My Carthusian Experience

Among those of us who admire the Carthusian Order, several of us have had the honor and privilege of having lived for a few days in one of its monasteries. Having made several retreats at “Cartuja San José”, in Argentina, I'm writing this in order to share this gift with those who haven’t been able to stay in a Carthusian monastery.

There are three biblical quotations that come to my mind when I think of my experience there. The first is Lk 4:1-2: “Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit (…) was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days (...)”. As it is well known, with few exceptions, one can make a retreat in a Charterhouse only if one aspires to embrace that way of life. For 16 years I was a “chronic” aspirant. For various reasons, sometimes I felt I had the vocation and sometimes I didn’t. In those 16 years I made several retreats, 8 more exactly, which lasted 5 days each. That brings the total to about 40 days. Maybe it was more (there were retreats of 6 days I think), but I like the number 40 because it helps me to see that going there wasn't an accident. It wasn't a mistake in my personal history.

I went there as an aspirant for the first time when I was 17 years old, in January 2000, for a visit that lasted a few hours. I knew that it would take at least 4 years to enter for two reasons: no one under 21 is accepted and the monastery (the building) was at least 4 years away from completion. The 4 founding monks were living in a temporary mini Carthusian monastery (now called "St. Bruno's house" and has some of the brothers' workshops). Where the monastery is now located, at that time, it was just removed earth and some foundations. That's how I also felt, as someone under construction. In those 4 years I grew up with the monastery. I made 3 retreats in 2001, 2002 and 2003. But before the new monastery was finished and before I turned 21, many doubts led me to postpone my entry indefinitely.

At the invitation of the rector (there was no prior at that time) I visited the Charterhouse again in 2006 and 2007, but not as an aspirant. In fact I did not occupy monks' cells; I stayed in the guest house (it was an exception, in a Charterhouse the guest house is for relatives of the monks). They were two very Carthusian retreats but I was free to follow my own rhythm and schedule. After 2007 I stopped going.

In 2011 I visited the “Cartuja” again when my family and I went to see the Dakar rally in Córdoba province, where the monastery is located. This time I was able to go with my mum and two brothers. They were shocked. One of my brothers is in fact an atheist and somewhat anti-clerical, but even today, when we talk about the Charterhouse (the Order or the monastery we visited) he always says “they are something different, they are special”.

That visit also had a deep impact on me. I was about to graduate and I felt more mature. After graduating, in January 2013 I decided to make a final retreat before entering at least the monastery. It was my sixth retreat in the Charterhouse but for the first time I was going to inhabit a monk's cell. A father’s cell more exactly (Carthusian monks are either “fathers” or “brothers” and the cells are different, bigger for the fathers because they spend more time there). During that retreat, the novice master and I agreed on a date for me to enter as a postulant: July of that year. I didn't enter immediately because I had some debts to pay. However, in April 2013 a painful event in my family, involving the church (of which I prefer not to give more details) meant that my presence outside was still important. And once again I postponed my entry.

This painful event I was talking about was a turning point in my family's religiosity. It was a crisis. It affected me too. I was deeply depressed and even started being medicated. And once the clouds began to open up after the storm, a few years later, I made my last two retreats at the Charterhouse, in 2015 and 2016. I occupied brothers' cells. And in 2016 I saw that that was not my place; in fact I left a few days earlier than planned. Or maybe it is my place, but I was not at my best personally.

It is now 5 years since I last visited this “holy land”. This is the longest period of time without going there since 2000. In these 5 years the contact with the monks has diminished. I remember that in the first years every time I called them on the phone they answered and I could talk to them. Now my communication with them is sporadic e-mails with the novice master, the only one with whom I am still in contact. Visits like the ones I made in 2006, 2007 and 2011 are now unthinkable. Just as I am very different from the 17 year old teenager I was on my first visit, San José Charterhouse is not the same either. It has also been maturing and growing as a community. Consequently, it has also been closing the enclosure more and more to resemble the ideal that St. Bruno had when he founded Chartreuse and Calabria 900 years ago. That is why contact has been decreasing. They are praying.

Sometimes I consider the idea of another retreat there (with the novice master's permission obviously), but at the moment it would be more difficult to enter as a postulant. I have a stable job which I would have to give up if I want to enter, and if it doesn’t work as a Carthusian I would have to start from scratch in a world (and in a country) where getting a job is increasingly more difficult, especially for someone close to 40. And my family, who in my distant adolescence looked so favorably on my consecration as a religious, would not see it in the same way now. Not to mention that the family has grown and I now have nieces and nephews.

Even when I’m not a Carthusian, the Charterhouse is inside me. This brings me to the second of the three biblical quotations: “If I forget you, O Jerusalem...” (Psalm 137). No one who has gone there leaves the monastery without learning something. In my case it was to detach my faith from the sensitive. There I understood that God is present even when we don’t see him, he listens to us even when we don’t speak, and he speaks in silence. I discovered this above all in the silence and solitude of the cell. I also had a very rich liturgical experience. The mass in the Carthusian rite, so simple and with so many silences, with that balanced combination of Latin and vernacular, and the matins and lauds at midnight… All this was a real school of prayer. I will never forget the Charterhouse. It is in me as the Holy Land was in the heart of Moses. And this brings me to the third biblical quotation which is Deut 34:4. I feel that God says to me too, as to Moses: “I have let you see it with your own eyes, but you shall not enter it”.

An ex Carthusian aspirant - August 2021
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