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Carthusian Monks

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The Carthusians are a Roman Catholic Order of monks and nuns. The Order was founded in the 11th Century by St Bruno in the wild and rocky Chartreuse valley (near Grenoble in the French Alps) from which it takes its name. A Carthusian monastery is known as a Charterhouse.

Elsewhere in this Guide, and in a totally different context, we read:

To Carl Gustav Jung, life was so ephemeral, so insufficient, that he likened it to a plant that lived on its rhizome1 - its true life being invisible, hidden in the rhizome. What we see is the blossom, which passes. He thus considered the outer events of his life as hollow and insubstantial, understanding himself only in the light of inner happenings... a feeling of standing on solid ground inside oneself, on a patch of eternity, which even physical death cannot touch.

Such a view of life bears a remarkable resemblance to that of the Carthusians.

There are Charterhouses in France, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Germany, Slovenia, the USA, Brazil and Argentina. But it may come as a surprise to learn that the largest Charterhouse of all is in England. It is known as St Hugh's Charterhouse, Parkminster.

St Hugh's Charterhouse

St Hugh's is set deep in the green and pleasant countryside of the county of West Sussex in southeast England. In winter its 182-foot spire is usually mistaken by passing motorists for the spire of one of the many country churches that can be found in this neck of the woods; in summer the spire is scarcely visible behind all the trees in this leafy area. Yet the buildings, cloisters and courts that comprise this monastery cover all of ten acres. The cloisters, nearly a mile in length, are the longest monastic cloisters in the world. The monastery is built entirely of stone (mostly quarried locally, though all the paving for the mile of cloisters was brought in from Belgium).

During the Dissolution of the Monasteries (in the reign of King Henry VIII during the 16th century), many of the monks of the London Charterhouse were martyred on the gallows or starved to death in Newgate Prison. The aim of the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1535 - 1539) was to seize and sell all the religious establishments. The Church had a net income of about three times that of the government itself. The religious houses also owned about one-third of the total land area of England. All the clergy were thrown out and the lands and buildings sold off. Catholics who refused to recognise King Henry rather than the Pope as supreme head of the Church were tortured to death. St Hugh's is the only Charterhouse in England to have replaced those destroyed at that time. It was built in the late 19th Century at a time when, owing to religious persecution in continental Europe, it was felt prudent to provide a safe haven in case the Carthusians were forced to flee.

The life of a Carthusian monk is physically and materially very austere, and such austerity is reflected in the buildings of the monastery, whether it be the large church, the library stocked with many ancient tomes, the refectory, the cloisters or the monks' cells. All is cold and hard, stone and wood and iron - and no heating except within the cells themselves - but beautiful and inspirational in its austerity, as a cold, barren, rocky mountainside can be magnificent and uplifting to the spirit.

One particularly special place within the monastery enclosure is the monks' cemetery. It is lovingly maintained in a very simple style and is a cherished spot for prayer and contemplation.


At St Hugh's there are extensive kitchen gardens for the vegetables (the Carthusians are vegetarians). They also bake their own bread and make their own mature cheese. They keep bees and so produce honey. They also have apple orchards, from which they make their own rather potent cider. This produce is entirely for their own consumption: none of it is sold.

St Hugh of Lincoln

Hugh of Lincoln was born the son of William, Lord of Avalon, at Avalon Castle in Burgundy. While visiting the Grande Chartreuse (the mother house of the Carthusian Order) he decided to become a Carthusian. In 1175 he became Abbot of the first Carthusian monastery in England, which had been built by King Henry II as part of his penance for the murder of Thomas Becket. Hugh had a great reputation all over England as a holy man, and attracted many to the monastery.

In 1186 he became Bishop of Lincoln, somewhat unwillingly but under obedience. He was notable for denouncing the persecution of the Jews in England during the period 1190 - 91, repeatedly confronting the armed rabbles and making them release their victims. He died at the Old Temple in London on 16 November, 1189, and was canonised in 1220, the first Carthusian to become a Saint.


The Carthusians embrace silence as an important part of their way of life. Most people, when asked to name an order of silent monks, would think of the Trappists. The Trappists, however, are not Carthusians but a particular branch of the Cistercians: the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance2, called Trappists after the place of their original monastery, La Trappe, in France. Both the Carthusians and the Trappists lay great importance on silence yet, contrary to popular belief, neither Order requires a vow of silence. Silence is an integral part of their lifestyle, so no such vow is necessary. A Carthusian monk spends a great deal of his time alone in his hermitage, where there is of course no occasion to speak. Much of the rest of his time will be spent in church, where personal conversation is also not called for. And apart from two important recreational periods every week, specially set aside for the monks to talk to each other, he will avoid all but the most necessary speech.

Whether silence is a boon or a penance will no doubt depend on the individual, and of course at different times it could be either or both. But it was obviously considered a rare and precious commodity even in the 11th Century (when both Carthusian and Cistercian Orders were founded) and now 1000 years later its special value for some people has hardly diminished. Silence lies at the centre of Carthusian spirituality.

The Cell

The cell of a Carthusian monk is simple, as you would expect, but substantial. It is really a self-contained cottage on two floors, entered from the cloister and with a garden with walls ten feet high. The layout of the cells is designed in such a way as to isolate each cell from all the others. There is a hatch between the cloister and the cell, arranged in such a way that food and written notes can be passed through without human contact.

There is a simple bed and a small washbasin. Near to the bed is the Oratory, the area set aside for prayer and furnished with a simple hard kneeler or prie-dieu. There will be a few shelves for books, and a study table with a hard chair, but also space to walk around while reading, praying or meditating when it is too dark or cold to do so in the garden (fortunately, St Hugh's' cells now have electric lighting installed). There is also a dining table. There is a stove to provide some heating and hot water and a store of wood for the stove, with an axe for chopping the wood. Then there is a work area, probably with some simple woodworking tools including a manually-operated lathe. Bookbinding is also a common labour undertaken by the monks, as is tending the garden, and there will be simple tools for these or other suitable labour-intensive pursuits. At the bottom of the garden is a latrine.

The Habit

The habit which is worn is plain thick white serge, made in the monastery, with a pointed hood. Boots and shoes are also made in the monastery. The monks' heads are shaven, and they are not permitted a beard or moustache. This makes it much easier to wash and dry within the restricted facilities available in the cell. A hair-shirt is worn continuously, even in bed, and removed only for washing. This is a very simple garment worn next to the skin. It consists of two pieces of rough material made from horse-hair, one to cover the chest and the other the back, joined by simple shoulder-straps to keep the whole thing in place. This is always uncomfortable, and its purpose is to act as a constant reminder that physical pleasure must be subordinated to the love of God.

The scourge or discipline, a form of whip or lash used for self-mortification, may also be used, in moderation, especially during the penitential seasons, at the monk's own discretion.

Meals and Association

Most meals are eaten alone in the cell. There is one main meal per day, typically some soup followed by a vegetarian main course and perhaps biscuits and some kind of pudding. Later in the day there is a light supper, which during the penitential winter period would consist of bread only. There is no breakfast. On Fridays and other fast days food is restricted to bread and water. A drink of water is permitted at any time, and salt if needed. On Sundays and major feast days the monks take lunch together in the refectory, but do not talk during the meal as one of the monks will be reading to them from a spiritual text.

The monks get together to talk twice a week. This is for a period after Sunday lunch, and during the Monday afternoon walk. The walk is considered very important and always takes place except in the most severe weather, when it may be postponed for a day or two until the weather improves. The walk lasts a whole afternoon, when the monks may be seen walking in pairs through the surrounding countryside. Every 20 minutes or so they swap and pair up with someone else. Once a year they are driven out to some isolated area for a walk lasting all day and including a picnic.

They are permitted to write four letters per year and may receive letters at the discretion of the Father Prior. Their family can visit once per year for up to three days and relatives can stay at a guest house in the grounds of the monastery.

Apart from such family visits the Carthusians, unlike other monastic Orders, do not normally offer hospitality, and anyone wishing to make a visit must have a valid reason for doing so and needs to apply well in advance for special permission. Men only, of course.

The Liturgy

A great deal of a monk's life is taken up in prayer. The form of liturgy used by the Carthusians, particularly the liturgy of the Mass, is very ancient and used only by Carthusians. At St Hugh's there is a vestibule behind the church, where members of the public may gather to hear the liturgy, through a small grille, at Sunday Mass. A Father emerges at the appropriate time to distribute Communion.

In addition to the Conventual Mass celebrated by all the Fathers in church every day, they will each say a private Mass. The other major part of the liturgy is the Hours, or the Divine Office. This consists of sets of prayers and psalms for the different hours of the day, said at approximately three-hourly intervals. Some of these Offices are prayed privately in the cell, others are Conventual, where the monks join together in church for the service.

A Day in the Life of a Carthusian Father

06.30 - Get up
07.00 - Prayers and meditation in cell
08.15 - Conventual Mass in Church
09.00 - Private Mass and spiritual reading in cell
10.30 - Manual work in cell
11.15 - Prayers in cell
11.30 - Lunch (the main meal), followed by light work in cell
13.15 - Prayers in cell
13.30 - Study in cell
15.00 - Manual work in cell
15.30 - Vespers in Church
16.00 - Meditation in cell
17.30 - Supper in cell
18.15 - Examination of Conscience in cell
18.45 - Prayers in cell, then chores
19.45 - Bed
00.00 - Matins and Lauds in Church
03.00 - (approx) Bed
06.30 - A new day begins

So apart from the great night-time Offices of Matins and Lauds (which can account for anything from two to four hours, depending on the day of the calendar) nearly all a Father's time is spent alone in his hermitage, praying, meditating, studying, working or sleeping.

Fathers and Brothers

So far the term 'monk' has been referring to the Fathers, the ordained Priests. But as with other monastic Orders, it is also possible to be a Carthusian monk as a Brother.

The Brothers also live in cells along their cloister, but spend six hours or so per day in manual work around the monastery. Therefore they spend less time in liturgy and prayer. When you join you have to choose whether to be a Brother or a Father - it is not usually possible to change later from one to the other. The Brothers tend to be the less academically-inclined monks who would rather be working on the land or in the workshops or kitchens than spending most of their time in study or prayer.

Admission, 'Profession' and 'Donation'

Candidates are not normally admitted until the age of 20 or after the age of 40 or so. Once admitted, the candidate becomes a Postulant for a period of between six and 12 months, to decide whether he should proceed to become a Novice. As a Novice he becomes fully a member of the community, and remains in the Novitiate for two years. He then takes Vows of obedience and conversion of his ways, which implicitly includes chastity and poverty, for three years. He thus becomes a Professed monk.

A Brother may instead opt for Donation. This means that instead of vows he makes a promise to the House and the Order, of obedience, chastity and living without personal possessions within the monastery, although keeping the ownership of any outside possessions. He is then a Donate.

This simple Profession or Donation is then renewed for a period of two more years. During this period, if he is a cloister monk he is then no longer a Novice, and now lives as do the solemn Professed; this is a way of slowly forming him to the maturity expected of a hermit. At the end of this period, if all concerned are satisfied that he is able to live the Carthusian life and is genuinely called to it, he makes his final and solemn Profession or Perpetual Donation. This includes disposing of all his worldly possessions, inside or outside the monastery.

If he is a Brother (who is now a Donate) he has the option of renewing his temporary Donation every three years without making a permanent commitment to the Order.

The Carthusian lifestyle does seem to be conducive to health and longevity, and many monks go on to live to a ripe old age.

The Chartreuse Liqueurs

According to the label on each bottle of Chartreuse liqueur:

The only liqueur to have a colour named after it, Chartreuse is also famous for a flavour and fragrance totally unexpected, remarkably beguiling, unique in all the world. Chartreuse is most popular mixed with tonic or soda in a tall glass with ice, accented by a slice of lemon or lime, but can also be enjoyed on the rocks.

In 1605, the monks of the Grande Chartreuse at Grenoble, France, received from the Maréchal d'Estrées the secret formula for an elixir or health tonic believed to have strong curative powers. It was white and something like 200 proof alcohol.

This is no longer produced, but a group of French army officers to whom the monks had given sanctuary brought it out of the monastic enclosure in 1848. Today Chartreuse comes in green or yellow, both made from a combination of 130 plants and herbs found in the French Alps. Brandy and neutral spirits provide a base for the liqueur. Green Chartreuse is 110 proof and packs quite a punch, while Yellow is 80 proof, sweeter and less alcoholic.

In 1810 the formula for Chartreuse was impounded by the French authorities and sent to the Ministry for Secret Remedies (no, really!). The Ministry failed to appreciate its possibilities and so returned it to the Carthusians. A few years later, in 1815, the Carthusians were expelled from France during the French Revolution. This was not the end of their problems, however, and after returning to France they were expelled again, in 1903, under a law forbidding all religious Orders.

This was the anti-clericalist Waldeck-Rousseau Act under the Third Republic. The religious life was held to be illegal. Religious vows were seen as a crime against liberty and equality. The state considered the monks as criminals and at best these monastic men were 'useless' to society. Monasteries have always been the first targets of revolution: a freshly-guillotined monk's head was once a highly-prized trophy. The Carthusian monks had been the first martyrs of England's Anglican Reformation, too, and now at the turn of the 20th Century France enacted a law requiring them to renounce their vows in order to become 'useful citizens'.

Some of the monks went to St Hugh's in England and others to Tarragona, Spain, where they started a second distillery. All the property of the Carthusian Order in France was sold. This included the trademarks for the Chartreuse liqueurs, but not the actual formula, which the monks managed to smuggle away into Spain. The distillers who bought the Chartreuse trademarks tried to make their own version of the liqueur, but it was a poor imitation.

In 1932, the Carthusians were allowed back into France and their monastery and trademarks were restored to them, but they also kept up the distillery in Spain. Today, Chartreuse bears both the trademark and the inscription. Both distilleries are still in operation, but Chartreuse is produced in only six weeks out of each year by three monks who have taken a vow of secrecy. They each know two-thirds of the recipe. To ensure secrecy no-one knows the whole formula.

1 A continuously growing underground stem.2There are a number of differences between the Carthusians and the Cistercians. For example, unlike the Cistercians, the Carthusians live as hermits, and do not generally have outside guests or visitors staying in their monastery. The Cistercians, being a Benedictine Order, take a vow of 'stability' while the Carthusians do not. Matters such as silence and celibacy come under the vow of 'conversion'.

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