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Thomas Merton: THE SILENT LIFE (1957)
III - THE HERMIT LIFE
1. The Carthusians
Strictly speaking the Carthusians are not and have never been considered a branch of the Benedictine family. St Bruno, the founder of the Grande Chartreuse, spent some time in a priory dependent on the Benedictine Abbey of Molesme, when he was deciding his vocation. But the group which he led into the rugged wilderness of the Alps north of Grenoble were to be hermits in the strict sense of the word, hermits who would bring back to life something of the forgotten purity of the contemplative life as it was once led in the deserts of Egypt.
However, there are several traits in the Carthusian character which bring it, in fact, quite close to the spirit of St Benedict. First of all, the Carthusians, while insisting perhaps more than anyone else in the Western Church upon silence and solitude, have always lived as hermits-community. The spokesmen of the Order point out that the Carthusian life combines the advantages of eremitical solitude and of the common life. Lanspergius, for instance, says:
Among the Carthusians you have the two lives, eremitical and cenobitic, so well tempered by the Holy Spirit that whatever might, in either one, have been a danger to you, no longer exists, and we have preserved and increased those elements which foster perfection. Solitude, as it is found in a Charterhouse, is without danger for the monks are not allowed to live according to their whims; they are under the law of obedience and under the direction of their superiors. Although they are alone, they can nevertheless receive assistance and encouragement whenever these become necessary. And yet they are anchorites, so that if they faithfully observe their silence they are in their cells just as if they were in the depths of an uninhabited desert. . . . The solitude of the Carthusians is far more secure than that of the first anchorites, and just as complete.(Enchiridion, 49. 128)Like St Benedict in his Rule, the Carthusians divide their time between manual labor, the chanting of the Divine office, and spiritual reading or study. Finally, their spirit is altogether one with that of St Benedict in its simplicity, its humility and its combination of austerity and discretion.
To say this is simply to say that among the Carthusians we find the same authentic monastic tradition that we find in St Benedict and although there are significant differences of modality between the two orders, no book about Western monasticism would be complete without some mention of the Carthusians...
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(From: Thomas Merton, The Silent Life, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York, p. 127-144. © 1957 by The Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani. Reprinted by kind permission.)