The Carthusian Dimension
On February 6, 2015, Fr Jonathan Robinson, the Provost, made the following chapter address to the community.
My dear Fathers and Brothers:
There is a story of someone who left the London Oratory because, he is reported to have said, it was Carthusianism with night prayers thrown in; and that certainly wasn’t for him.
I wanted to reflect for a few minutes this morning on the phrase. Carthusianism with night prayers thrown in. The phrase may be inadequate as a complete description of our life, but it does point up some things that should be important to us.
In the first place, Carthusianism can be taken as a short hand way of describing a way of life that puts God at the centre of things in an unequivocal way. Secondly, if God is at the centre of things, then everything else, including community itself has to be evaluated, as successful or otherwise, in terms of this primary goal. Finally, although the life in community has to be measured by the extent to which it calls attention, or teaches by its very existence, the primacy of God and what we owe him, nonetheless, it is also the case, that the ability to put God first, in an individual way, is intimately bound up with our corporate witness to what we stand for.
William of St Thierry in his Letter to the Carthusians of Mont-Dieu, the so-called Golden Epistle, lays great stress on the cell, which was really a little house. The cell was where the Carthusian worked out his vocation, and in which he spent most of his solitary life. William writes that the piety, required of the Carthusian is `the continual remembrance of God, an unceasing effort of the mind to know him, an unwearied concern of the affections to love him, so that, I will not say every day, but every hour finds the servant of God in the labour of spiritual exercises and the efforts to make progress, or in the sweetness of experience and the joy of fruition’. (27) Without this serious, and personal concentration on the things of God, a man, he says, is not to be called `a solitary but a man who is alone, and his cell in not a cell for him but a prison in which he in confined. For truly to be alone is not to have God with one. Truly to be confined is not to be at liberty in God. Isolation and confinement are words that denote wretchedness, whereas the cell should never involve confinement imposed by necessity, but rather be the dwelling-place of peace, an inner chamber with closed doors, a place not of concealment but of retreat.’ (27)
Secondly, if the centre of this life is the cell, and the activity which should dominate the cell is `the labour of spiritual exercises and the efforts to make progress, or in the sweetness of experience and the joy of fruition’ then both the joys and the difficulties of living in community will have to be judged by this life in the cell. Our life in community should be looked on as a means to union with God, not as an end in itself. It is obvious that Carthusianism is not dominated by what the Germans, I believe, called Bruderschaft, that is, the cultivation of personal relations between the members of a group, for their own sake. Our own efforts to live in peace, in mutual respect, in tolerance, and in charity with each other have to be viewed as the necessary conditions for drawing nearer to God. They are not, in themselves, the way we should define our lives, or judge its success.
Finally, though, although it is also true that, as I put it a moment ago, the life in community has to be measured by the extent to which it calls attention, or teaches by its very existence, the primacy of God and what we owe him, nonetheless, it is also the case, that the ability to put God first, in an individual way, is intimately bound up with our corporate witness to what we stand for.
I mean that while our community life must be viewed as a means to our union with God, nonetheless, the purpose of our striving to draw closer to God – and to allow him to draw nearer to us – must not be viewed as a selfish desire only for personal sanctification, but rather we are to become the sort of men who by drawing closer to God will, as a consequence, have something to give to other people – something more, that is, than our own selves with its need to impress or dominate.
Cardinal Daniélou has it right when he wrote: (the mystic) is only given the graces of contemplation so that he can pass them on to others. He is essentially an instrument, a channel, a mediator . . . he is one who carries the prayers of men to God, and the graces of God to men.
That noble purpose requires, the community, as a community, to live and reflect the charity of Christ.