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.

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Conformity and the Eighth Step of Humility

Superficially, St Benedict’s eighth step of humility (RB 7.55) reads like a recipe for disaster, urging the monk to a mindless conformity. If we do nothing other than what the Rule or community tradition suggests, won’t we end up monastic zombies? We prize intellectual adventurousness and look for imagination and innovation among those we admire, yet here is Benedict advocating a potentially dangerous form of stick-in-the-mud conservatism. Or is he? Think for a moment what the word ‘conform’ really means — being shaped, growing like someone or something, in its root sense of conformare, making something together. It is about life, not death; community, rather than the individual.

When we enter a monastery, it is because we have seen something that attracts us. We want to be like the community because we see in it something worthwhile, something worth aiming at. The only way to grow to be like the other monks or nuns is to follow their example. In time we may decide that we have been a little too literal-minded in our attempts to absorb the ethos of the community, but that is a change of gear rather than a change of direction. We are formed by the community we join, and we pass on the tradition we have inherited to others. There is nothing slavish or unimaginative about that. Indeed, we must be perpetually open to the Holy Spirit, always alert to what God is asking now, if we are to be truly faithful to our monastic vocation. But it takes humility to lay aside our own brilliant insights or adapt our pace to the slowest ship in the convoy. As Benedict is to insist later on, we go to God together, but that can be a hard lesson to learn.

The source for Benedict’s eighth step is Cassian, but with the significant addition of the Rule of the Master’s qualification monasterii to the phrase communis regula. It is not just any common rule but the common rule of this particular monastery, the way in which this community — and possibly no other — lives according to the Rule of St Benedict, that we have to take as our model. Moreover, Benedict doesn’t limit the formation of the newcomer to the superior or officials appointed by him. No, he says the whole community is involved, or so I understand his use of the word maiora, ‘elders’, in this context. Thus, what at first sight looked rather deadly turns out on closer inspection to be genuinely life-giving. Our membership of the community will change us, just as our presence will change the community; and that interior attitude of humility we have been cultivating so zealously will begin to show on the outside, too.

St Bruno, whose feast we celebrate today, is credited with having founded the most conservative order in the Church, that of the Carthusians; but their proud motto, ‘Never reformed because never deformed’ rests, in large part, from their wise and generous practice of precisely the kind of humility Benedict is talking about in today’s portion of the Rule. A community which consciously and perseveringly seeks the will of God in all things cannot go far wrong, though it is unlikely ever to be very numerous or popular. As a Bendictine, there is a part of me that regrets that I haven’t got what it takes to be a Carthusian, but I am very grateful for their example, not least of humility.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Prayer of Silence: St Bruno and the Hermit Vocation

A friend reminded me this morning of something I wrote years ago about St Bruno, whose feast it is today:

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.

I would still say that. As we grow older, and draw closer to the moment when we shall stand before God and answer not only for our own lives but, in some degree, for the lives of others, I think our understanding of silence becomes deeper, richer. Words fall away because they are unnecessary. We are left only with a profound silence, the sometimes stricken silence of snow or solitude or the glorious, blazing silence of sunshine. Our prayer reaches out to the God above and beyond yet also, amazingly, intimately close to us, ‘closer than we are to ourselves.’ The hermit understands and lives this silent prayer in a uniquely powerful way. Let us pray for the hermits we know and give thanks for their vocation in the Church.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail