A Carthusian Speaks


The following are notes taken in 1928 by a novice during the Novice Conferences given by the Novice Master of the Charterhouse of La Valsainte. They were collected and handed over to Peter Van der Meer de Walcheren, who included them in his book, later translated in English under the title The White paradise (New York, 1952).


ALL life is fraught with mystery both in its origin and in its workings. Thus the spiritual life, which is the most mysterious of all, life’s very essence, is the most hidden and least explicable; for it is too simple and too infinite, preventing words and beyond expression.

Those who have spoken of it have usually been compelled to deal only with its outward aspects, so as to be understood by the world: the full beauty of the King’s Daughter has remained hidden. The contemplative life is in reality an activity simple in itself; but it can be viewed from more than one angle, according as one considers its way of expression, is results, and those outward fruits it bears which are more or less visible and tangible; or, taking the opposite course, as one penetrates to its inner, esoteric being, which is inaccessible to aught but pure Love.

Outwardly the life of a contemplative monk has in it guarantees which are as ramparts against sin and the world, the walled garden where his soul dies and flowers again. The first effect of this, and the one which has received perhaps the most attention, is the sanctification of the monk himself, since his life becomes fuller and more harmonious. It is a known fact, too, that this life overflows and pours itself out over the world of souls, thus having as its second, wider and nobler effect the stirring up of souls to receive grace, through the might of sacrifice and prayer. But even this is only a radiation of the unitive life; it is not its center and focus. What then is the point of origin and the final goal, the inexhaustible food and the unwavering purpose of the religious life, and more especially of the Carthusian life? Presently we will try to explain this, or at any rate to give some idea of it. But first we must say a few words both about the outward conditions under which this life develops, and about those additional results which the world in some degree admits, or at least does not flatly deny.

Mortification of the senses by a strict rule of life, mortification of intellect and will by obedience, mortification of the whole man by solitude – these are the ramparts and fosses behind which he entrenches himself, who has been chosen out by Grace. The three practices thus briefly indicated make up what is usually called “Carthusian penance.” To be sorry for the life one has lived; to be converted, that is, to turn from the world and direct one’s way toward God: this is the first step in the Carthusian life, as in every religious life; with this act we begin this life. Those whom the divine Voice calls to the solitude of our cloisters have heard the words of the Gospel: “Do penance”; and: “Go, sell whatsoever thou hast.” Above all, they have set before themselves the task of detaching themselves from all created things, of breaking the chains of our bondage. The acts of detachment, strictness toward oneself, and submission are and always have been required of a life dedicated to the worship of Him who has naught to do with things that are not.

These practices are most certainly essential for the development of the vita unitiva – the life of union. Unfortunately, they are almost all that the majority mankind knows about the contemplative orders, and most hagiographers have comprehended little more in the lives of the saints. For the better understanding of these practices, and to prevent the continuance of a mistaken idea that is only too often met with, it will be useful to state at once that physical penitential practices are always of a negative and relative nature: negative, because they have no value whatsoever in themselves, their function being merely to clear certain obstacles from the path; relative, because, if they are to be not barren but fruitful, they must be brought into relationship with their inner purpose, divine Love and union with the divine Life. Hence it is clear that these practices, as they are carried on in the contemplative orders, these acts of a Serapion or a Suso, cannot of themselves afford a criterion by which to judge those who practice them. And it is a like mistake to look upon them as an end in themselves, or to think that our ideal is expressed by them. The spirit of the Carthusian statues is very plain on this point, and their meaning is made perfectly clear. In this, more than in any other monastic order, penance is made subordinate to contemplation, in a moderate and wise ordering. The bodily severities, fixed and regulated by our Fathers, are recommended only on condition that they are undertaken under guidance, as a part of obedience. Obedience must itself be the spontaneous result of humility, and so of that charity in which alone true detachment can be brought to complete perfection and the heart’s bonds loosened.


According to the belief of most people, sanctification of self is the goal toward which the Carthusian strives. To prune and purify the soul; to ennoble it by the practice of the virtues, patiently exercised, vivified and nourished in the forcing-house of the monastery; in order to taste at last the pure blessedness of living and dying in the Law of the Lord – surely this is more than enough to justify a man in giving up the world, and very likely some of those who come to the solitude have no wider or deeper desire.


Yet many are conscious within themselves of a more universal mission: dead to themselves, they wish to bear fruit, like the ear of corn spoken of in the twelfth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint John. They wish to work for the salvation of souls, to be apostles and send forth light over the world by the powerful, hidden act of prayer and sacrifice.

This is a very lofty purpose and surely worthy of a soul’s devotion, and yet it does not contain the blissful secret which is the first principle and essence of our life. At the beginning of our spiritual journey most of us are drawn toward the realm of these desires, but gradually we come to know that this is not the Promised Land, and to feel that we are called to possess a more hidden, a more real and a purer Eden. If one of us were to go no further than this secondary goal, he would not be able to experience the fullness of his calling, and because he had not aimed at the heavenly Target, the Divine Heart, it might very well happen that he would in like degree have failed to fulfill, to the point to which God’s grace called him, the mission to which he thought it his duty to devote himself. For this is the law of conquest, and above all of spiritual conquest. To attain to the lofty goal, enfeebled fallen man lacks one single quality, the holy audacity to aim high enough, to dare to draw at the zenith the slack bow of his love and faith. He who with a single heart desires the righteousness of the Kingdom of God receives also in full measure the crown of glory, and to him it is granted to dispense to souls the excellent wine of triumph from the Eternal Feasts. But from the soul that hath aimed her desire at self-hallowing, or any other lower goal, shall be taken away even that for which she hath yearned.


To live by God alone and for God alone, that is the heart of our secret and the true essence of our solitude. It is also the one condition of our victory: for everyone who, eschewing all other, hungers and thirsts after God alone possesses Him All in All. If we do not get all that we ask, in spite of the express promise of Christ, it is because we do not ask in His Name. For to ask in His Name is naught else than to ask in God and for God; and he whose prayer is in such measure purified knows that he is heard in the very act of his interior prayer. For only to long for Love is itself nothing else than to love Love alone; than a man possesses it, and in it all things.


To wish for nothing else, to know nothing else, to have nothing else, but God and God alone; “to be nothing else, to that only thou be God,” to quote the profound words of a contemplative soul: that is a just description of the life of any soul in this place that is true to her calling. Every other care beside this one and only Love is superfluous. Anything that has no part in the infinite self is too small for the human heart.

There are not many souls which have to power to recognize the beauty of the Absolute, thus set forth; so deep have the children of Adam fallen. Rare are the souls intrepid enough the acknowledge their very nonentity. Rare are the souls which really dare to be nothing, and which, in that very act, are humble enough to be content to be divine and to be sons of the Most High, but it is precisely to this miracle of miracles that the Divine Will wishes to lead those of us who will allow ourselves to be transformed, to be in short crucified and glorified in Him. It is this unity for which the priestly prayer makes petition: “That they may be one, as we also are one...that they may be made perfect in one.” Far, far above our scrannel holiness, our righteousness so impure that it is almost blasphemous, above even the gifts of grace with which we are enriched; above all social, all human, even all spiritual, ideals; beyond every temporal striving; in God alone: that is where life eternal begins for us even while we are still here on earth. It is not possible to formulate a “theory” of this kind of life or to express in words its essence: it is too simple. “To love,” “to live in naked reality” – that is all that we can say with human words.

In order to convey some faint conception of this life, we have no choice but to make known its effects upon the soul that is swallowed up therein, and to show their relation to the theological mysteries and the life of the Church. But in so doing we are descending from the heights; we are exchanging the pure gold of silence for the base metal of words. May we be forgiven the betrayal!


Excellent things are simple things, and true life, the life of union, is the simplest of all. The soul comes, so to say, within the range of a holy spell, so that it is no longer in a position to desire any created thing, but is reduced to immobility by the exceeding great joy of Love. A peace that passes understanding flows forth from this submission and from the state of equilibrium in which the heart now feels itself to be established. For a long time more, until its transformation is perfected, the soul that is made one with its God doubtless commits faults and registers relapses, at any rate in appearance. But these very imperfections become occasions of love, and feed the flame wherein the gazing heart has its permanent abode. Its own frailties amaze not nor hinder it, no more than do its virtues, for it has arrived at the meeting place of two infinites, its own infinite need for mercy and the infinite mercy of God. From the bottomless abyss where these two abysses meet, the heart unwearyingly draws up, like water, both the humble trust and the clear, calm thankfulness which fused together are the perfect hymn of praise.


Just as the will, in one only possession, possesses all things, even so the understanding, in possessing one single truth, possesses all the treasures of wisdom and of knowledge. This ultimate unification, which in a certain sense comes of itself, is not the least of the mysteries of the inner life. Then the following words acquire a glory and a brightness which the world knows not: You know all things because you are Christ’s. “All things whatsoever I have heard of my Father, I have made known to you.” In anticipation and in participation this is already that life of the understanding which is forever sunk in the Divine knowledge, and which, in the uncreated Word, beholds all intelligible entities and their intelligible relationships. What name can be given to the gentle, powerful light that is born in the innermost part of the soul as soon as we have received Christ into ourselves? It has no name: it is the Light that lighteth every man coming into this world, and that so few accept. All things live in this Light, and all things have bee made by this Light. At bottom all things are only light rays of one Fire, and this Fire longs but to consume our hearts. Love, and you will know all things, for you will understand that all things are but the shadow cast by Love.


By union with God and the reversion of the soul’s faculties to Unity, simplification is obtained both of will and of intellect, and by that very act they are perfected. For in the eternal order “simple” means “perfect.”

The spiritual life properly so called goes the selfsame way and is perfected at the selfsame point. The “devotions” in which the soul’s faculties, at the beginning of the life of prayer, seek varying degrees of diversion are now all bent in one direction. The “practices” have reverted to one single act of infinite value, which is not so much done by, as accomplished in, the soul. For this act is entirely a divine act. It consists in our allowing God to be in us. It can be called love, faith, trust, worship, sacrifice for sin, thanksgiving: the words are all synonymous, and their concepts seem, like subsidiary substances, to melt and fuse together in the glowing crucible of a heart in which living Love itself is burning.


The soul to which it has been granted to despise the world and to despise itself to the point of entire self-oblivion – or, to go to the root of the matter, the soul which possesses the ability to see as nothing everything that is nothing – such a soul, being detached from itself, sees how the Divine Wisdom supplants its selfhood. When the image of every creature and all limited desires have been swept away by the continuous trials which have purified it, then it becomes that spotless mirror whereof Solomon speaks, the Face of the Father is reflected in it, and it is identified with Him in glory incomprehensible, and Love ineffable.

The life of the soul has been absorbed into the Life Divine: “The Lord thy God is a consuming fire. “The Word became flesh to communicate to us this Fire: “I am come to cast fire on the earth: and what will I, but that it be kindled?” And in an excess of love it has drawn the soul to itself: “I have loved thee with an everlasting love, therefore have I drawn thee, taking pity on thee.”

By absorbing the soul, it has transformed it. And thus, in the soul which has been conformed to the likeness of Christ, the Father finds His Beloved Son.

The ultimate purpose of our life and its total significance are comprehended in this: that in us God may know Himself and take His delight. “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” The soul, love’s adept now and swallowed up in Love, hears these words uninterruptedly, and with the Son it repeats incessantly, “I do always the things that please him.”

We have been selected from out of the world and called to the secret garden of solitude for the good pleasure of God, to assuage the inexpressible thirst of Love rejected. These thoughts are beyond the range of our minds and hearts, and there is no hope at all of our being understood by those to whom no such experience has come. And yet, the Father created men only that He might find His Christ in them; simply and solely to this end. He seeks Christ in mankind. He desires to stir up, to love and to glorify in us His image and likeness, His Word, in short, Himself.

But mankind is deaf to this call; he draws away from God’s kiss. And so Love shut out, Love suppliant, Love crucified, has chosen certain souls from among the weakest and the poorest, to take comfort at least in them.

God is Love. Thus He wills and can will only Love, and the divine thirst of Jesus can be assuaged only by love. To comfort Jesus; to let God’s will be fulfilled in us; among thankless mankind to be Christs, in whom the Father may live and perfect His adorable work – that is the mystery of our calling.

To receive Jesus; to afford a refuge to “the son of man (who) hath not where to lay his head” – “But as many as received him, he gave them power to be made the sons of God, to them that believe in his name. Who are born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” In the soul that gives itself over to Him and consents to the total sacrifice in which all love finds fulfillment, God quickens His Word. Such a soul belongs no more to the generations of earth; it is no longer the daughter of the flesh, nor of its own will, but it is born of God in the fullness of every moment. Its life is drawn from the Divine Life; it knows God with the knowledge wherewith He knows Himself; it loves Him with the love wherewith He loves Himself; it has become Truth, perfected praise; it is uttered with the Word. In short, it corresponds to the pattern contained from all eternity in the blessed Being of God; it is simply that which God wills. In it are confirmed the prophetic words of the holy Books: “This is my rest for ever and ever: here will I dwell, for I have chosen it.” “And the bridegroom shall rejoice over the bride, and thy God shall rejoice over thee.”

Thanks to those hearts that are reborn in love, Christ continues to live upon earth, and to suffer for the salvation of men and the glory of the Father; for they may in very truth say: “And I live, now not I; but Christ liveth in me.” And, because of this transformation of personality, it is proper for them too to say: “Our conversation is in heaven.” They know too the inner meaning of the following words: “Blessed are the clean of heart.” “He that seeth me seeth the Father also.” “And this is the will of my Father that sent me: that every one who seeth the Son, and believeth in him, may have life everlasting.” “I will that where I am, they also whom thou has given me may be with me; that they may see my glory which thou has given me...that they may be one, as we also are one: I in them and thou in me; that they may be made perfect in one.”

The emanation from these hearth fires of love is incalculable, for by virtue of their union with Christ such souls are kings even as He is King. We must put is more strongly, even at risk of being misunderstood: such souls deliver the world.

Whenever a being attains to perfection by returning to the source whence it arose, it not only gains everlastingness and glorification for itself, but it also delivers other beings by communicating to them the life which it has drawn up from the wellspring of its own being. Whenever a plant, for example, is at one with the source of its being, it grows and comes into full possession of the beauty for which it was made. But at the same time it bears fruit, brings forth seeds, and propagates in time and space the life of its kind, and so becomes, in some sort, an agent for the delivery of its brethren of the plant world. Even so is a sanctified soul. It has no care but to unite itself closely with the very Source of all things. In this union it not only gets for itself all the beauty of which it is capable, but it also becomes universal.

By acting only in and through God the man of prayer puts himself at the center of all hearts; he influences all; he gives to all of the fullness of the grace which he knows an by which he is possessed.

“Out of him who believeth in me, shall flow rivers of living water.” In that he is fully man, the desire of mankind is fulfilled in him; as Christ, he becomes the absolute Lover, the Desired One of the eternal hills.

With how much more reason than the Latin poet can he say that he is man and that nothing human is alien to him. He has treasures stored up for every need, wine and milk for all thirst, holy balsams for all wounds. He who lies lost in the kiss of Divine Being, who lets himself be raised up with Jesus according to the Father’s will, shares the breath of the Spirit, the Comforter, and becomes himself a comforter. Without moving from his place, he gives to souls of the joy eternal of which he has drunk; he lights and warms the world, because he takes thought for God alone. Isaias spoke of him when he said: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord hath anointed me: he hath sent me to preach to the meek, to heal the contrite of heart, and to preach a release to the captives, and deliverance to them that are shut up.” Led and inspired by pure Love, he is as universal and merciful as Love itself, and like it, almighty. “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out devils.” “He that believeth in me, the works that I do, he also shall do; and greater than these shall he do. Because I go to the Father: and whatsoever you shall ask the Father in my name, that will I do: that the Father may be glorified in the Son.”

Without doubt these things will seem like madness to the world’s wisdom, for the world lives upon the passing shadows of things, while we tell you of reality, pure and eternal. The world has not the power to know either our life or our love. For our life is God; and our love is God again; and our sure, certain and perfect victory is nothing else than God Himself. God is exactly what the world knows not. Therefore the world can neither estimate the extent of our victory nor gain the slightest inkling of the victory of Christ in us. “Have confidence, I have overcome the world.”


Yet a little while and the watching and yearning of all nature shall be satisfied through the glorification of the sons of God. A soul that has given itself over to God possesses this intoxicating knowledge: that the forces opposing it and fighting against it are but mortal, that is to say, they are not; but that He whom it has accepted as its Friend and its Bridegroom, whom it has made its center and its directing principle, its all and its only one, is the One who Is.

Therefore it possesses all things, since it has given all things away: “All my things are thine, and thine are mine.” Like the apostle, it fears neither life nor death, things present nor things to come, powers nor principalities; for its joy is wider than all the seas, and its peace deeper than any depth.

In order to reach, without straying and loitering, the source of all fruitfulness, which is to be found on the mountain heights of contemplation, the Carthusian abases himself to the lowest depth of the abyss of not being, where he lays upon himself absolute death of self and total detachment from the world, thus making actual his shining ideal:


The carthusian Monastery of La Valsainte in Switzerland


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