The Carthusian Tattoo and the Papal Conclave

Within the last week, I renewed my acquaintance with an Australian journalist I met a couple of years ago. She is a convert from Anglicanism who has taken very nicely to the traditional Mass and the integral Catholic culture that goes along with it. As we caught up on things, she showed me two pictures — on her iPhone — of the American gentleman who is presently courting her. She was glad to find a real Catholic man (which we both agreed is a rare thing), but expressed her dismay on learning that he has a tattoo on his forearm. It was in one of the pictures she showed me. There was a large cross, and underneath the words stat crux dum volvitur orbis.

Laughing at the incongruity of it all, I informed her that this is the motto of the Carthusians.

Besides being the makers of Chartreuse Liqueur (which may be purchased here by the way, but wait till Easter to open it!), the Carthusians are the strictest, most austere and secluded contemplative order in the Church. The presence of their motto on a tattoo, therefore, has a certain humor about it that I found irresistible. But after getting over the humor of it, I got to thinking.

The saying goes that the Carthusians have never been reformed because they never needed to be. However much this conforms to reality, it is a good sign that the new Prior General of the Order (they do not have abbots) is an erudite traditionalist and a fine scholar of the unreconstructed Fatima message.

The meaning of the motto? “The Cross stands firm while the world turns.” There is much wisdom in this. And I suppose that if one has to have a tattoo, it would be hard to do better, except, perhaps, for the one on Parker’s Back.

I have never read an official Carthusian explanation of the motto, so the following comments on it are merely my personal reflections. I would hope that one might be able to find a meditation on it in writings of Denis the Carthusian.

The central act of history is Christ’s redemption of man on the Cross. While all merely human affairs have their ebbs and flows — the rising and falling of nations and empires, war and peace, triumph and tragedy — the great reality of the Cross remains constant and will root us in eternity. Whatever befalls us in the world, when we are nailed to the Cross by our sacramental, intellectual, and volitional union with Jesus Christ, we participate in its divine stability. The nine-hundred year history of the Carthusians is, in itself, a tribute to the strength of this motto when lived according to its internal spirit.

I understand that the Carthusians still say special prayers daily for the restoration of the Holy Land to the Christians. It was certainly the case just before Vatican II, but I have not been able to confirm that those prayers are still in the Order’s night office. If they are, it is a sign of the Carthusians’ great monastic patience and detachment from progressivist notions of what is considered timely and what is not.

The oration for the fourth Sunday after Easter gives us a similar lesson, as can be seen in this “slavishly accurate” translation courtesy of Father Z:

“O God, You who make the minds of the faithful to be of one will, grant unto Your people to love that thing which You command, to desire that which You promise, so that, amidst the vicissitudes of this world, our hearts may there be fixed where true joys are.

The text I have highlighted shows the same dualism between the stability of eternal things and the changing nature of worldly things.

The motto, stat crux dum volvitur orbis, appears under the Carthusian coat of arms, whose seven stars represent Saint Bruno and his six founding companions:

Carthusian Coat of ArmsAs I reflected on the motto, I realized that it is a particularly apt meditation for our time. There is much by way of anxiety, excitement, worry, curiosity, and agitated foolishness surrounding the imminent abdication of Pope Benedict XVI from the Supreme Pontificate and the subsequent conclave to take place in March. What were the Pope’s real reasons for renouncing the supreme pontificate? What message — good, bad, or indifferent — will this act send to the Church and the world? What will happen at the next conclave? What will the new Pope do as regards the traditional Latin Mass and the SSPX? What will be his approach to Vatican II: Bologna School, Hermeneutic of Continuity, or something else? Will dogmatic considerations come before ecumenical sensitivities in his pontificate, or vice-versa? Are reports in the media concerning recent scandals in the Holy See true? How will the new Holy Father handle the suffering Church in China, the ongoing problem of liberation theology in Latin America, the neo-pagan assault on the Church’s liberties in the United States, the shrinking and persecuted Church of the Middle-East, etc., etc., etc., ad nauseam?

Stat crux dum volvitur orbis. Without falling into a dangerous quietism, we must make the eternal verities and their demands our first concern. Then we will not be rootless and restless — like the world that ever turns (often in the wrong direction) while the Cross stands firm.