The climate was harsh, with frequent snowfalls, and the soil poor. The woodlands, with no existing roadways, were difficult to explore. To establish a monastery there seemed madness. But the ideal that moved St. Bruno was not based on human criteria…
The deep contemplative spirit of the Carthusian Order, where time is measured by eternity, came to the fore in a way that was unique – but, in itself, prestigious for the Order – when the three-hour documentary, Into Great Silence, was released worldwide in 2005. Its producer had requested to make the film in 1984. With more zeal for the charism than for publicity, the Carthusians replied that they needed time to think it over. Permission was granted sixteen years later, under three conditions: that only one cameraman do the filming, that silence be maintained, and artificial lights not be used.
This refreshing fact reflects the supernatural strength which has sustained the institution from its beginnings, confirming the comment of Pope Innocent XI when the Carthusian Order, six hundred years after its foundation, comprised over two hundred monasteries: “Nunquam reformata, quia numquam deformata.”1 Or what Pope Pius XI stated more recently: “It is clear that the Carthusian spirit, faithful to its founder and father for almost nine centuries, has not required, over such a long period, any amendment or reform, in contrast with other Orders.”2
The story that unfolds in the following pages reveals the primary cause of such continuity: the life of St. Bruno.
Born in “German Rome”
His date of birth is unknown, as is most of his life. It is known with certainty only that he came into the world between the years 1027 and 1035. An oral tradition indicates that he was a native of the city of Cologne, the ancient Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensis of the Romans, and came from a patrician family, perhaps of the Hartenfaust, from the gens Æmilia. His father was also called Bruno.
Years before his birth, that region had been blessed with the presence of a saintly duke and archbishop, who died in 965: St. Bruno the Great, brother of Emperor Otto I. A genius for organization, he had made Cologne the premier city of the Holy Empire and had fostered monastic life by building hermitages and monasteries. In Bruno’s childhood, the city – then known as Holy Cologne or German Rome – boasted nine collegiate schools, four abbeys and nineteen parishes, an astonishing number for the time, and even for many modern metropolises.
All higher education was provided by the schools of the monasteries, cathedrals and other churches, which, shortly after the Saint’s death, would adopt the name universitas or university. It is not known where Bruno studied, but it is indisputable that he profited very well from the teachings received, for while still an adolescent he brilliantly continued his intellectual career in the city of Reims.
Uprightness amid success
At about the age of fifteen, Bruno moved to this city to study theology and philosophy under the tutelage of Canon Herimann. Because of his excellent progress, he received the canonicate at St. Cunibert, in his native Cologne, and from 1057, when he was between twenty-six and twenty-eight years old, he assumed the office of magister scholarum or scholasticus of the Cathedral of Reims, succeeding Canon Herimann. This office made him director of all the schools under the jurisdiction of that French diocese, a responsibility which he exercised for about twenty years with such efficacy and virtue that Pope St. Gregory VII bestowed upon him the honourable title of Remensis Ecclesiae magistrum – master of the Church of Reims.
Among his pupils were great luminaries of the time, such as Odo of Chatillon, canon of Reims and later prior of the Abbey of Cluny, who was subsequently elected to the pontifical throne under the name of Urban II.
Around 1076, St. Bruno was appointed chancellor of the cathedral by Bishop Manasses de Gournay. He soon found himself in a delicate situation, which proved an occasion for him to demonstrate rectitude, diplomacy and wisdom: the Archbishop practiced simony and squandered the goods of the diocese, for which he was subjected to a lengthy canonical process. Once his godless conduct was exposed, St. Bruno opposed him and was one of his accusers at the Council of Autun in 1077, at which the prelate was suspended from office. Finally, St. Gregory VII deposed him on December 27, 1080.
St. Bruno renounced the title of chancellor, as it had been bestowed on him by the simoniac dignitary, and refused the Archbishopric of Reims, for which he had been recommended as the most suitable candidate after the expulsion of Manasses.
The decision to abandon the world
As a secular canon of the cathedral and a member of the Chapter of Reims,3 St. Bruno carried out his teaching duties with a certain freedom: although he was obliged to take part in the Office recited in the cathedral, he lived in his own house, had canonically stipulated incomes and had servants at his disposal. Nevertheless, it was at this time that the desire to dedicate himself entirely to recollection and penance germinated in his soul.
In his search for an ideal form of contemplative life, he visited various monasteries and religious orders, as the call of God was not yet clear. He probably visited the abbeys of Saint-Thierry and Saint-Remi, which he admired. It is certain that he held in high esteem the “black monks”, the Benedictines, upon whose rule he was later inspired to organize the Carthusian Order.
However, it was a supernatural event that occurred outside the cloisters that led St. Bruno to decide to abandon the world for good. This is how the biographer of the first five Carthusian priors recounts it:
“About the year 1082 of the Incarnation of the Lord, […] a certain doctor [Raymond Diocrès] of apparently blameless life, reputation, doctrine and science, fell seriously ill and shortly afterwards died. Following Parisian custom, the coffin with the body of the deceased was exposed in the school at an early hour for the singing of the Divine Office, which brought together students and doctors alike, for the purpose of giving such an illustrious man due funerary honours and a dignified burial.
“When the reverend gentlemen approached to take the coffin and carry it to the church, suddenly, to the astonishment of all, the dead man raised his head, sat up, and with a loud and terrible voice exclaimed, ‘By the just judgement of God, I have been accused.’ Having said this, he lay down and remained motionless as before.
“As the occurrence became the subject of heated debate, it was impossible to bury him that day, and it was left until the next morning. By the second day, the news had spread, and a great crowd was now gathered to accompany the coffin to the church, but the deceased, as on the day before, raised his head and with a tragic and terrible voice exclaimed: ‘By the just judgement of God, I have been judged.’
“The crowd present heard the sentence loud and clear, being more astonished than the day before. Desirous to know the meaning of such an unusual and unexpected pronouncement, they made the decision to postpone the burial. On the third day, a large part of the city gathered at the site, and when everything was ready to take him to the tomb, again the dead man, as on the two previous days, exclaimed with a woeful cry: ‘By the just judgement of God, I have been condemned.’
“Hearing this, almost all were seized with great fear and trembling, convinced of the condemnation of that man, who in appearance had led an honest, illustrious, and worthy life, and shone for his knowledge and wisdom.
“Now, in the midst of that tumult was Master Bruno, of the Teutonic nation, from the city of Cologne, born of illustrious parents, canon of the Church of Reims, where he taught Theology, who, salutarily moved by the condemned man’s words, remarked to his companions present there: ‘What to do, my friends? We shall all die, and only those who flee from this world are saved. If this happens amidst splendours, what will happen amidst hardships? If a man so worthy, so learned, who led a seemingly honest life and was famous for his knowledge, has been condemned, what will become of us, the most miserable of men? […] After the terrible things we have heard today, let us not harden our hearts, but let us leave Babylon, flee from the Pentapolis4 already condemned to fire and brimstone and, following the example of the blessed hermit Paul, of the blessed Anthony, Arsenius, Evagrius and other Saints, like St. John the Baptist, let us flee to the desert caves, let us save ourselves in the mountains, to avoid the wrath of the Eternal Judge and His sentence of eternal damnation. Let us escape the flood by entering Noah’s ark, Peter’s barque, where Christ stills the wind and the storms, that is, the boat of penance, so that we may reach the port of eternal salvation.’”5
The dawn of the Great Charterhouse
With these and other words, St. Bruno exhorted his companions, so that six worthy men decided to follow him, seeking solitude to do penance, forsaking all earthly riches, delights and honours.
Initially, they went to the Benedictine monastery of Molesme, in the former Diocese of Langres. The abbot was then St. Robert, who in 1098 would found the Cistercian Order. But St. Bruno aspired to a more austere life of greater isolation. So he left with his six companions for the desert of Sèche-Fontaine, a few kilometres from Molesme.
After a period that biographers estimate at between one and three years, St. Bruno went on to Grenoble, whose bishop was a former student of his, St. Hugh of Châteauneuf. The latter granted him the mountainous region of Chartreuse in the desert of St. Pierre, where St. Bruno erected a building in the year 1084.
From a human perspective, the choice of location seemed absurd: an area at an altitude of between 780 and 1150 metres, accessible only by steep paths. The climate was severe, with frequent snowfalls, and the soil poor. The absence of roadways made it difficult to explore the forests; the place was impenetrable for most of the year, compromising the arrival of help in case of fire or illness. However, St. Bruno relied on divine rather than human criteria and none of these difficulties discouraged him. Indeed, even today, the robustness, good health and longevity of the Carthusians is remarkable.
Aiming at a purely hermitical, strictly isolated life, with only a few religious acts in common, he organized the work with the rigours of winter in mind: cells were individual and separate, but connected by a covered cloister that allowed access to the church, the chapterhouse and the refectory. This early Carthusian structure was to be the model for all the others founded throughout the world over time.
On September 2, 1085, Bishop St. Hugh consecrated the church, dedicated to the Blessed Virgin and St. John the Baptist.
A few decades later, after an avalanche, the monks were forced to rebuild the Charterhouse two kilometres further south in a safer location, where it stands today.
Establishment of the second Charterhouse
After a wait of over half a century for the realization of this dream, St. Bruno would enjoy its solitude for only six years. Pope Urban II, remembering the virtues of his former teacher, summoned him to Rome in the name of holy obedience. The founder of the Carthusians arrived there in 1090. When he learned that the Pope had appointed him to the episcopal see of Reggio Calabria, he availed himself of the right to refuse such an election, since he was certain that this was not his vocation.
After spending a year at the papal court, he obtained permission from the Pontiff to return to the contemplative life, but not to France: Urban II imposed the condition that he remain within the boundaries of present-day Italy.
Thus it was that in 1091 St. Bruno founded a monastery in Calabria, in Santa Maria della Torre, Diocese of Squillace, where he would remain until his death. The work, like future foundations, received the name of Charterhouse, in memory of the mother house, and soon obtained the proper approvals and authorizations from Pope Urban II.
Precious spiritual legacy
St. Bruno died on October 6, 1101. Of the almost seventy-one years of his life, he spent only sixteen in his much-appreciated solitude: six in the French Charterhouse and ten in the Italian one.
Among his few known writings, there is a letter written in 1099 or 1100 in which he describes the joys of the contemplative vocation: “Only those who have experienced them know how much profit and divine joy the solitude and silence of the desert bring to those who love them. Here dedicated men can recollect themselves as much as they wish, live in solitude, eagerly cultivate the seeds of virtue and be happily nourished by the fruits of Paradise. Here one acquires that serene gaze which wounds the Spouse with love, and by means of which, clean and pure, one sees God. Here one practices a laborious leisure, and rests in a tranquil activity. Here, God rewards His athletes for the effort of combat with the longed-for prize, namely, ‘the peace the world does not know, and the joy of the Holy Spirit.’”6
Although the spiritual legacy of the Carthusian Order is by far its most precious patrimony, it also translates into countless concrete aspects, among which is the famous Chartreuse liqueur, composed of one hundred and thirty herbs. The method of its long preparation process, with four distillations and five infusions, is known only to two Carthusians. It is remarkable that one of the most austere Orders of the Church, whose customs prescribe strict fasts and do not even allow this liqueur on their tables, should have offered the world such a marvel.
It is fitting that the shield of the Order bears the seven stars representing St. Bruno and his first six disciples, forming a semi-arc over an orb crowned by the cross, and the motto Stat crux dum volvitur orbis – The Cross stands firm while the world turns. ◊
1 WIEL, Constant Van de. History of Canon Law. Louvain: Peeters Press, 1991, p.84. From the Latin: “Never reformed, because never deformed.”
2 PIUS XI. Apostolic Constitution Umbratilem.
3 There were also regular canons, who lived in community. It is not known when St. Bruno was ordained a priest. At that time it was customary to use the title of cleric for any member of the hierarchy, even those who were not priests.
4 Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboiim, and Zoar: five cities from the Old Testament chastised for their sins.
5 VITA ANTIQUIOR SANCTI BRUNONIS, n.1-7: PL 152; 482-484.
6 ST. BRUNO. Carta a su amigo Raúl. In: SÁEZ DE SANTAMARÍA, Gerardo Posada. Maestro Bruno, Padre de monjes. 2.ed. Madrid: BAC, 1995, p.163.