In the context of the Year of the Consecrated Life, the award-winning French daily La Croix publishes, this weekend, a rare interview with the General Prior of the Grande Chartreuse, the mother-house of the Carthusian Order. As a long-time admirer of the Carthusians, I found this fascinating and inspiring, and thought I would translate it for this blog. LC refers to the La Croix interviewer, Frédéric Mounier; DL is Dom Dysmas de Lassus, the General Prior.
LC: Within the diverse choices of the consecrated life, how would you characterise the Carthusians?
DL: The way of the Carthusians is rooted in the monasticism of the Desert Fathers. We are monks, and have much in common with the Benedictines or the Cistercians. Our specificity is a greater emphasis on the solitary life. Yet we are not hermits, because the communal part of our lives is far from negligible.
LC: Your separation from the world is particularly decisive . . .
DL: That’s true, our cloisteredness is rigorous, not always easy to accept. For we do not come out of the desert, not even, except in unusual cases, for the death of our relatives. Rather than explain this, I prefer to cite Christ who withdrew for forty days into the desert to pray. When we speak of the desert, that is what we are talking about. But for two days each year we receive our families in the hostel.
LC: What makes solitude cease to be suffering?
DL: The emphasis on solitude should not be mistaken: for us it is merely an external condition and a means. The goal is not solitude but indeed its opposite, communion. Our whole life is constructed on relation. Everything in it is conceived to favour the development of a relationship with God, of communion in love with Him. If he lives his vocation completely, the Carthusian is never alone. Nevertheless, living in solitude, even with that communion with God, requires certain capacities, a type of spirit capable of bearing it. And that isn’t given to everyone.
The austerity of the Charterhouse doesn’t consist in the fasting, the getting-up in the middle of the night, or the cold, even though those aspects are quite real. The true austerity is the solitude. The first few years, the intimacy with God is still fragile, and the desert, within and without, can sometimes make itself rudely felt. But I hear monks complain more often of not having enough solitude than of the opposite.
LC: In the silence, how does one manage not to be deafened by oneself?
DL: In the beginning, the ego obvioudly takes up a lot of space and makes a great deal of noise. Taming our internal forces takes time. But right from the start it is possible to taste a true silence and to open oneself to the presence of the loved one. And that is what gradually pulls us toward the true silence, because that communion is of such beauty and the noise of thoughts disturbs it.
LC: You live apart from the world, but not in order to escape from it. How?
DL: When lighthouses still had lighthouse-keepers, they too lived apart from the world, and yet they did so to serve those who passed by them without seeing them. We do what others should do but do not: listen to their hearts, there to hear the voice of him who gave them life. As a fine passage from our Statutes puts it: “Separated from all, we are united to all because it is in the name of all that we remain in the presence of the Living God.”
We are like the keepers of a transmission relay-station on a mountain-top. Ostensibly isolated, it nevertheless sees the passage of millions of messages, and links men to one another or to satellites above them. Something would be missing from the earth if there were no men (all the contemplatives, not just us) who gave their life to that communication with Heaven, in the name of all mankind.
LC: What do you perceive of the world?
DL: If you will allow me a smiling answer, I’ll say: first of all, ourselves. What I mean is that men are men, in whatever part of the world you find yourself – including within the cloister of a Charterhouse. So we are a perfectly typical and absolutely normal sample of the world, far from the pious images that all too often circulate about us. Human nature, the essence of the world, is 100% present among us.
As far as events are concerned, we get La Croix and some other papers. The prior passes on to the monks the important things. Materially spekaing, there are enough magazines and news media that circulate, the texts of the Pope, of our bishop, the diocesan newsletter, etc. It’s not necessary to have news each day in order to maintain that link. Their somewhat limited number, on the contrary, helps us not to smother the most important matters in a multitude of secondary things.
For example, we follow quite closely the drama of the Oriental Christians, the Synod on the Family, the Year of the Consecrated Life or that of Mercy, and all the rest of the life of the Church and of the world.
LC: What would you say to a young person tempted to join you? What, to you, is the decisive criterion?
DL: If you’re tempted, come and see. Our life doesn’t demand extraordinary qualities. We have people who have completed the Polytechnique or the Ecole Normale Supérieure [two of the mosst prestigious institutions of higher learning in France – translator’s note]. And there are others who have just finished high school. There are solid persons and fragile persons. So it’s wrong to think that the Charterhouse is restricted to exceptional characters. On the other hand, it’s true that only a small number of persons are capable of sustaining a solitary life, because what is needed for that is not exceptional qualities but very specific ones. In reality, only experience can tell if one feels in harmony with the life in cell or not. While we don’t have any particular demands, neither intellectual nor human, nevertheless we cannot be an escape from the difficulties of the world.
Many discover quite quickly that this life is not for them. But for those who have received that grace, it is an extraordinary gift. Sure, there is a price to be paid. But I truly regret nothing: we are privileged.
LC: How does one keep going in the consecrated life?
DL: That is the difficult part today because fidelity is no longer a value in contemporary culture. Sufficient to each day is the evil thereof, because we receive grace only for today. Unshakeable confidence in the love of God, trust in our Father in heaven, attachment to the heart of Jesus, the quiet gentleness of the Holy Spirit, the protection of our heavenly Mother, but also self-knowledge, the accompaniment of a spiritual father, the ability to listen and to convert, an acute consciousness of the immensity of the gift we have received: the divine sonship. All that is what allows us to go on.
The greatest risk, after a certain time, is that of the blunting of desire, of ceasing to rise. One settles in. One becomes an old bachelor in cell. Love is a life that needs maintaining. As in marriage, there are difficult days and marvellous days. But he who has understood, even in part, what it means to be a son of God, doesn’t fear the hardships of the way.
LC: How does a Carthusian live his desires?
DL: We renounce all desires for one only: the desire for God. The risk, which would entail catastrophe, would be to seek primarily the renunciation.
Seeking only to destroy one’s desires doen’t entail the love of God. A Carthusian who wanted to become a champion of ascesis would have it all wrong. Among us, sprinting is pointless. We’re in a marathon. Our Statues say: But let no one rely on his own judgement: for he who neglects to open his heart to a sure guide risks, through a lack of discretion, advancing less than he should, either exhausting himself through too much running, or of falling asleep through too much dawdling.”
We know that we need years to learn to manage our sensibility. In solitude one can create a drama out of nothing. A classic saying among Carthusians says, “The novices are saints. The young monks are not saints but they don’t know it. The mature monks are not saints and they know it. And there are some old monks who are saints, but they don’t know it.”
LC: There are nuns, too . . .
DL: Currently there are 62, including seven novices, spread over five convents, two in France, and also in Italy, in Korea, and in Spain.
Their life is the same as ours. It’s important to them. Until the last Council, their structure was different. Their Carthusian “vicar” is the chaplain of their house, but not their superior. The two congregations are spearate, each with its own government. But I am the General Prior of both congregations.
Around 1140, after the first General Chapter of the Carthusians, the nuns of Prébayon in Provence, seeking a more solitary rule of life, asked to join the Carthusian order. This happened in 1145. There were as many as 13 convents, which is a small number compared to the 160 monasteries that existed at the beginning of the 18th century. After the Revolution, they recommenced their life in 1816, until our own time.
LC: How has your particular spirituality managed to continue for nine centuries?
DL: Because it doesn’t exist. We don’t have a specific spirituality, because there can be as many different spiritualities as there are Carthusians. And yet there is a profound unity between us. But the goal is the same. What is particular to the Charterhouse is not solitude as such but the particular quality of the relation to God that solitude allows.
LC: What gives you the feeling of living, of loving?
DL: I have received more love than I could have dreamed. It’s true that it’s only after twenty years of the religious life that I’m able to say that. But the reward – why be afraid of the word? – was worth while, so huge is it.
As far as the feeling of living is concerned, for us no two days are alike. Even if seen from the outside our life is extremely regular and ostensibly unchanging, on the inside the landscape constantly changes.
LC: How does a Carthusian die?
DL: Generally, the way he has lived: very simply. It’s like the end of a day: one goes to bed at night after a tiring day in the certainty that one will wake up [next morning]. On the other side of death, one will wake up to eternal life. Dying doesn’t seem troubling or difficult to me, on the contrary. Our whole life is oriented to the great encounter.
LC: What is your hope for the world? What would St Bruno say to it today?
DL: The hope of the world lies in ten words: He knows all, He can do all, He loves me. Those words of Marie-Antoinette de Geuser [a young French mystic who died in 1918] we can say of the world itself. If we truly believe that the Wisdom and the Power of God serve his Love for men, that will not let us understand what happens in the world, but it leaves us with the certainty that all will end well. Christ is already the victor.