call to join them permanently, I was happy when an opportunity presented itself to visit the Charterhouse of Serra San Bruno, which I willingly took up in late June of this year. Some years ago I was privileged to visit the Carthusian monks at Parkminster in England, and have been to the now closed Charterhouses, but open today as museums, at Pavia outside of Milan, one near Florence, and one in Naples, all in Italy. I have never been to the Charterhouse of the Transfiguration near Arlington, Vermont, the only Carthusian monastery in North America.
On the extensive property of the Charterhouse of Saints Stephen and Bruno in Calabria, where a dozen Carthusian monks today live, is the sanctuary of “Santa Maria del Bosco,” Saint Mary of the Woods, where Saint Bruno first located his monks in Italy. It is also here that he died. The sanctuary is about a mile away from the current monastery, reached through a beautiful forest of fir trees in the very green and mountainous region of Calabria. At “Santa Maria del Bosco” there is a small chapel, built on the ruins of Saint Bruno’s 11th century chapel. A powerful earthquake in 1783 destroyed the original chapel. Also nearby is the “dormitorio,” another small chapel, where Saint Bruno used to pray and where he died and was originally buried. The two chapels are close to a pond, creating a modest and serene place for recalling the memory of Saint Bruno and his first Italian foundation of monks.
The present monastery of Carthusian monks at Serra San Bruno is actually the third monastery on the Calabria property. Saint Bruno made the first monastery where the “Santa Maria del Bosco” sanctuary is located. Eventually the monks moved close to the site of the present monastery, though the structure was largely destroyed in the earthquake of 1783. Impressive ruins of the church and cloister remain.
The third and current monastery was built at the end of the 1700s and completed after 1850, right next to the 1783 ruins. The Calabrian monastery of Serra San Bruno is impressive in its setting and layout, and provides a spacious home for its monks. It was obviously upgraded in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries to include electricity and other amenities, today considered essentials.
Typically, Carthusian monks occupy cells that are actually “mini-homes,” usually of two stories, which include a chapel, a sleeping space, a place to eat, a work room and a walled garden to grow flowers and/or vegetables. Between each of the cells is a high wall, so that the monks can enjoy a significant degree of solitude. The cells are linked by means of a wide enclosed cloister corridor, which the monks use to get to Mass and common prayers in the church at midnight, daybreak and in the evening The rest of the Divine Office and other prayers take place in the cell.
Each Sunday and Solemnity (such as Easter, Christmas, Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, etc.) the monks have their meals together in the monastery refectory; otherwise they eat in their cells. On those days, food that has been prepared in the common kitchen is brought to each monk in stackable metal containers. Carthusians also have a community walk on Mondays, lasting several hours. Thus, in addition to their time of solitude, they have some times of community inter-change. All of these activities can be seen clearly in the film, “Into the Great Silence.”
Carthusians do not typically have guests, though the monks have a little house for the occasional visits of their families and they have been known to let monks stay there as well. Near the entrance door of the monastery, there is a chapel, accessible to the public, where the faithful can attend Mass on Sundays at 8:00 am, celebrated by a monk or a visiting priest.
Despite living a life “hidden with Christ in God,” to borrow a phrase of Saint Paul to the Colossians, chapter 3, verse 3, the Carthusian monks at Serra San Bruno are much loved by the people in the surrounding area, who regularly come to walk the tranquil wooded grounds of the monastery that are open to the public. When visiting this June, with pleasant weather abounding, there were many people, young and old, walking the paths in front of the monastery and taking a moment or two to pray at the statue of Saint Bruno at the front entrance of the Charterhouse. I was impressed to see these people devoted to the property and the founder of Serra San Bruno.
The annual celebration in honor of Saint Bruno on his October 6th feast day is also an important public event at which many people, especially from the immediate vicinity, join in. That day includes the carrying of a large reliquary of Saint Bruno in procession that starts at the large front door of the Charterhouse and then goes into the nearby town of Serra San Bruno. The throwing of confetti at the relic of Saint Bruno occurs during the procession as well. I’ve noticed that at Italian weddings confetti is usually thrown, whereas Americans might throw rice or in more environmentally friendly places, birdfeed.
The Carthusian procession in Calabria begins when a car, heavily decorated with flowers and with the metal Reliquary Bust of Saint Bruno perched on the roof, emerges through the main monastery door. The crowd on hand cheers and greets their special patron, Saint Bruno. I am told it is a very important day for the people of the region, devoted to the great founder of the Carthusian Order.
The modern disciples of Saint Bruno strive to quietly carry on the work of “solitary prayer in the wilderness” on behalf of the Church scattered throughout the world.
Though the monastery itself is not open to the public, an impressive museum was opened in 1994 near the entrance to the Serra San Bruno Charterhouse. The twenty-two rooms of the museum contain information, both visual and audible, relating to and explaining the life of the Carthusian Order and the Serra San Bruno monastery in particular, throughout the centuries and to the present.
Saint Bruno and all Carthusian saints, pray for us!