Saturday, January 19, 2008

Louis J Sheehan Esquire 300998

A Carthusian monastery might best be described, paradoxically, as a community of hermits. The monastery is headed by a prior (there are no Carthusian "abbeys"), and is populated by choir monks and lay brothers.

Each choir monk (that is, a monk who is or who will be a priest) has his own hermitage, usually consisting of a small dwelling (traditionally a one-room lower floor for storage of wood for a heating stove, and for a workshop as all monks engage in some manual labor; and a second floor consisting of a small entryway with a picture or statue dedicated to Mary, mother of Jesus as a prayer spot, and a larger room with bed, table for eating meals, desk for study as all monks engage in study, and choir stall/seat and kneeler for prayer), set in a corner of a highly walled garden, wherein the monk may meditate and grow flowers or vegetables.

The individual hermitages are lined up so that the door into the garden of each may be reached by a corridor. Near the door is a turnstile, so that meals and other items may be passed in and out of the hermitage without the monk having to meet the bearer.

The monk lives most of his day here: he meditates, prays most of the hours of the Liturgy of the Hours on his own (yet still following the full ceremonial as if praying publicly), eats his meals, studies and/or writes (Carthusian monks have published scholarly and spiritual works), works in his garden, works at some manual trade, etc. He leaves the cell daily only for three prayer services in the monastery chapel (including the community and his own individual Mass), and occasionally for conferences with his superior. Additionally, once a week, the monks take a 4-hour walk together in the countryside during which they may speak (they go two by two, changing partners every half hour), and on Sundays and feastdays a community meal is taken silently. Twice a year there is a day-long community recreation, and he may receive an annual visit from immediate family.

They have no "active" ministry: they do no pastoral work, charitable work, or missionary work; they admit no retreatants (other than select persons who are contemplating actually entering the monastery as monks); they have no contact with the outside world. Their contribution is their life of prayer, which they undertake on behalf of the whole church and the whole world.

In addition to these choir monks there are lay brothers, monks under slightly different types of vows who spend less time in prayer and more time in manual labor and who live slightly more communal lives with one another. The laybrothers provide the material assistance to the choir monks: cooking the meals, undertaking physical repairs, providing the choir monks with books from the library, managing supplies and so on.

All of the monks live lives of silence: there is no "vow of silence," as is sometimes parodied, but as with many monastic groups, the monks cultivate a spirit of exterior silence (speaking only when truly necessary) to help achieve an interior serenity.

Carthusian nuns live similarly to the monks, but with some differences. Choir nuns tend to lead somewhat less eremitical (hermit-like) lives, while still maintaining a strong commitment to solitude and silence.

Today Carthusians live very much as they originally did, without any relaxing of their rule. Thus, there has been no "reform" movement as with other orders: there are no Carthusians "of the strict observance" or the like. Thus Pope Innocent XI coined the phrase Cartusia numquam reformata, quia numquam deformata. Literally this translates to "The charterhouse has never been reformed, for it has never been deformed"

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