A Lesson in Silence: What One Priest Gained From Living at a Carthusian Monastery
For four months in the spring of 2014, an American priest lived with and embraced the austere lifestyle of the Carthusian monks at Serra San Bruno in Italy’s Calabria region.
While there, he wrote a series of letters to family members and friends that have been published in a new book from Ignatius Press: Report From Calabria: A Season With the Carthusian Monks. The author, who has chosen to be known only as “a priest,” in keeping with the Carthusian tradition of anonymity, recently spoke by telephone with Register correspondent Judy Roberts.
Was the decision to remain anonymous yours, or was it made at the request of the Carthusians with whom you stayed?
That was my decision. The only thing the superior of the community asked me was to change the names of the monks. The names I use are not their real names.
Without revealing your identity, can you provide a brief sketch of your priestly life and ministry?
I’m a diocesan priest here in the U.S., and most of my ministry has been in teaching. I’ve done parish work as well, but for much of my life, I’ve done teaching in the seminary.
While you were with the Carthusians, you lived in one of the monastic cells, not in the guesthouse. How is it you came by this opportunity to live with them?
To go back a bit, a good number of years ago, I was going to be in southern Italy around Holy Week, so I sent an email to the prior of the community. I didn’t know much about them, except they were Carthusians and St. Bruno, their founder, is buried there. But I wrote and said, “I know you don’t ordinarily allow outsiders.” He graciously wrote back and said, “If you’re coming all the way from the U.S., you can stay with us.” That was that.
My next connection was that, during his last year as pope, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI had visited that monastery, and, of course, in the world we live in now, you can go on YouTube and see a video of him visiting the monastery. So I dropped the prior an email and said it must have been a wonderful experience [for the monks and Benedict]. That kind of planted a seed, and when I had an opportunity for some sabbatical time, I asked if it would be possible to come for a long-term stay with the community.
At the time I contacted him, the community was very small. A couple of the monks had died, one had left, and one had been assigned as chaplain to a sisters’ monastery. So there were only five in the community, and I think they felt one more person would be kind of nice to have around.
The other thing I should note is they probably are a bit more hospitable and more comfortable with people because their monastery is in a town. Most Carthusian monks are away from civilization, but the town grew up where the monastery had been years before and where St. Bruno died, so they’re used to more contact than most.
Did the monks set certain ground rules for your stay? Did you have to surrender your cellphone, for example?
I didn’t really use a cellphone when there. I basically lived their life, in terms of prayer, work, recreation and the weekly walk. The only two differences were: I did not attend their chapter meetings, and, because I was doing some writing while there, they allowed me to have an internet connection in my cell for my work. They do have internet in a room where they can check emails. While I was going through the experience, once a week, I would send an email home to family and friends describing my impressions of their way of life. I had no intention of publishing them until Father Joseph Fessio at Ignatius Press happened to come across the letters through a mutual friend. It was his idea to make it a book.
You write in the book that you have been captivated by monastic life since reading Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain when you were in high school and shared that you have since visited monasteries around the world. After one such visit to a Carthusian monastery in Spain, you said you felt like someone had just doused you with a glass of ice water. What is it about the Carthusians’ life that has this effect?
I think it’s primarily the solitude. Monastic communities are prayerful communities and are contemplative. But what distinguishes the Carthusians is, from the beginning, they have really modeled what was a more common form in the Eastern Church, where they live as hermits most of time and come together occasionally. That’s what Bruno and his companions started with: the fact that they really guard their solitude. When you get into a Carthusian monastery, it’s very still and quiet. The solitude is what is really their hallmark, and I think that is what most impresses a person — because we are so immersed in the world we live in and are exposed to constant stimuli. In the Carthusian monastery, it’s really stripped down, pared down. You just sense that these are very focused men who are living this life of contemplation in a very profound way.
How did you prepare for your time with the Carthusians? Did you put yourself through a kind of spiritual training, or did you enter the monastic enclosure and go “cold turkey”?
Pretty much cold turkey. I had been in monasteries, and I’ve been on retreats, including a 30-day Ignatian retreat, in silence. That kind of prepared me for this. The Carthusians’ day is broken up into 30- to 45-minute pieces. There is a time for doing manual labor; time for praying part of the office; time for doing personal contemplative prayer, so you’re not sitting and wondering, “What do I do now?” and “How am I going to fill today?” I was comfortable with the idea of the silence, and I certainly got into the rhythm of it. You describe this life on the outside and people think it sounds horrendous. In fact, it’s very balanced. It’s austere in a sense, but not fanatically austere, and it’s very centering and very integrating. Because you don’t have a lot of outside stimuli, which is what we’re swimming in all the time, it catches you off guard a bit.
How has your life changed as a result of those four months in 2014? Did you retain certain practices of the Carthusians, and, if so, which ones?
For one thing, I’ve just gotten more comfortable with silence, and I’ve weaned myself a bit from having a need to constantly check emails. One of the challenges with the communications we have today is that we think have to answer right away. And we don’t. What those four months helped me to do was say it doesn’t have to be that way. The Carthusians’ way of life, their horarium or schedule, is set up for a purpose. It’s not a schedule I could follow now, but I could adapt my schedule to take advantage of the rhythms I experienced living in the community.
Being a priest, I pray the Liturgy of the Hours every day, so that’s already a pattern in my life. Probably the main addition has been I tend to pray those hours more slowly and take more time with them. What I’ve found is: The more you do that, the more present you are to people when they do come to you. Sometimes we priests get very harried — and where the tendency might be to cut back on prayer, if you devote more time to prayer, you’ll sort out your other priorities better and actually have more to give people when they come to you.
What did you find most difficult about the Carthusian way of life? What was the easiest and most attractive?
Keeping warm was a challenge, as there are no heaters in the cells, only wood-fired stoves. It was uncomfortable a bit, but not horrible, by any means. I liked working in the garden, and it was also a beautiful place to pray.
I liked the liturgy very much and the singing of the office. And also the community: They were very, very friendly men, though you don’t see them a lot.
On Sunday, you have a meal together, though that is in silence, and recreation. Then, once a week, there is the four-hour walk. You do it so you talk with everyone in the community. There are very different personalities among them, but they are very gracious, very unassuming, very relaxed.
If you describe their horarium, you would think they must be tightly wound, but they’re not. If you were a tightly wound kind of person, you couldn’t live that life. They’re very funny in conversations, very insightful about human nature, and they saw themselves as rooted in and praying very much for the needs of the Church.
What can those of us who live in the world do to incorporate something of Carthusian spirituality into our lives?
In one sense — and this is very simple — I would say that we need to take ownership of our own schedule. I understand that if you work and have a family to take care of you can’t just say, “Quiet — we’re praying vespers now.” I think we are so bombarded with stimuli, with music, with emails. Every time our phones go “ping,” we’re reaching for them. There are a lot of pluses with all these things.
I was able to sit in a monastery and research and write because of the internet, but one of the things we can do is unplug to some extent and say, “I’m going to check this once or twice a day. I don’t need to check every 45 minutes.” I come back to the Carthusians’ wisdom of a day divided into bite-sized pieces. Say I have a job, an appointment at 1 o’clock and another at 2 o’clock. The first appointment ends at 1:45. I’ve got 15 minutes, and I could check emails or I could pray the Rosary or read a passage of Scripture.
I don’t need to spend the night praying the office like the Carthusians, but I can have little chunks of time where I remind myself of union with God and ask for God’s grace and inspiration.
The other thing I’m really strong on is every Catholic should make a retreat every year. Maybe one weekend if you can’t do more, and just unplug completely for a couple of days and go to a place where you can pray and get a little spiritual direction — to step back from daily life and see all this in the light of God’s grace.
Until fairly recently, everyone had those opportunities for quiet in their lives because of the world we lived in. I think our inventions have helped us a great deal, but they can run our lives if we’re not careful. We need something as extreme as the Carthusians [lifestyle] to say there are alternatives, and we can incorporate those [habits] into the way we live.
Register correspondent Judy Roberts writes from Graytown, Ohio.