Lessons from the Charterhouse

Due to the kindness of a benefactor, the Brothers recently came into possession of the book, The Prayer of Love and Silence, which Father David Phillipson had recommended from our pulpit some weeks previously. Its author is “A Carthusian,” so named due to a custom of the Carthusian Order1 that guards the monks’ hiddenness and silence.

The volume is a translation of two works that originally appeared in 1951 and 1948 respectively. Its subjects are varied, but all pertain to the interior life. Two parts of the book, “An Introduction to the Interior Life” and “The Blessed Trinity and the Spiritual Life,”are systematic in their approach. A third section — in the middle of the work — is a series of “Sermons in Chapter” given by the Abbot to his monks in their chapter meeting on feast days.

It would be difficult to do such a work justice in a review. My intention herein is to give the reader a taste of a work at once so simple and so deep that it defies summary.


Saint Bruno

With the exception of the section entitled “The Blessed Trinity and the Spiritual Life,” which is the last one third of the book, reading it was easy. It was like drinking good water: nothing to prevent the effortless imbibing of the material — and refreshing! After a few draughts, though, I realized that I was drinking strong stuff, so I had to slow down and read sections over again — even though the words and the syntax were quite simple. The thought occurred to me that the life of the Carthusians is productive of such an experience. In their slow, silent, hidden existence, they distill the complexities of the ancient liturgy, the great spiritual writers they read, and the manual labor they carry out, all into a life of great simplicity.

This makes their writing itself highly distilled, rather like the liquor they make. Yes, this strong stuff is spiritual Chartreuse!

After some pages of intense and lofty language, the author says: “When we contemplate the mysteries of divine Providence and Love, let our gaze be simple. The simpler our concepts, the deeper and truer they will be. For it is in the measure of their simplicity that they will approach the Mind of God.” (pp. 117-118) That is an illustration of the Carthusian distillation process present throughout the work.

The interior life is not merely a series of exercises or repetitions of various acts; there is a totality with which it must be lived if it is to be lived well:

But we must not rest content with a few devotional exercises at the beginning and in the course of the day: that does not constitute a life. The word life denotes a constant, persevering activity: and Our Lord wants to be our life. He said: I am the Life. And so we must not only follow in his steps but continue to do so. It is not just this or that particular devotion that he asks of us, but our whole life, or whole strength, and our whole soul; so that we may with his help begin, even now, our eternal life. In a word, we must respond to the call of Christ, if we would breathe the pure radiant air of eternal truth and love. (p. 4)

There is mention throughout the work of the abandonment we need to practice, the abnegation and mortification necessary to live a devout life. Among other aspects of this, we must declare a war on our self-love and pride, and such is soberly stated in the book. It is made abundantly clear, however, that the concept of “virtue for virtue’s sake” is pagan; we empty ourselves of vice and impurity so that we may be filled with the love of God. If we do not fill our souls with the love of God, asceticism becomes egotistical stoicism, a vile simulacrum of sanctity.

Here are some representative passages on asceticism:

Any kind of asceticism which has for its sole object the perfecting of self — an asceticism which is egocentric — is utterly worthless. Such a way of life pays very poor dividends, and the profits it yields are very disappointing. He who sows human seed can only expect to reap a human harvest. (p. 8)

He asks of us a total sacrifice that no merely human wisdom would dare to impose: Unless you shall do penance, you shall all likewise perish [Luke xiii, 3]. And: If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow me [Luke ix, 23]. He that hateth not his father and mother… yea, and his own life also, cannot be my disciple [Luke xiv, 26]. The most rigorous maxims of the ascetical life are merely repetitions of these truths, though rarely do they dare to reproduce the severity of Our Lord’s words. Yet, if we would follow Christ, we must immolate our whole self, keeping back absolutely nothing not even in thought. (p. 40)

If we could keep our heart still, the devil would be baffled, and temptations would find nothing in us to take hold of. (p. 89)

When Our Lord asks us to empty our hearts, it is because he wants to fill them with his own love. And it is only when he does fill our hearts that the work of our purification has achieved its object. (p. 43)

The first phase in our spiritual life is to empty ourselves of ourselves by a ceaseless and merciless war against every form of self-love. For sin, in sundering the bond between the Creator and the creature has destroyed the interior harmonies of the latter. Our life, separated from its Source, is utterly disoriented and disturbed. We are in revolt against God, and hence our senses are in revolt against reason. (p. 125)

Very great weight is given to the living of the theological virtues from the very beginning of our conversion. Some spiritual books advance the error that, since Charity is the summit of the interior life, it is a peak that we must arrive at by climbing up the way of the moral virtues first. In her life and writings, Saint Thérèse goes a long way in correcting this, by putting theological charity at the very beginning of the spiritual life. Her “Little Way” is a way of divine Charity from its very beginnings. Love of God made her scale to the peak, which is itself an intense union with the Beloved. The same spirit imbues the pages of The Prayer of Love and Silence, which calls us to live in the divine presence by the theological virtues and to cultivate a close friendship with God at the beginning of our efforts to live a more intense spiritual life.

Jesus Christ is the basis of that life, for no spiritual life is possible without Him:

He [Jesus] has not only made it possible for us to share in the life of the Father, but he has desired with desire [Luke xxii, 15] to remain among us, and this he accomplished in the Holy Eucharist, and it is in Holy Communion that the divine life in us is increased. No man cometh to the Father but by me [John xiv, 23].

Jesus is the Way — the only way. To want to seek the divine life by any other way is both presumptuous and illusory. The more we are fed with his sacred humanity’s love; the more we reflect on the example he has set us, the more will the divine life grow in us. I am come that they may have live, and may have it more abundantly [John x, 10]. (p. 16)

There is a Trinitarian basis of our spiritual life. The Father generates His only-begotten Son in eternity — a procession of knowledge due to which the Son is properly called the “Word,” the “Image,” and the “Wisdom” of the Father. He has all the Father has except that Father’s Paternity, i.e., that personal property by which the First Person is exclusively Father. These Two Persons behold One Another and a second procession takes place — the Spiration of the Third Person. This is a breath of love between the Father and the Son. It is a procession of willing and loving. The Three Persons are coequal, subsistent personal relations. We cannot consider the divine nature and the Trinity as if they are separate realities. To be God is to be in Three Persons. (For more on this, read the papers, “Trinitarian Processions” and “The ‘Relations’ in the Blessed Trinity.”)

As the Holy Ghost closes the circle of Trinitarian Processions, no further processions take place in God. All that remains is an “external procession” (in the words of Saint Thomas, cited by our author), and this we call creation. The procession of the Trinitarian persons is the principle of creation.

“A Carthusian” follows the Platonic pattern of exitus-reditus (emanation and return), in order to explain this. Simply speaking, this means that we came from God and will return to Him, but there is a rather grand cosmology and anthropology that accompanies the notion. The Eastern Fathers used this schema heavily (e.g., Saint Maximus the Confessor), and Saint Thomas employed it, with some nuancing, in the very structure of his Summa Theologiae.

The creature we call man is a microcosm of creation, having something in common with angels, animals, plants, and minerals — and even God. For this reason, man is called the nexus Dei et mundi, the connecting point of God and the world. This creature, who somehow embodies all of creation, returns to the God whence he came in what we might call an inverse Trinitarian order. On this point, our author quotes Saint Thomas, from his Commentaries on the Sentences: “And just as the procession of Persons is the reason for creation, so it is also the cause of our return to the End. It is by the Son and the Holy Spirit that we have been created, an it is by them that we shall rejoin him who has made us [the Father].” (p. 119)

Our way to the Father is in the Holy Ghost, and through Christ. Consider Saint Paul’s words: “Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his” (Rom. 8:9), which indicate that the Holy Ghost forms us into Christ’s Body. The Third Person is, after all, the “Soul of the Church.” We may put this idea together with Our Lord’s words: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No man cometh to the Father, but by me” (John 14:6). The resulting conclusion is that the Holy Ghost forms Christ’s Body (the Church), and, as members of that Body we are led to the Father. What is true of the Church as a whole is true of the spiritual life of each member. We go to the Father in the Spirit and through Christ. In the words of the “minor elevation,” which conclude the Canon of the Mass:

Per ip+sum, et cum ip+so, et in ip+so,
est tibi Deo Patri + omnipoténti,
in unitáte Spíritus + Sancti, omnis honor, et glória.

Through Him +, and with Him +, and in Him +,
is unto Thee, God the Father + Almighty,
in the unity of the Holy + Ghost, all honor and glory.

In my opinion, the chapter that represents the high point of the book is entitled “The Work of Christ,” which spans pages 121 to 124. It shows how the Incarnation of the Word had as its purpose the divinization of man; that is to say: Christ, in assuming human nature, effects it that we “may be made partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4). Jesus not only redeemed us from sin and Hell, but made it possible for us to be sons of God and heirs of Heaven. “Because with the Lord there is mercy: and with him plentiful redemption” (Ps. 129:7).

In His High Priestly Prayer (John 17:4-6), Jesus tells the Father that the work Father gave Him is now complete — namely, that He has revealed the Father’s name. Our Carthusian explains this:

What is this mysterious Name? According to St. Hilary and St. Cyril, it is the very name of Father. ‘The greatest work of the Son has been to make known to us the Father’ [St. Hilary]. The whole meaning of revelation and of redemption is comprised in this: to open to men the divine circle of the personal relations [in God: among the Three Persons], and to draw men’s souls into the stream of God’s own life. Not only to make good the fault of our first parents, as one would pardon a slave a moment of revolt, but much more — to make of this unfaithful servant a child of adoption. Such is the amplitude and depth of the gesture of mercy on the part of divine Love. (p. 121)

By the sacred humanity of the incarnate Word, the soul is raised up even to the divinity. Then will it feel crushed by the divine justice; yet drawn by his mercy it will plunge into the divine love, where it will contemplate for ever the eternal beauty, goodness and truth. Reconciled by Christ and in him, we have access to the Father in the Holy Spirit. … Here we have in a word the economy of all the divine mysteries revealed in time. Creation, incarnation, redemption, glorification — these miracles of love serve but to make known the mystery of infinite Love, one in three Persons: the mystery which hath been hidden from ages and generations, but now is manifested to his saints [Col. i, 26]. (pg. 124)

What the author says in that same chapter concerning the Blessed Eucharist and Our Lady is also very rich, lucid, and beautifully connected to these other thoughts. With all of its loftiness and intensity, this is a mysticism firmly rooted in God’s incarnational and sacramental economy. Among the sure signs of false mysticism are a minimizing of the Blessed Virgin, a downplaying of the sacraments and liturgy, and a disregard for dogma. Here in this masterful volume, these aspects of orthodoxy are heightened; the integral faith is intensified, not blurred by a false cloud of pious nonsense.

We can all use a lot more sanctity — and a lot less nonsense.

  1. A Charterhouse is a Carthusian monastery.