The Vital Logic of Humility: A Reflection for the Memorial of Saint Bruno

On October 6 we celebrate the memorial of Saint Bruno, the founder of the Carthusian Order. The Carthusians are contemplatives whose vocation is to seek God in silence and solitude. “Each day anew a Carthusian monk tries to make himself transparent for God, to give himself to God with open hands, and with a mind free of worries and concerns,” states a section of the appropriately austere website of the Charterhouse of the Transfiguration, the only Carthusian monastery in North America. “What distinguishes the life of a Carthusian is not his works or his accomplishments, it is what God does in him, as he abandons himself to His Love. A Carthusian vocation is a work of God.”

Bruno was born in Cologne, Germany, around 1030. He taught at the university in Rheims, France, and was made rector while still in his 20s. According to the Benedictine scholar Jean Leclercq, “Everyone esteemed him; he was a man who was calm and ‘of a rare evenness’ of character.’” Bruno held his post at the university for 20 years, and at the age of 45 was appointed chancellor of the archdiocese of Rheims. There, in alliance with Pope Gregory VII, he confronted a culture of scandal and corruption personified in the figure of Archbishop Manasses of Gournay. Gregory VII orchestrated the removal of Manasses in 1080, and Bruno was selected as his replacement. At the time the office was one of the most powerful in the kingdom of France. But Bruno, recognizing the truth of the example of Christ in the wilderness (Luke 4:6-8), declined the position and went with some companions to live as a forest hermit on land belonging to Molesme Abbey in north-central France.

In 1084 he left Molesme, seeking even more rugged terrain. Hugh, the bishop of Grenoble, guided him to a remote site in the Chartreuse Mountains. Here he established his foundation with a small group of brothers. They constructed an oratory where they met daily for Matins and Vespers. The remainder of the time they lived in individual cells, praying, reading, and reciting the hours in solitude. Today this site is known as the Grand Chartreuse, the origin of the word Carthusian.

Six years passed of this pattern of holy living when Pope Urban II asked his former teacher Bruno to return to Rome to assist the church. Bruno obeyed and spent a few months as Urban’s close advisor, but his heart longed for the stillness of the desert of Chartreuse. After Urban was driven from Rome by Henry IV, the Holy Roman Emperor, Bruno once again declined to be made an archbishop. Urban granted him permission to return to the hermetical life, and he built a new retreat in the forested valley of Santa Maria della Torre in Calabria in southern Italy. There he died on October 6, 1101.

It is a mark of the gospel humility of Bruno and his order that he was never formally canonized, as the Carthusians avoid anything that elevates or glorifies the individual over God. Indeed, “the Carthusian does not even have the personal distinction of a grave marked with his own name,” as Thomas Merton writes in The Silent Life. “He is laid away in the cemetery under a plain unmarked cross, and vanishes into anonymity.”

What follows is a short reflection, “The Vital Logic of Humility,” inspired by a collection of Carthusian novice conferences, Poor, Therefore Rich. The Catholic Church—or perhaps, better put, Catholic culture—is so often focused on going, being, doing, linking, building, and gathering that we lose sight of the necessary corrective of the Carthusian witness: a tranquil trust in God that enables us, in the words of one monk, “always increasingly to abandon our own efforts to make our own mark in order to bear more deeply the mark of the Son’s self-abandonment to the Father, and there to allow its redemptive virtue to penetrate humanity, the Love that is the life of the blessed Trinity.”


The Vital Logic of Humility

“Humility,” writes an anonymous Carthusian monk, “is an awareness of a relationship with a saving and merciful God, with the acute feeling of one’s own powerlessness and with the deliberate refusal of self-complacency, and which culminates in openness to others.” This last phrase—“which culminates in openness to others”—is crucial, as a humility that turns over and over within the bounds of the self can quickly curdle into listlessness. Humility must be transformed from a recognition and acceptance of our own limitations into a means of seeing with fresh eyes how those limitations bind us to others in a shared dependence on God. The monk states as much when he connects an ongoing conversion to humility to a kind of “spiritual poverty”:

[T]he notion of poverty is enlarged little by little and deepened in the sense of spiritual poverty, of which humility is the soul, and of which trusting abandonment to the Lord is the living breath. . . . [A]ware of being fragile and a sinner, but sure also of being one of his children, this person leans little by little—by a sort of vital logic—towards interior peace and towards a kind of patience and even fraternal understanding.

I can’t overstate how powerfully the naming of this “vital logic” affected me when I first encountered it. Generally, when we conceive of logic or describe something as being logical, we “are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” (Matt 16:23)—that is, in a series of systems or self-evident proposals that follow one after the other with ruthless contingency. But our monk here is indicating something different: a vital logic, in other words a life-giving logic, that accomplishes itself in processes that look highly illogical to the world. Fragility becomes strength; self-abandonment becomes the way by which we rediscover ourselves in relationship to others. We gain a practicable perspective on the insight of mystic Thomas à Kempis: “Nature wants to advance her own interests, waiting to see how much gain will be coming to her from others. Grace, on the other hand, does not consider what may be of profit or advantage to herself, but what may benefit many.” Or, as our Carthusian states with pitiless pithiness: “We must allow the commandment of love to animate our style of life and make us sensitive to human misery.”

For those engaged in the work of creating a more merciful and just society, the practice of prayerful humility continuously returns us to the reality of our situation as wounded individuals in a wounded world. This prevents us from “running ahead of God,” as it were, attempting to name and diagnose every societal ill with a sort of clinical, abstracted distance that absents us from the problem. We stay at the level of the human, bearing in mind others’ suffering, the suffering we have caused and the suffering, however slight, we ourselves have endured. This is the moment of the monk’s “vital logic,” when knowledge of our own poverty before God becomes a governing principle of our personality: we have no choice but to be merciful as we ourselves need mercy, stripped as we are of all self-projections save the necessity of love. ♦

Michael Centore is the editor of Today’s American Catholic.

Image: St. Bruno, Jean Antoine Houdon, Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli e Martiri, Rome, 1766-68
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