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#1593 - Tuesday - October 21, 2003 - Editor: Jerry  

This is another theme issue. It features excerpts from The Silent Life, by Thomas Merton.  

Thomas Merton  

Monastic solitude, poverty, obedience, silence and prayer dispose the soul for this mysterious destiny in God. 

Asceticism itself does not produce divine union as its direct result.  It only disposes the soul for union.  The various practices of monastic asceticism are more or less valuable to the monk in proportion as they help him to accomplish the inner and spiritual work that needs to be done to make his soul poor, and humble, and empty, in the mystery of the presence of God.  When ascetic practices are missed, they serve only to fill the monk with himself and to harden his heart in resistance to grace.  That is why all monastic asceticism centers in the two great virtues of humility and obedience which cannot be practiced as they ought to be practiced, if they do not empty a man of himself.

  Humility detaches the monk first of all from that absorption in himself which makes him forget the reality of God…The victory of monastic humility is the victory of the real over the unreal---a victory in which false human ideals are discarded and the divine 'ideal' is attained, is experienced, is grasped and possessed, not in a mental image but in the present and concrete and existential reality of our life.  


The inner, basic, metaphysical defilement of fallen man is his profound and illusory conviction that he is a god and that the universe is centered upon him…We are not, of course, foolish enough to imagine that we ought to find in ourselves the absolute omnipotence of God.  Yet in our desire to be 'as gods'…we seek what one might call a relative omnipotence: the power to have everything we want, to enjoy everything we desire, to demand that all our wishes be satisfied and that our will should never be frustrated or opposed.  It is the need to have everyone else bow to our judgment and accept our declarations as law.  It is the insatiable thirst for recognition of the excellence which we so desperately need to find in ourselves to avoid despair.  This claim to omnipotence, our deepest secret and our inmost shame, is in fact the source of all our sorrows, all our unhappiness, all our dissatisfactions, all our mistakes and deceptions.  It is a radical falsity which rots our moral life in its very roots because it makes everything we do more or less a lie.  Only the thoughts and actions which are free from the contamination of this secret claim have any truth or nobility or value in them.

…the monk does not treat material creation with contempt. On the contrary, we find the humblest material things handled with reverence, one might almost say with love…respected and valued and even loved, not for their own sakes but for the sake of God to whom they belong.

The world of men has forgotten the joys of silence, the peace of solitude which is necessary, to some extent, for the fullness of human living.  Not all men are called to be hermits, but all men need enough silence and solitude in their lives to enable the deep inner voice of their own true self to be heard at least occasionally…If a man is…locked out of his own spiritual solitude, he ceases to be a true person…He becomes a kind of automaton, living without joy because he has lost all spontaneity.  He is no longer moved from within, but only from outside himself.  He no longer makes decisions for himself, he lets them be made for him.  He no longer acts upon the outside world, but lets it act upon him.  He is propelled through life by a series of collisions with outside forces.


The common life of the monastery by its simplicity and poverty sobers us and delivers us from the frivolous spirit of the world that laughs at everything. The austerity and hard work pull us together and strengthen the sinews of our will to resist the dissoluteness with which the worldly man and his society are always falling apart. But it is above all important to realize that the monastic life is a school of affection, fidelity and mercy. By sharing the prayers, labors and trials of our brothers, and knowing them as they are, we learn to respect them and to love them with a sober compassion that is too deep for sentimentality. We learn to be faithful to them, depending on them, we know that they have a right to depend on us. We try to learn how not to fail them. Finally we forgive others their faults and sins against us, as we ourselves would be forgiven by them and by God. In this school of charity and of peace a man learns not only to respect and to love others, but also, in the purest sense, to love and respect his own person for the sake of God. Without this supernatural self-respect, which comes from realizing himself to be sincerely loved by another, man can hardly find it in himself to have true affection for his brothers. This deep mutual respect is nourished in the monastery. It is the exact opposite to worldly flattery because it is based on a true and intimate knowledge of others and of ourselves. Its fruit is a solid and lasting peace which does not end with the mere satisfaction of our natural need for companionship and for friends, but purifies our hearts of dependence on visible things and strengthens our faith in God. For, in the last analysis, the warmth of monastic charity is the warmth not of nature alone but of the unseen and infinite fire which burns in the hidden depths of the Blessed Trinity.

The spirit of the Carthusians can easily be deduced from the life which they lead. It is a spirit of solitude, silence, simplicity, austerity, aloneness with God. The intransigeance of the Carthusian's flight from the world and from the rest of mankind is meant to purify his heart from all the passions and distractions which necessarily afflict those who are involved in the affairs of the world -- or even in the busy, relatively complicated life of a cenobitic monastery. All the legislation which surrounds the Carthusian and has surrounded him for centuries like an impenetrable wall, is designed to protect his solitude against even those laudable and apparently reasonable enterprises which so often tend to corrupt the purity of the monastic life.

For instance, the Carthusians have always been adamant in refusing dignities and marks of favor and attention from the rest of the Church. ... The Carthusians have never paid much attention to the apparent sanctity of their members. They have always thought it more important to be saints than to be called saints... . Therefore, the Carthusians have never taken any steps to procure the canonization of their saints. They do not even have a Menologium, or private catalogue of the holiest men of the Order. When a monk of exceptional virtue dies, the highest public honor he receives in the Order is a laconic comment: laudabiliter vixit. In good American we would translate this as: "He did all right." Finally, the Carthusian does not even have the personal distinction of a grave marked with his own name. He is laid away in the cemetery under a plain unmarked cross, and vanishes into anonymity.

The following is from

The Carthusian Monastic Setting

The style of the Carthusian life, that is a solitary lifestyle tempered by community, is reflected from what can be seen on the outside, in terms of the buildings. You will consequently find all Charterhouses to have three main parts:

Typical Charterhouse layout (Charterhouse of Vedana)

  1. Main Cloister :
  2. Communal Areas :
  3. Workshops :

There are the "Major" Charterhouses (like the Grande Chartreuse, over 30 cells, who construction dates back to the 17th century) and "Lesser" Charterhouses (like the Chartreuse de Portes, in the French region department of Ain, which has maintained the aspects of a primitive Charterhouse, with its 12 cells surrounding the cemetery.)

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Jerry Katz
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