The Solitude of Chartreuse
"In the year 1084 after the Birth of the Lord, the fourth year of the episcopate of Hugh, Bishop of Grenoble, Master Bruno and his brothers began to inhabit and to build the foundations of this hermitage, whose boundaries we have just specified." A critical study of the documents indicates they took up residence there near the feast of Saint John the Baptist, which would be in the latter half of June. The climate, too, would prescribe that season of the year.
In his Life of Saint Hugh of Grenoble, Guigo recounted the arrival of Bruno and his companions. The narration is more concise than we might wish, but it is very exact.
This text is not entirely satisfying. It leaves uncertainty about several points of interest. It does not say, for example, whether Bruno's companions came from Sèche-Fontaine with him. Most probably they did, because the idea of a totally solitary hermitage was not Bruno's ideal for religious life. Perhaps one or more joined the group on the way. It is possible, too, that the two canons from Saint Ruf did not meet Bruno until the day he stopped at the Saint Ruf priory near Saint-André on the way from Sèche-Fontaine to Grenoble. Regardless of what Guigo's text omits, however, it is still valuable.
Guigo confirmed that Bruno did not know where his hermitage would be until after he arrived at Grenoble. He was only "in search of a place suitable for the eremitic life". His concept of the eremitic life was clear, but he did not know where he would establish it. He "hoped" to find the place in Hugh's diocese, where there were many mountains and forests, but he was not certain that he would. On the other hand, he was sure that he would find Hugh to be a genuine man of God, one who would understand his plan, one whose support and conversation, like those of Robert of Molesmes, would encourage his enthusiasm.
Finally, if Bruno and his companions settled in the wilderness of the Chartreuse, it was not they who chose it. God himself, through Bishop Hugh, made that decision, though the Bishop's prophetic dream resists the most exacting critical analysis. Here Guigo is a firsthand witness, because he was a friend and confidant of Hugh of Grenoble for twenty-six years. His information came directly from the Bishop. To the historian, too, Guigo appears to be a perfect witness, critical and trustworthy. His sincerity is beyond question. He is always careful and prudent. He had serious reservations about miracles. In his Life of Saint Hugh, which he undertook at the request of Pope Innocent II, he described a holy life without mentioning a miracle. If he related the dream about the seven stars, it was because he could not disbelieve it. No one could reject it without declaring a priori that any kind of unusual mystical phenomenon was impossible. The events that followed, the entire spiritual history of the Carthusian Order, show how the landscape influenced the shape of Carthusian life. Between the landscape and the life there was a profound and determining relationship.
The little band left the house of the Bishop of Grenoble one June morning in 1084 and started on the way through Sappey and the Porte Pass toward Saint-Pierre de Chartreuse. They went beyond the pass at the entrance to the wilderness and continued all the way to the extreme end of the narrow valley of the Chartreuse. Did Bruno and his companions go to the far end of the gorge because of the dozen springs that were there? But there were still more productive springs in the valley, like the beautiful and abundant spring of Mauvernay, the one that made Guigo choose the location of present-day Chartreuse.
There is no proof the spring was miraculous. Miraculous springs belong to the folklore of sanctity. But this area, this climate, this atmosphere, this rhythm of seasons and temperatures that Bruno appreciated and desired these were very important: in a way that nothing else does, they reveal his plan.
Standing out in bold relief, just like the sun, his plan can be seen in the whole landscape, in the forest and the snows. The end of the gorge in the heart of the mountains of Chartreuse, with access difficult even from the nearest villages, with long winters, deep snow, and poor soilthat was an advantage for him, creating an almost complete separation from the world, the utmost solitude. Here was the austere hermitage for which Bruno was looking. But it was a hermitage for several hermits: one man completely alone could not survive in conditions like those. Since Bruno agreed to make his "earthly dwelling" there, he had to have a plan in which the spiritual and human ties of the group would balance the considerable risks that solitude entails.
Bruno did not arrive at Chartreuse all alone. He was leading six companions, whom he had already formed into a remarkably united and harmonious group of like-minded men. The two "masters", Bruno and Landuino, guaranteed doctrinal nourishment solid, substantial food drawn from the Holy Scriptures for these men who had vowed themselves to the contemplative life: two laymen, Andrew and Guérin, who, leading a solitary life as much as possible like that of the hermits, relieved their thousand material and physical needs and so freed them for pure prayer, which they shared as much as they could; and finally, at least one who was a priest, who exercised the priestly ministry for the group and was called "the chaplain", a word that implies a community. The contrast between the austerity of the hermitage and the close harmony of the little group of hermits provides an insight into Bruno's plan. If he had not seen that he could achieve this kind of hermitage in the wilderness of Chartreuse, he surely would not have settled there. But this place fitted his plan too well for him to hesitate: there he and his six companions could hope to live the eremitic life with all its demands and all its richness, insofar as human powers were capable.
However, the wilderness of Chartreuse was going to have a strong and lasting influence upon the accomplishment of that plan.
The 1086 document of donation indicates the boundaries of the area that was granted to the hermits:
This description gives an impression of the Chartreuse area: a place surrounded by mountains with a single pass called the Cluse. Here and there, especially at the lowest part of the valley, limestone soil covered a narrow stratum of humus, where trees forming a wooded area clung to the soil that lacked depth. In this rocky place there was an occasional meadow to feed some cattle. It was useless to dream about planting vines or grain or fruit trees in this soil. The altitude and the climate precluded that. By working the soil diligently it was possible to gr?? a few vegetables. For contemplatives to settle in this wilderness was to dedicate them-selves to austerity. They were compelled to live frugally. It was not possible to make use of the trees because there were no roads for removing them. The Carthusians were not able to profit from the forest until the seventeenth century. For their livelihood they depended on a little agriculture and some flocks. Iron was discovered in the mountains later.
For many years it seemed unrealistic to think this wilderness could sustain more than thirty people, and it was better to have more "brothers" than "fathers", more laborers than contemplatives. When he edited the Customs, Guigo set the size of the community at thirteen fathers and sixteen brothers. When the Carthusian of Chartreuse wanted to in-crease their number, they had to acquire land farther down the mountain, toward the plain. Here is one of the original characteristics of the Chartreuse. It was not the sort of hermitage, flourishing at that time, that the Camaldolese were building around a monastery of cenobites. Bruno wanted a hermitage strictly speaking: that is, total solitude, mitigated only by a little bit of communal living. They would be few, and even in their common life the hermits would preserve the feeling of being a "small number".
The climate, especially the heavy snowfall in Chartreuse and the severe cold, imposed on Bruno a decision about the environment. There were two ways to combine the requirements of solitude and those of the regular life: one was to ensure solitude by placing the cells as far from each other as possible; the other was to promote their common life by placing them in groups. The climate persuaded Bruno to compromise: the cells would be completely separated but near each other and connected to each other and the areas for common life by a covered cloister, so that they would have a sheltered walk from one place to another during rain and snow. He intended for them to be called together frequently, several times a day, whether for one of the Hours, or for a Chapter meeting, or for meals together. If the environment had not suited his plan for contemplative life, Bruno could have changed the arrangement of the huts without leaving the wilderness of Chartreuse. For example, he put the brothers a mile and a half from the cells of the hermits, 1,000 feet down the mountain, where the sun shines more often and the snow melts more quickly.
What Bruno had planned was very close to what he established at the Chartreuse, even if it was not exactly the same.
In at least two passages of his Customs, Guigo mentioned the bold establishment of the first hermitage. He asked that "no one criticize [the physical arrangements of the Carthusians] before living a sufficient time in a cell, among the heavy snows and the severe cold". In his view, nothing except experience of the contemplative life could explain and justify the bold foundation of Bruno and the first Carthusians. To understand and appreciate a hermitage like the one Bruno envisioned and established requires the grace of a vocation. The letter to Raoul le Verd explains something of the motives that induced Bruno to live in Chartreuse. More about that later.
Bruno and his companions built and organized their first dwelling. According to one tradition, the hermits received hospitality among the inhabitants of Saint Peter of Chartreuse the first few days after they arrived there. Bruno himself lived with the Brun family, who provided the wood he needed to build his cell. They received other acts of generosity as well. Even today, after 900 years, the names of two of the inhabitants of Ruchère are mentioned: Molard and Savignon took the responsibility of baking bread for the first Carthusians and bringing it to them, which was no small service. They began to work as soon as they arrived and continued diligently, because they had to arrange the essentials before the first snowfalls and before the cold came, so they had only about three months. While some of the land was being prepared for planting, hermitages were being built around the spring. They must have resembled little chalets, like the cabins of woodcutters or shepherds that are still seen in the mountain pastures, rustic but durable, made of logs and covered with sturdy boards, built to resist the weight of the yearly snows. Because of the lack of time and also, perhaps, of money, each of these dwellings sheltered two monks at first: later everyone had a cell to himself. Water from the spring came to each of the cells by means of conduits, which at first were just hollowed-out-trunks or branches of trees.
Only the church was built of stone. Bishop Hugh of Grenoble consecrated it on September 2, 1085, under the title of the Holy Virgin and Saint John the Baptist.
This group of buildings may have been located near the present-day Saint Bruno chapel.
The cells opened onto a covered walk about thirty-five yards long, which went "almost to the foot of the monolith", permitting sheltered access to the chapter room, the refectory, and the church. In the church the hermits celebrated the conventual Mass and together recited Matins and Vespers on ordinary days and, on Sundays and feast days, the entire Office. They recited the rest of the Office in their cells on ordinary days. They occupied themselves with prayer, reading, and manual labor, the labor consisting mostly of classifying or transcribing manuscripts, especially the Bible and the Fathers of the Church. Each one took his meals alone. Only on Sundays and the great feast days did they go to the refectory, when one of the hermits would read some passage from the Bible or the Fathers while the community was eating.
The brothers lived within the boundaries of the wilderness, too, but their dwellings were located below the hermitages. They took care of the exterior works, especially the farm labors that were necessary for the community's subsistence. They cultivated the land, cared for the livestock, cut wood, and performed the thousand crafts that were required for the upkeep of the buildings. In short, they protected the prayer life and the solitude of the hermits while living, as much as possible, a contemplative life themselves.
The spiritual harmony of this group of men was remarkable. Each one in love with God, they merged their lives in a way that would free them for pure contemplation.
There are two valuable accounts that describe the life of the first Carthusians. One is by Guibert of Nogent; the other by Peter the Venerable, abbot of Cluny. Guibert of Nogent never visited the Grande Chartreuse, but he has information from eyewitnesses whose account is true. He describes the Chartreuse of 1114, when it was thirty-eight years old. Peter the Venerable wrote about l 150, but he was acquainted with the Chartreuse since 1120, when he was prior of the Benedictine priory of Domène, not far from Grenoble. Thereupon he began a friendly correspondence with the priors of the Chartreuse. Even after he left Domène he visited his friends of the wilderness several times, admiring their life. His account was a little later than Guibert of Nogent's, but it came from his personal experience. Here is what they wrote.
First, Guibert of Nogent described the place Bruno chose for his hermitage as "a high and formidable promontory (promontorium), reached by an extremely dangerous one might say nonexistent route". Then he continued:
The account of Peter the Venerable essentially confirms the one of Guibert of Nogent:
Mabillon recalled a tradition that Bruno used to like to withdraw to a solitary corner of the nearby forest and meditate before a monolith where a cross engraved in the rock can still be made out.
All these details give the vivid impression that there was a wonderful harmony between the kind of life that God had inspired in Bruno and the Chartreuse that he chose as the place to accomplish his plan. Anyone who believes in inspiration will see the hand of providence in this harmony. If Bruno's experience as a canon at Rheims is detected in certain practices, if his stay at Sèche-Fontaine and the influence of Bishop Hugh of Grenoble inclined him to adopt some Benedictine practices, if some details of observance or liturgy came from the Order of Saint Ruf or other Rules, his plan, from the beginning of the Chartreuse, was nonetheless original, new, unique. In the Mystica theologia, edited by Hugh the Carthusian at the beginning of the thirteenth century, this plan was clearly drawn up. There were two main premises: Bruno and his companions wanted a hermitage whose dangers and inconveniences would be reduced by elements taken from cenobitic life. Those elements of community life were not a concession to human weakness but rather a way of combining the spiritual and the human. A holy friendship bound the members together, a friendship of strong personalities who were great, learned, and holy (magnis, doctis, sanctis), with Bruno the outstanding example.
Three traits seem to characterize the Carthusian that Bruno envisioned: contemplation nourished by Holy Scripture and the Fathers; knowledge of Scripture and the Fathers stimulated by contemplation; and knowledge full of love, love that desires knowledge. The Carthusian lives the mystery of God in his spirit and his heart. And that "grandly": there was nothing stingy in this vocation everything was arranged to convey their awareness of the absolute, of need, of totality, of completeness, which gives the man of God (homo Dei) his true stature.
The place, therefore, is important. Such an existence cannot be achieved just anywhere. The very setting has to be favorable. Wilderness is a requirement, as well as separation from the world, a limited number of hermits, and a proper balance of "fathers" and "brothers". The Chartreuse offered a rare, perhaps unique, opportunity to reach that ideal without any compromise.
It cannot be known whether or in what degree, in their pursuit of that goal, Bruno and his companions had the idea of starting an Order. What they established was a hermitage, a limited hermitage, with specific requirements, in unique circumstances, a hermitage that they could hope would continue long after them. Their awareness of the originality of the foundation was too vivid (and especially their desire to be silent, to be humble, to be forgotten, and to deny themselves was too definite) for them to dream of expanding into other places and among other men. They had no thought of repeating their experience in another place or at another time. The first generation of Carthusian, and Bruno himself, lived and died with no intention except to live like perfect contemplative hermits, their ideal marked by its absolute purity. Afterward, God would make changes in ways they had not foreseen, but that would be God's affair. "They had come to seek God alone in the wilderness of Chartreuse", say recent historians concerning the beginning of the Carthusian Order. "They did not know what God was preparing through them and by them. Without their knowledge people, events, and things would modify the organization of their life in such a way that the Order of Carthusian would be born from the original seed with its own special character." Dom Le Masson would write one day: "They did not think that their humble sort of life (vile suum propositum, in Guigo's phrase) was a little trickle of water that was destined to become a great river. The question did not even occur to them (imo nec de hac re cogitabant)."
Did they bind themselves by a formal "profession" of vows? It is not clear that they did at first. In chapter 23 of his Customs, Guigo I describes the profession of a novice. The formula of vows, like the ceremony itself, was surprisingly sober and simple. Here is the original formula of vows: "I, brother , promise stability, obedience, and conversion of my life, before God and his saints and the relics in this hermitage, which has been erected in honor of God and of ever Virgin Blessed Mary and of Saint John the Baptist: in the presence of Dom ---, the prior." The formula of monastic profession, as it was used everywhere at the time, can be recognized in it, though without mentioning the Rule of Saint Benedict, and replacing the word monastery with hermitage. Earlier in the ceremony the prior blessed the professiant, who was bowing before him. The formula of blessing, several centuries older than the first Carthusians, was used among all monks. The choice of this one, though, is very interesting. There were four or five formulas for blessing the new professiant, and from those the first Carthusians kept the one that was the most scriptural, the most spiritual, showing again their special attachment to the Bible. Here is that formula with its beautiful overtones from the Gospel:
If this liturgy did not yet exist at the time of Bruno, we may be sure at least, from all that we know of Guigo and his Customs, that it faithfully reflects his spirit and the spirit of the first Carthusian.
The title of the hermitage of Chartreuse was mentioned in the profession of vows. It was "erected in honor of God and of the ever Virgin Blessed Mary and of Saint John the Baptist". These simple words indicate the special focus of Carthusian spirituality: God and the ever-virgin Mary who was the perfect example of a soul united to God, and John the Baptist, who was the precursor and man of the desert par excellence this focus came directly from the soul of Bruno.
In Customs there are additional texts taken from the Bible, and especially from the Gospel of our Lord. If they are not always quoted word for word, their spirit is everywhere. And since Guigo does not intend to hand on anything except "what we are accustomed to do at Chartreuse", they seem to be a conspicuous sign of the attraction that Holy Scripture had for Bruno and the first Carthusians right from the beginning. The Commentary on the Psalms contains frequent references to the contemplative life. Here is the reverse: the contemplative life refers constantly to the sacred texts. The movement is basically the same, however: the life, the breath, the work, the existence of the first Carthusians were in the context of the Bible. It was the dwelling place of his soul.
The most likely theory about the Commentary on the Psalms was presented earlier: if it was not written at Chartreuse, it was surely taken up, amended, and completed by Bruno there. Observing Bruno and his first companions settle and live in the Chartreuse recalls some passages of the Commentary, like that lengthy and solemn paraphrase on Psalm 118. This description of the "faithful and perfect ones", "those who search for God with all their heart", "who purify their path by observing his words", those anxious appeals to the One "who alone gives life", that intense feeling of being "only a guest on the earth", that joy of "having chosen the way of truth", that desire "to run the way of the Commandments", "of keeping them until the end", those earnest prayers to "obtain the grace of God", to "examine the words of God", that complete belonging to God alone, and so many other sentiments, like this: "How I love your law! I ponder on it all the day long" what is that except the very breath of the first Carthusian?
Great satisfaction came to Bruno and his companions on December 9, 1086. That day, in the synod that was being held at Grenoble, Bishop Hugh officially ratified the grant that the landowners of Chartreuse had made two years earlier. Not only did the Carthusian become lawful masters of the land, but the document solemnly reaffirmed the purpose of the hermitage:
After giving a precise, legal description of the boundaries of the area, the document continues:
After listing the witnesses, the document concludes with the date: "The present charter has been read at Grenoble, in the Church of the Blessed and Glorious ever Virgin Mary, on the fourth feria of the second week of Advent, in the presence of the aforesaid Hugh, bishop of Grenoble, his canons, and many other persons, both priests and clerics, assembled in holy synod, the fifth of the Ides of December."
This 1086 document of donation shows Bishop Hugh's favor and generosity toward the first Carthusians. His friendship never waned, and his influence was considerable, not only during the settlement of the hermits in the Chartreuse but during the first forty-eight years of the Order. His influence was also kind, based on admiration and affection more than on his canonical authority. Hugh was thirty-two years old and four years a bishop when Bruno and his companions arrived at Grenoble. He had tried everything to avoid becoming a bishop, but, because the legate Hugh of Dié had honored him and designated him, he finally had to submit. Hugh of Dié himself conferred upon him all of the orders except the episcopate. It was at Rome, in April or May of 1080, that the young man was consecrated Bishop of Grenoble by Pope Gregory VII.
Following the directives of the legate Hugh of Dié, he immediately undertook the struggle against the abuses that were afflicting the diocese and clergy of Grenoble. It was a relentless, tiring struggle for Hugh, and it revived his long desire to enter a monastery. One day he fled to Chaise-Dieu, and it took a formal order from Gregory VII to remove him from there. Nevertheless, after his return to Grenoble, his enthusiasm for monastic life remained; and, although he had no experience of it except for the Benedictine cenobitic life at Chaise-Dieu, Hugh immediately recognized Bruno's zeal, his ideals, his love for God, and his special gifts, which attracted Hugh and caused him to associate himself with the venture. There was a difference of twenty years in the ages of Hugh and Bruno, but the two men developed the deep friendship that is known by true men of God. In his Life of Saint Hugh, Guigo wrote: "With Hugh counseling, helping, accompanying, [Bruno and his companions] entered the solitude of Chartreuse and constructed" (Ipso [Hugone] consulante, juvante, comitante, Cartusiæ solitudinem [Bruno et socii ejus] intraverunt et exstruxerunt). Each one of these words should be considered. For the first Carthusians Hugh had the role of counselor, helper (one who assists and tries to encourage), and companion (one who makes his own the lot of those he accompanies). He had this role not only when they arrived at Chartreuse, but during the whole period of their settlement, organization, and construction of the buildings (exstruxerunt). Hugh liked to meet Bruno at Chartreuse, to converse with him, to be formed by him, to live near him. Guigo reported that it was not unusual for Bruno himself to have to in some way "chase" (compellerent exire) Hugh from the wilderness, saying: "Go, go to your flock and discharge the obligations that you have toward them." During his more than fifty years as bishop, Hugh remained faithful to the Carthusians. It was at his insistence that Guigo, the fifth prior of Chartreuse, wrote the Customs between 1121 and 1128; and, while he did that, Hugh, who had known Bruno, Landuino, Peter of Béthune, and John of Tuscany, was present as an important link that guaranteed, in a way, that the Order would be faithful to the original thought of Bruno.
Guigo wrote: "Until his death Hugh never ceased to favor the men of Chartreuse with his counsels and charity." An anonymous manuscript from Mont Dieu, reflecting the tradition of the century following Hugh's death (+1132), characterized him in these words: "One may say that he was the patron and founder of the House of Chartreuse and the Carthusian Order and, although it was not at first his undertaking, in some way their creator" (Vere dici potest et domus et Ordinis Cartusiensis patronus atque fundator, et quamvis non primus, tarnen quodammodo institutor). Guibert of Nogent (+1124) had used a more ambiguous phrase: "The Bishop of Grenoble filled the role of abbot and guardian" (Vicus auteur abbatis ac provisoris Gratianopolitanus episcopus ... exsequitur). The "role of abbot" must not be taken in a juridical or canonical sense, because the Carthusians had no abbot but only priors. It was Hugh's complete dedication to the Carthusians that suggested that image to Guibert. His thought might be better expressed: "For them he was like an abbot and guardian." These phrases seem excessive only because they attempted to express a situation for which ordinary language has no exact words. Hugh's relationship with the Carthusians was like that of a patron, founder, creator, abbot, and guardian.
That describes the spiritual and human environment in which Bruno and his companions lived during their first years at Chartreuse. All was providentially successful: Bruno's plan, the coming vocations, and even the personal desire of Hugh of Grenoble, all seemed to coincide perfectly. Bruno could believe that he had finally reached the harbor he had been seeking. For six years he led a life that appeared to him to be the purest, the holiest, the most dedicated, the most useful for a world in which even churchmen were corrupted by too much involvement in political and temporal affairs. He thought he had at last found in Chartreuse the solitude with God that was the prelude to seeing him face to face in eternity.
The people of the Dauphiné were not mistaken about the spiritual importance of what was happening in the Chartreuse. "In the beginning," wrote a seventeenth-century historian, "those saintly strangers were called hermits, and their leader, hermit par excellence. Their arrival opened a new era there. The history of that year can only be dated `the year the hermit came'." God was going to reveal to him and to all who know his life that there is a solitude still more profound than that of the wilderness: namely, the solitude of obedience and self-giving of those for whom it is chosen not by themselves but by God: "Another will bind you and lead you where you did not wish to go." Jesus' words to Peter were true for Bruno.