St Bruno and Solitude

I will never forget the first time I met the Carthusian who was to be my confessor for many years. He asked simply, ‘Do you have peace?’ That question goes to the heart of any vocation. Everything else is transitory, but peace, abiding in God whatever the exterior circumstances of our life, whatever inner turmoil we may be experiencing, is permanent. It isn’t (usually) achieved once for all but is, like so much else, a process, something we grow into over time so that it becomes a constant in our lives, an habitual state of being.

The experience of solitude and silence seem to me an essential part of this process. They strip us of many elements of the ‘false self’ we use to hide from God, making us realise our dependence on him and on others. Our need for approbation, to draw attention to ourselves, to assert ourselves, all come down to this: an obscure sense that we are somehow not quite ‘enough’, not good enough, not attractive enough, not anything enough. That, of course, is to put the spotlight on self when the secret of true holiness is to put the spotlight on God and forget self. It isn’t easy to do, and most of us are reluctant to surrender what we think of as good or necessary in order to become something, or rather, someone, more closely fashioned on Christ.

St Bruno had no such hesitations. He seems to have spent much of his life avoiding a bishopric. He was a famous teacher, well-connected socially, someone who might have commanded the highest rewards of a clerical career. But he didn’t. He was drawn to the solitary life, and when he and two companions placed themselves under the direction of Hugh of Grenoble, the Carthusians were born. They have remained ever since one of the glories of the Church whose hidden lives have shown that what we tend to think of as success is, well, probably not such a success after all. St Bruno’s life as a Carthusian is often difficult to trace precisely because he avoided the limelight and concentrated on God alone. He was still the same man, still in demand for counsel, but now he met those demands in a different way. He became more, not less, loving because he lived a silent and largely solitary life. None of his gifts was wasted but they were all transformed.

A long time ago, I tried to express what St Bruno and the Carthusians meant to me and how I think we can emulate their prayerfulness, even if we cannot live as they live. Carthusian life is not romantic: it is tough, hard, wearing, which is why so few can live it, but we can all learn from it:

St Bruno makes me think of silence and solitude and snow. Cardinal Hume once remarked that every Benedictine should feel a certain sadness, a certain regret, that the great vocation of the Carthusian is not for him/her. But, of course, every vocation contains within it the need for silence and moral solitude, even if physical solitude is not a possibility. When Jesus told his disciples to go to their inner room and shut the door and pray to their Father in secret, he can hardly have meant to be taken literally since most people in first century Palestine had no private room to retreat to. We must make a Charterhouse of the heart, and allow our prayer to embrace every need.


5 thoughts on “St Bruno and Solitude”

  1. I am attracted to the solitary life, but live in the world, with a family, so that attraction finds itself in the quiet of the early morning when before breakfast I can engage in Morning Prayer (the Office) alone. At other times, alone when Jen is at work, I also find time to sit in the garden bench and read scripture. The Gospel of John and Paul’s epistles are favorite reads. But, soon a cat will intrude and insert themselves beside me, bringing the diversity of the garden and wild life (cats are never really tamed) to mind, and another quiet session of thanksgiving for God’s Creation, the beauty and diversity of nature and just the privilege of being able to do these things. I’m not sure this fulfills the urge to be solitary, particularly when so many are isolated by their circumstances and the virus. I than pray for those that I used to visit before lockdown, for their health and well being, now in the care of younger people. Silence is good, and relatively unbroken most of the time, we have a large recreation ground behind our house, which was alway full of children and people playing sports, now it is virtually deserted during the day, so a quiet place to walk, with one or two solitary dog walkers, we acknowledge each other, but pass by. Covid has a lot to answer for.

  2. Though without any sense of spirituality, I follow your ‘blog’ because it very often offers guidance to a life that’s far from monastic – and am moved and grateful for your thoughts so well expressed, as they offer hope.

  3. I think that we do all have a secret room/place where it is possible to search for God.
    The world is in need of more silence and reflection.
    This search is surely why we are here.

  4. I am from the US; unfortunately many of us exist in solitude, without choice in the matter. Our support structures, communities, sense of belonging…it’s all given way to the brutal forces of our capitalistic economy. In my particular diocese (Wheeling-Charleston), the diocese itself is to blame in quite a bit of its destruction, especially over the past few years (all my neighbors in academia at a Jesuit school were all fired on the same day and we lost them all in ’19, just in time for COVID, for example) and has no interest in working together with the community, or what’s left, to heal and grow.

    Where I’m going with all this is that there’s a bit of sting when I see so many posts recently embracing this silence and solitude, invariably from those with an already strong supportive community/network. The rallies/calls to it are used to further “silence” or dismiss those already alone and drowning.

    I wish there were a way to promote this type of prayerful solitude, while also encouraging people to focus on togetherness as well, reaching out to the lonely

    • I’m sorry, Kasey, the NYT link made WordPress think your comment was spam so I’ve only just seen it. I quite get your point and, in the past, have written more than perhaps I ought to have done about involuntary isolation and loneliness. The Church institutions — dioceses, clergy, religious — have a patchy record of providing support. Did you see my earlier post (or perhaps it was a Twitter thread) taking issue with an article published in the UK by a monk who gloried in the opportunities lockdown had provided him with? I wish he’d experienced life here before he wrote!I don’t begrudge him or anyone the gifts they have been given, but I do indeed know there is another side to things. We are doing what we can here to support others as we live in area of real social deprivation. If you have any suggestions to make, do please let me know. We are limited by a number of things, not least my health, but we will always try, I promise you.

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