Meditation on the Carthusian Vocation

 

To become a Carthusian, the desire alone does not suffice. It is not enough to be warmly welcomed into the community and to receive all the elements of a good formation. He alone remains in the Charterhouse who has felt a call in the very centre of his soul which is more powerful than any of the contradictory forces within and around him. The Carthusian vocation is a work of God. Our human co-operation is perhaps more indispensable than in any other context, but we are well aware that we are utterly incapable of bringing the work to fruition left to our own devices.

First of all, then, there is a call. Though purely interior, it seeks to realize itself within an exterior, institutional framework whose rigidity may seem surprising. Once the decision has been made, the discovery of Carthusian life in practice opens up a world in which the paradoxes are often difficult to accept. The stages of the discovery are often as follows.


The seduction of the Absolute

He alone who has experienced this seduction can understand. When God calls, it is so self-evident that all words and arguments are left behind. When God reveals himself, there is no room for discussion; it is he alone whom we meet, even if we can find no way of explaining this to others. For want of a better term, let us speak here of `the Absolute'. Such a way of speaking has its disadvantages, as must any discourse about God; yet, it brings to the fore what is the distinctive attribute of an in-depth revelation of God: it is he and no one else.

We recognize him immediately even if we have never met him before. There is nothing with which we can compare him. He reveals himself truly as perfection itself and takes hold of our hearts at once. A thirst is born within us which nothing can quench except the Absolute. Anyone who has received this wound sets out in quest of the means of reaching the Absolute in so far as it is possible in this life. No doubt the means available will always be inadequate, but we long to do all that is in our power to attain it.

1. To give oneself to God for his sake.

To the one who sets out on this quest, the Charterhouse appears from the outset as a world he already knew, sight unseen. It seems to hold the answers, as if by instinct, to his search. There seems to be a sort of connivance between what one is told and what one would have said oneself. To give oneself to God for his sake. To live for him alone. To renounce everything that is not God and find in him the fulfilment of all we seek. Not only do we find these formulas written down, but we have the feeling that they are actually being lived, even if we realize that the framework is in many ways rather shabby and apparently a bit shrivelled up.

2. A complete break with the world

A Charterhouse couples in a quite inseparable manner both the heady prescriptions for union with God and a brutal rupture from what in traditional monastic language is called `the world'. Despite certain misrepresentations, there is nothing in this of Manichaeism, pessimism or contempt for those who are part of `the world'. The world is the whole of humanity engaged in the splendid enterprise of co-operating with the action of the Creator. It is man tending towards God across the whole spectrum of his creation. It is religious man who reflects the face of God in Christ through a thousand forms of apostolate.

All of this is good and all reflects God; but none of it is God. Choosing God consequently implies a separation from every-thing that is not God without even considering all that is involved, and we would not dream of compromising on its exigencies. Even the most wonderful of his creations is nothing compared with him and he it is whom we seek.

3. Turning unreservedly to God

We have referred to the seduction of the Absolute. The expression is not too strong. It brings to mind the words of Jeremiah: `You have seduced me, Lord, and I let myself be seduced'. In the joy of finding God, all decisions become easy, however much we may still be obliged to reach them only after careful consideration. One realizes that there can be no other solution; a great threshold must now be crossed which commits us totally and exclusively to the search for God. We must cast ourselves into the abyss, believe in the Absolute, and cut ourselves off from all that is not God.

4. To be resurrected with Christ

Only Jesus, through his death and resurrection, was able to fulfil this dream completely; to respond with his whole being to the call of God, to cast himself onto him and to find himself again fully ín his embrace. To choose the Carthusian way is therefore to immerse oneself in a particularly expressive and effective way in the Resurrection of the Saviour. There must be a death, of which we are not always fully conscious at the start, but which gradually extends its effects into all the dimensions of our lives. Yet there is also a birth into a new life which truly brings us into intimacy with God.


THE PATHS OF THE ABSOLUTE

Once settled in a Charterhouse, we soon learn that the radical choice to live for God alone must necessarily implant itself on our entire concrete existence, our perceptions and our social interactions, however fragile and unstable they may be. We begin to learn what this entails and how difficult it is. We cannot go into detail here, but let it suffice to point out how this choice, apparently so purely spiritual, has to express itself in all its radicality within the limits of time and space in which a Carthusian lives out his life.

1. The limits of a Charterhouse

Historians who study the foundation of Charterhouses in the Middle Ages usually discover something which shocks them if they are unfamiliar with Carthusian life. They find that Carthusians, once decided on a foundation and a site for it, began by setting up `limits' around the site which effectively define the boundary between themselves and the world. It did not matter whether or not the surrounding land already belonged to the Carthusian; for, if not, the objective was to acquire it or to obtain privileges which would ensure that no other human habitation should exist within its boundaries. This was considered by the early Carthusian to be an essential condition for a foundation. The monastery had to be the heart of an area of genuine solitude. The division between the Charterhouse and the world needed to be clearly defined. Once this had been achieved, a further set of limits was laid down which detailed the boundaries which the monks were not to cross if they wished to be faithful to the spirit of solitude. The novice who makes profession knows that he is committing himself to remain within these boundaries, which constitute his desert, his solitude.

It would be shabby to see in this some kind of acquisitive instinct or power-seeking on the part of Carthusians. One has to understand this fierce determination to cut themselves off from the world as giving rather bald expression to their feeling of really having chosen God and nothing but God. The Absolute has burned itself into their lives in a frighteningly demanding way. To tumble definitively into God, as we have said, is to enclose oneself within him both spiritually and physically. The `limits' of a Charterhouse are the material sign that we have enclosed ourselves within God. `Your life is hidden with Christ in God,' said St Paul. Such is the goal of the Carthusian: to be hidden, to compel others to respect his anonymity, to be forgotten. Yet, it is also to impose on himself the restriction of no longer being able to wander about, nor to go here and there as his fancy might lead him. He is anchored in God, even in body, even in the basic human freedom which has the entire earth, bestowed by the Creator, at its disposal.

2. The meaning of the vows

It is obvious that religious vows are not a monopoly of the Carthusians. The vows, in their deepest reality, are strictly modelled on the structures of Carthusian life.

The origins of the first monastic vows are obscure. Nevertheless, it would seem that they came into being spontaneously, in order to deal with instability among monks, whether as regards the vocation itself, or as regards their tendency to wander from one monastery to another. The vows were a sort of 'limit', in the sense discussed in the previous paragraph. They mark a complete break in the life of the monk, in that he sees himself obliged to remain fixed in God, through a decision freely made when he enters the monastery, and binds himself to it in profession. Without wishing to deny the juridical exaggerations which have grown up around the vows, we must know how to rediscover the deep inspiration underlying them. Their authors probably did not realize it clearly, but they were following a very real inspiration.

The intention of one taking monastic vows is to make a truly absolute gift of himself or herself to God. The seduction of the Absolute implies the desire to imprint within ourselves a reminder of the Absolute which prepares us to meet it. That choice, which made us give up everything for him, is one that we wish to see mould our whole interior being. We must therefore make a complete break with the outside world: the vow of stability corresponding in each one of us to the concrete existence of limits. Above all, it is important to draw a clear line between the flight from God, to which all the weight of our fallen nature disposes us, and the choice of a love ever faithful to God: the vow of obedience.

To the superficial observer, the monk thus finds himself enmeshed in a network of obligations that bind and paralyse him, and, in fact, that is sometimes the way his life is described. The reality, though, is exactly the opposite. The vows are the unbreachable line of demarcation between the realm of Absolute, the zone in which we wish God to be undisputed ruler, and everything else. They are the gateway to divine freedom.


BEYOND THE ABSOLUTE

Once admitted within the limits of a Charterhouse, we find ourselves right in the midst of Carthusian life itself. Now begin the surprises, even if we knew in advance that we would find ourselves at the heart of a community life. We came with the idea of isolating ourselves completely, and casting ourselves upon God alone. Now we find ourselves caught in the complicated network of obligations involved in family life. We thought to find ourselves surrounded by saints and we discover that we are among men. We may even end up realizing that little remains of that for which we came. Does this mean that we have been sidetracked, or is it some new `trick' of God, who is revealing himself in a way we did not expect?

1. Joining the family

When there are so few dwelling in the heart of the same desert, drawn by the same ideal, there is no question of living side by side as strangers. He who has no wish to join in the life of the family will be rejected by it and soon discover that his life in cell is radically undermined. If he truly wishes to persist in his search for the Absolute, there is no alternative but to accept this family life and to join it wholeheartedly, in loyalty and honesty.

This social dimension is quickly revealed as being at the very heart of Carthusian fife. No one can find God while forsaking the road laid down in the Gospels, that is, the path of charity. It would be fruitless to seek the Absolute and, at the same time, seek to dispense ourselves in any way from love of our brothers. For the teaching of Jesus and of the beloved disciple is clear: the love which binds together the children of God is the very same love that unites the Father and the Son. To join the Carthusian family is to enter fully into the life of the divine family and, with the risen Jesus, to penetrate the veil and come into the presence of God. Yet, in a Charterhouse, this human image of the divine family seems limited and constrained and only makes sense when placed within the context of that great family of the children of God — the mystical body of Christ: his Church.

It is impossible to overestimate the mental adjustment often required of the young monk in this apparent reversal of values. Having come to lose himself in an Absolute which had totally overwhelmed him, he suddenly discovers this Absolute to be completely different from what he had imagined. The `Absolute' is a way we have of imagining God: the reality of God is the Son who is in the bosom of the Father, and who revealed this reality to us when he said that the Father loved the Son, and that they both loved us and would come to us. In the end, it is a crucifying choice that we have to make: either the Absolute which contents us by enclosing us within ourselves, or the relationship that will open us to the infinite, but at the cost of wrenching us asunder and exposing us to all those around us, whatever affinity we may or may not have for them.

2. The kingdom of mediocrity

A deeper insight into souls gradually allows us to discover that behind possibly disappointing exteriors often lie real treasures of interior life, of generosity, and of an authentic search for God. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that these precious gems are often buried in unattractive dress. How could it be otherwise, face to face with the Absolute? Is this not the price of such dangerous proximity to fire? For it highlights all our faults, all our roughness of character and all the petty misery which in other circumstances would be swallowed up in the surrounding sea of trivialities. To wish to come face to face with the light of God is deliberately to consent to expose all our faults and pettiness to the hard light of day. These first become apparent to others, and then, as we become enlightened, to ourselves. We first discover mediocrity in others and afterwards, in ourselves.

Risks are always involved when our aim is high. Seeing our-selves apparently ever more distant and removed from our goal is a painful suffering. On a more prosaic level, this mediocrity is the consequence of our separation from the world. To the extent that solitude is effective, it deprives us of a great many advantages which might introduce into the community an élan or a renewal which would mask the mediocrity or remedy it in some way. The critical choice must be made: either choose God and accept that perfection must come first and foremost from within, or leave open certain gates to the world so that certain means, other than those proper to the desert, play a part in one's life. The usual choice in the Charterhouse is the former. To make such a decision quite deliberately represents a very real sacrifice — an entry into solitude at a very exacting price. In effect, it is a conscious decision to leave untapped a part of our human potential so that God may well up from within. Such conditions are only suitable for those who have already attained a certain level of human maturity and self-motivation in their spiritual and intellectual life.

3. Going beyond the Absolute

The discovery of mediocrity first in others and then in oneself is a step towards an even more disconcerting discovery. Holiness, perfection and virtue — all these qualities which, without realizing it, we believed to be reflections of the Absolute within ourselves — begin to vanish. Everything which tends to make the ego a point of reference or an autonomous centre must disappear in order to conform with the resurrected Christ who is but pure relation to the Father. Even his humanity is now endowed with divine names. All created riches have been stripped away in order to be nothing but pure relation.

Such is the direction which the monk must take little by little: first, in his interior life and then in all his activities, whether in cell or in community. He must learn never to focus on himself but to be taken up in the movement of a divine love which has neither beginning nor end, neither goal nor source, neither limit nor shape. He must surrender to the breath of the Spirit, without knowing whence he comes nor whither he goes.

*

These few reflections give some idea of the increasingly dis-concerting discoveries that await us when we allow ourselves to be guided by divine light. Yet this evolution, which obliges us to go infinitely beyond what seemed to us in the beginning the most alluring ideal, is the work of God. He would seem to have deceived us, since he has drawn us where we had no wish to go, but, in fact, little by little he is unveiling a truth to us which we were unable to accept at the start. This amen of God is the Carthusian's sole guarantee, his only support in a journey which precisely entails his holding nothing back, and finding no longer in himself any wellspring of strength or autonomous judgement. He must only believe in Love and give himself up to it.

 

Back to the top