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.

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Point Counterpoint

Very few people know any Carthusian monks or nuns at first hand. I know only one, but being a nun myself and a lapsed medievalist, I feel a connectedness, a degree of understanding of his strange and beautiful vocation that can make me sad, at times, that I was not called to such a perfect expression of love for God.

The Carthusian vocation is strange and beautiful — strange in its rarity and intensity, for very few can live the eremitical life fruitfully and generously, as it must be lived; beautiful in its focus upon God alone amidst the beauty and silence of the Alpine snows that were its first home. St Bruno’s gift to the Church was a very great one, but also a much misunderstood one. Today, when the Catholic Church is dismissed by many as a load of paedophiles and perverts, I like to recall the witness of the Carthusians and their solitary prayer. However many failures there are in the Church — and wherever there are human beings, you will get failures — however much sin and shame blackens her face — and how black it has seemed of late! — the Carthusians remind us of the Church’s essential integrity and holiness as the Bride of Christ. They are the wise virgins, keeping their lamps alight throughout the hours of darkness until the Bridegroom comes.

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