While I was preparing for a retreat at a monastery in the wilds of Yorkshire in the north of England, I pulled a few volumes from my overcrowded bookshelves, packed them in my case, and off I went. I didn’t expect to read many, but I was glad to have some spiritual nourishment in the eco-friendly wood cabin where I would be staying.
I also took along with me a long-standing issue with facial neuralgia which can be excruciatingly painful and random. I was once assailed in the shower and, clinging on to the pipes as the water rushed over my body, it was like being in a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, so stabbing were the attacks. I even felt I could hear the famous theme music, which struck me as hilariously funny—but laughing only made the pain worse.
The problem has been a daily trial for me for a decade and, after arriving in the monastery grounds, I knew the condition had no intention of retreating as well. The matter obviously became part of my prayer during my stay, and one evening I found myself reaching for one of the books I had brought along, a series of meditations by a Carthusian monk. I had, in fact, noticed the little hardback in my library for years but had never taken much notice of it. I couldn’t remember where I had bought it or how it had got there. But there are always surprises on retreats, and suddenly this lonely little second-hand tome burst into life for the first time.
Wrestling with the pain, I opened the book arbitrarily and on page 79 found a reflection entitled “Our Griefs.” It explained that every great grief conceals a great grace. God inflicts pain in order to cure. I read on rather cautiously, only to discover the monk revising his thinking. More correctly, he pointed out, God does not cause but “He permits the pain (which He does not want), in order to ensure the cure, which is His sole will.” That was a watershed moment in helping me come to terms with my affliction.
On that same page, I noticed that the previous owner had drawn a line either side of the reflection, as though it had meant something to her. Curious, I turned to the front of the book, only to discover in her own hand the signature of “Mary Benham, July 16th, ’69.” I could not believe what I was seeing because Mary had been a great family friend, a generous lady who must have given me the book at some stage. Perhaps I did read it all those years ago, but there it was in my hand now, destined to be held by me at the very time I needed it most.
In another chapter, the Carthusian says we should try to rise above suffering (easier said than done for many of us). It is a state of the soul, he suggests, which springs from the best that is in us, emanating from a desire to belong more and more wholly to God, so we can fuse our life with his. Our suffering should always remain calm and “ever turned towards the tranquillizing rays of a joy superior to it.”
In a further meditation on “Why We Must Suffer,” the monk explains that to give supreme grace to each of us, God stops at nothing. We suffer because God wants us to become “other Christs”: to be Jesus over again and, like him, misunderstood, persecuted, and made to bear the cross. “Looked at from any other point of view, suffering would be incomprehensible and intolerable.” He goes on: “To find joy in sorrow, life in death—that is the great secret by which our wounds are healed.”
Linguistically and theologically, the book is of its era, and yet in other ways is timeless. As you can imagine, my volume has become extremely precious. I’ve brightened the cover with a Taize icon of the Madonna and Child and a Taize postcard of Christ the Friend has become the bookmark.
The English translation comprises of two small books published originally in French, in 1948 and 1953, by the Benedictine nuns of Saint Priscilla in Rome. The first was called Silence Cartusien, the second Voix Cartusienne. The reflections are from the pen “of one who, in the silence of the Charterhouse, had already arrived at the summits of the spiritual heights, and dwelt there unceasingly. Souls who have reached such perfection in this life are rare; not so rare, however, are those who ardently aspire thereto. It is chiefly for such as these—to encourage and help them to arrive at those same heights—that these thoughts have been preserved and collected.”
Although hidden in origin and intention, the first book began to make its influence felt in Italy and France, and the first edition was soon exhausted. A second edition appeared and then a third, and “it is the welcome it received abroad that has suggested that it may be equally welcomed in this country.” One reviewer wrote: “This little book which I have just brought back with me from Rome will not be found in any library not in any catalogue. It was only by chance that I discovered it in the catacombs of St Priscilla in Rome, when I questioned the nuns as to their work. Mentioning their printing press, they showed me this little volume. No name, either of author or editor . . .” When questioned, the nuns simply replied: “E un certosino morte da paco.” The author had been a Carthusian who died long ago.
The English translation of both works was carried out by a monk of Saint Hugh’s Charterhouse, Parkminster, Sussex, with the help of a Carmelite nun. The title They Speak by Silences is a line from the famous Francis Thompson poem The Hound of Heaven. Of the writings, the translator comments: ‘They were born in the silence and solitude of a Charterhouse, and their very anonymity is part of that silence. It is due perhaps to the reader to say—and it is all we can say—that the writer of these pages held for some years various positions of authority in the Carthusian Order, involving the direction of souls. The extracts here given were never in the author’s mind intended for publication; only after his death in 1945 were they carefully collected and published . . .”
The Carthusian Order, founded by Bruno of Cologne in 1084, includes both men and women who live in a number of individual cells built around a cloister. There are 23 charterhouses or monasteries, 18 for monks and five for nuns. The name Carthusian is derived from the Chartreuse Mountains in the French Alps where Saint Bruno built his first hermitage in a valley. The Carthusian Rule is called the Statutes, and the order’s motto is stat crux dum volvitur orbis: “the Cross is steady while the world is turning.”
The monk-author’s life, like that of any Carthusian, was not made up of external events, “and we need do no more than let his words speak for themselves,” the book tells us. “As he himself would be the first to admit, it is not what they say but what they leave unsaid that will probably influence other souls, seeking as he sought that union with God which is not peculiar to Carthusians or to any other religious, but is the end set before all men. We can only re-echo the hope expressed by the original editor of these works that the thoughts preserved and collected in this little book may help and encourage others to persevere in the ascent to that union.”
The book is still in print and easily available, but I don’t intend to buy a modern paperback edition for a few dollars. The copy I have is a pearl beyond price. When I was reading it in bed last night, I decided I must tell others about it. How we complicate life when, in reality, it is so simple, the monk reminded me before I closed my eyes. We seek God far away when he is really quite close, even if our busiest times. “It is not necessary to seek the stillness of a sanctuary or of our prie-Dieu. All we need to do is to make an act of faith and of love: ‘My God, I believe in you, and I love you’: a simple movement in the depths of our soul that we call forth from time to time. This is true life.”
Michael Ford is an author and theologian in England, where he worked in BBC news and religious broadcasting for many years. His articles for TAC reflect spiritually on his life as a journalist and writer.