Out of Great Silence
William J. Pease February 25, 2008 - 10:52am
Does it qualify as a Jungian convergence that two books about the Carthusians (An Infinity of Little Hours by Nancy Klein Maguire, and Sounds of Silence by Benedict Kossmann) and a highly praised film about a Carthusian monastery (Into Great Silence by Philip Gröning) have appeared in the past couple of years? No greater contrast could be offered to our overdecibeled, multitasking world than a monk’s life of prayer and silence. Is this recent popular interest simply a passing curiosity or does it reflect hope for contact with an environment that could refresh our fragmented spirits?
Before I dwell on these recent works, let me admit that my interest in the Carthusians is longstanding and personal. I was the first American sent from a newly founded Carthusian foundation in Vermont in 1951 to the motherhouse in France, La Grande Chartreuse, which is the subject of Gröning’s film. A young convert, I had gone from Pomona College to Fordham University to continue my studies in psychology and to acquire a master’s degree. It was a pivotal time for me, getting to explore New York and my own ambitions as well. It became apparent to me that I aspired to more than the usual professional career. And when my would-be fiancée at Pomona surprised me with the announcement that she had decided to enter the Sisters of the Holy Names, my own thoughts about vocation took on added seriousness. I was unimpressed with most of the clergy I had met, so I decided to spend some time with the Catholic Worker movement in New York. It didn’t take me long to realize that I didn’t have the street smarts or outgoing personality to find my place there. Thomas Merton’s Trappists beckoned, but their constant communal life did not attract me. Perhaps it was from Merton’s writings that I first learned of the Carthusians, for he had been drawn by their life of solitude. When I read that the Carthusians had launched a foundation in Vermont, not far away, it seemed that my path pointed in that direction.
Sky Farm was the name of the Carthusian property in Whitingham, Vermont. The sky was indeed remarkable, as were the surrounding fields and hills. The founding monk and superior was Dom Humphrey from the charterhouse of Parkminster in England. A more awesome presence was Dom Pablo Maria, who had acquired that name at the cartuja of Miraflores, Spain, but who was better known from his long Benedictine career as Thomas Verner Moore, MD, head of the Department of Psychiatry and Psychology at the Catholic University of America. The new monastery was at that early stage just a modest farm with a dormitory rather than properly eremitic structures. When I arrived, it was haying time and there were sheep to be sheared.
Two other postulants and I were not to be long at Sky Farm. We were soon sent to South Shaftsbury, Vermont, where we roomed with a family. Each day we hiked to the rural home of Ruth Douglas, a single woman in her forties who tutored us in French and put us to minor tasks about her property. She had been reared in Belgium, where her father worked in the foreign service. In France, she had worked with Emmanuel Mounier on Esprit, but parted company with him because of what she regarded as his Communist sympathies. She was strong-minded, eccentric, radically and yet critically Catholic. We were once visited by Carol Jackson, a kindred spirit and co-editor with Ed Willock of Integrity. My friendship with Ms. Douglas would continue over the years, as our lives followed very different courses.
At summer’s end, plans for our preparation underwent a drastic change. Rather than sending us to Quebec for further schooling in French and Latin, those in charge erroneously concluded we were already sufficiently versed in those languages. Our tutoring in French had been scant, and I had little Latin. I was not yet cognizant of these deficiencies, only delighted that I was about to be sent to the novitiate in Europe. My two confreres were older, had both spent time with the Trappists, and had a better sense of what was in store. One was assigned to Valsainte, in Switzerland. I was sent with David Sing, an Australian of Chinese descent, to the Grande Chartreuse itself in France. To arrange passage, I was sent to Manhattan, to the prestigious headquarters of the Grace brothers, patrons of our foundation. The clerk seemed to look askance at my rather shabby clothes but eventually returned with the tickets.
From New York we sailed on a Holland American liner, the Ryndam. We had two days in Paris and from there boarded a train for Grenoble. An emissary from the Chartreuse met us there and drove us into the darkening Alps to spend the night in an outer lodge. It was Advent, and the deciduous trees were nearly bare. I would leave a few months later during Lent, when the trees had not yet regained their leaves.
Although merely a postulant, I was given a typical cell, which in a charterhouse is a large, high-ceilinged apartment, barren except for the essential furnishings: desk, chair, book shelves, prie-dieu. On the wall there was a small sheet of burnished metal instead of a glass mirror. Since I still had a fairly light beard at the time, this sufficed. My sleeping alcove had a hard straw mattress, and the privy was literally a water-closet, gravity-flushed by a bucket. I wore mostly the clothes I came with, except for a black cape with which to cover my head when I passed through the hall and a pair of wooden shoes. The vegetarian meals, delivered to my cell, were to my taste, though meager at that season. We drank from the same spring as St. Bruno and his companions in 1084. The cell had a cellar, almost empty except for a manual lathe, which apparently was used by some residents as a constructive hobby. To me it was as unfamiliar as a jet engine. A small enclosed yard served as a private garden, but the ground was frozen at that time of year.
Settling into the Carthusian horarium, or schedule, required an effort but not an extreme one. Rising in the middle of the night certainly took some getting used to, as did the walk along the darkened cloister to gather for chant in the church. And how beautiful that was. We read from ancient folios, our voices echoing in the dimly lit church. No doubt every new voice was a welcome variation, and mine was sonorous enough, though untrained. On Sundays we ate together, silently listening as the appointed lectors read Latin texts. We were allowed to talk for a few hours on Sunday afternoons as we hiked over the snow-covered countryside. It soon became apparent, however, that my spoken French was inadequate. In these recreations that was not so important. But it became quite important when the kindly novice master, Dom Maurice, and I were unable to communicate sufficiently, I with my tentative French, he with his equally confused English. One of the novices was sent in to try to translate, but his English was not much better than the novice master’s.
And the increasing cold! For heat in the spacious cell there was a small wood stove. No woodsman, I got the fire going only with difficulty and then it would quickly die out. I hardly complained about this: Wasn’t suffering supposed to be part of this ascetic life? Here is where some consultation would have helped. At first, the physical discomfort was only a background distraction to my life of prayer. That Christmas was the happiest in my life: no folderol, no anxiety about gifts and décor, only a deep awareness of the arrival of the Redeemer into the cold world. We chanted special prayers in the church and I returned to the happy solitude of my cell.
From that apogee began the decline. My open time began to seem too open. I had very little to read except the Book of Job in Latin, which I strugged through in an effort to improve my command of the language. I found myself singing not hymns but various Tin Pan Alley songs I had learned from the radio during my childhood. Depression and a sense of failure lengthened their shadows in my cell. One of the most moving events in my time at the Grande Chartreuse—because it was such a change and such a confirmation of why we were there—delayed my depression. One of the old lay brothers died that winter. I had been assigned to keep lone vigil in his cell through much of the night. The morning after his death, we all assembled to chant in the cloister cemetery as his thinly wrapped ashen body was lowered into an anonymous open trench. A good life was over, a better one begun. That cemetery is one of the few sites at the Grande Chartreuse that Gröning’s film does not show.
I was surprised when I learned that a movie camera had been permitted inside. When I saw Into Great Silence in San Diego last year, I was amazed by the number of people who showed up on a Monday afternoon—about thirty—and how quiet they were through the almost three-hour film. It proved to be a deep visual experience, nearly—but not quite—a “silent” film. The only music is occasional chant, and the nearest thing to an interview is the testimony of an elderly blind monk. The one recorded conversation is among monks sitting outside during recreation. One of the most pictorial scenes shows a young monk sitting pensively at the threshold of his garden. Light pours in against him and against the backdrop of a door painted an improbable Chinese red; it suggests a Vermeer portrait. Another scene captures a moment of joy and release, as hiking monks slide down a snowy hill. In yet another we see an old brother feeding cats at a work site. He murmurs at the cats as they mew.
I looked for differences from the life I remembered, but spotted only a few. In front of a monk is his small repast, including not wine but a commercial bottle of water; in the basket of fruit, one pear bears a commercial sticker. In refectory reading and in collective prayers outside of church, French rather than Latin is heard, something that may change again in response to the current pope’s effort to recover Latin.
Seeing all this in the dark theater was quite a different experience from reading the two recent books I mentioned. An Infinity of Little Hours has been widely reviewed (see Lawrence S. Cunningham, September 22, 2006). It is an uncannily precise tracking of five young men who entered Parkminster in the 1960s. All stayed through the novitiate, but only one continued into the full life of a Carthusian. The author married one of the five and e-mailed with the others for years. She also interviewed monks now at Parkminster. As a postlude, she and the “alumni” traveled to the Grande Chartreuse.
A lesser known book is Sounds of Silence, written pseudonymously by “Fr. Benedict Kossmann,” with whom I have been able to correspond. He spent about ten years in a charterhouse in Jerez, Spain, and another decade in Vermont, on a much larger and more isolated property that was later donated there. A few years ago, I visited the deserted monastery in Jerez. I asked the author what had happened to it. He said the monks had packed up and gone to Brazil—in response to low numbers, I suppose. His memoir has a brief mention of the two other men who were sent to Europe with me; both continued into their priesthood.
In February 1952, when the time came for me and David Sing to be clothed as novices, he was ready. I decided I was not. Dom Maurice, the novice master, was most understanding. He and I would correspond over the next two years. That I had no money for a return trip (such had been our optimism) was not a happy revelation. (Postulants are now required to prove that they can afford round-trip tickets.) Nonetheless, the monastery was able to book passage for me on the Ile de France a few days later. I was sent off with one of the monks assigned to monastic business. We stopped briefly at the plant where the famous Chartreuse liqueur is distilled and I was given a souvenir bottle before boarding a train to Paris. Before I left the monastery, I wrote a proposal to the girl I had dated at Pomona. Her own stint as a religious novice had been cut short by tuberculosis. Her acceptance was awaiting me on the other side of the Atlantic.
About the Author
William J. Pease, now retired, worked for many years as a librarian at San Diego State University.