The reclusive monks nestled near Mount Equinox in southern Vermont probably aren’t too rocked by the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s infused their prayer life, I’m sure, but probably not so much their day-to-day existence.
These cloistered brothers and fathers occupy the Charterhouse of the Transfiguration, the only Carthusian monastery in North America, and a place where they live in silence while working in community.
Their singular, stated mission: to pray for the entire world. They’ve got to be working overtime right now.
The Carthusian community has long fascinated me. My family hikes in Vermont every year. You can’t get near the monastery, of course. Its grounds are strictly off limits. No visitors, no public Masses. There is an access road, partially open in good weather, with an outlook from which you can gaze down on the monastery complex, a collection of austere stone and concrete buildings set against the darkly wooded mountains.
We usually hike just east of the monastery, burrowing deep into the towering forest. The Charterhouse opened near Mount Equinox in 1970. It couldn’t be in a more beautiful place. Pristine ponds reflect the sky on sunny days. The air is bracing and clean, laced with pine and the stirrings of unseen life.
Even though we can’t get close to the monastery, I sometimes think I can feel the monks’ presence. I imagine that I can sense their devotion, can hear a hint of their resonant Gregorian chant, drifting through the trees. The way they have—in solitude—so utterly trained their eyes on God amazes, and challenges, me.
The Carthusians have their own form of social distancing, and it comes with some distinct spiritual benefits. They learned long ago that, when it comes to seeking God, you don’t need to go anywhere. There’s something incredibly genuine about meeting God right where you are. Where you work and wonder and struggle every day. The God of the every day. That’s the one most of us need.
The Carthusian Order was founded by Saint Bruno in 1084. It presently includes only about 450 monks and nuns, scattered over three continents. They are all dedicated to the contemplative life.
The Carthusians have their own form of social distancing, and it comes with some distinct spiritual benefits.
The Order’s website puts it this way: The primary application of our vocation is to give ourselves to the silence and solitude of the cell. It is holy ground, the area where God and his servant hold frequent conversations, as between friends. There, the soul often unites itself to the Word of God, bride to the groom, the earth to the sky, man to the divine.
Holy ground, it seems to imply, is any place that you tend to pray, where God and his servant hold frequent conversations, as between friends. Conversation means speaking and listening. Silence, and its cousin solitude, are certainly conducive to listening.
Holy ground, it seems to imply, is any place that you tend to pray, where God and his servant hold frequent conversations, as between friends.
More congregants at our church appear to be listening these days. Weekly attendance has doubled since services went online in March. Part of this is undoubtedly due to the pajamas-and-couch effect, but I think there’s a little more to it. Our living rooms can be as holy as any cathedral, if we let them be. Maybe there is something redemptive in the way this pandemic has stopped us in our tracks. Rather than resist, maybe we should hold still.
I know that’s a hopelessly quaint notion in our frenetic culture, where busyness has become a sacrament. But it’s worth considering. Only by holding still can we really listen. The still small voice never shouts. It can’t be heard above the din.
The Carthusians put it better in their statutes: The Carthusian did not choose solitude for its own sake, but because he saw in it an excellent means for him to attain a deeper union with God and all mankind. It is upon entering the recesses of his heart that the Carthusian solitaries become, in Christ, present to all men. He becomes a solitary to attain solidarity.
I don’t know if we’ll go to Vermont this summer. I don’t know if we’ll be able to travel anywhere, anytime soon. But maybe, for right now anyway, we don’t need to.