The Deafening Silence of Monastic Life

Interview With Museum Director of Serra San Bruno Monastery

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By Antonio Gaspari and Maurizio Tripi

ROME, JAN. 26, 2011 (Zenit.org).- Benedict XVI has traveled to various monasteries, and plans to visit the Carthusian monastery of Serra San Bruno on Oct. 9, reaffirming the value of this vocation to silent contemplation.

ZENIT spoke with Fabio Tassone, director of the monastery's museum, about the significance of the Pope's upcoming trip to Italy's Calabrian Diocese of Lamezia Terme.

Tassone spoke about the history of this particular monastery, and how monastic life in general continues to send a deafening message to the world of today.

ZENIT: Why has the Holy Father decided to visit the Carthusian monastery of Serra San Bruno?

Tassone: We don't know the specific reason that drove the Holy Father to make this unexpected but very gratifying decision.

It is true that this Pontiff, in the course of his pontificate, has visited monasteries on several occasions and has in himself a contemplative spirit; he will want to affirm his esteem and appreciation for this form of consecrated life.

In this place St. Bruno, who is considered the founder of the Carthusian order, ended his earthly experience, and from then on, around 900 years ago, this monastic presence profoundly influenced the Calabrian heart and territory.

From this place, rich in history and a crossroads of experience of faith and culture, the Pontiff would probably like to send a new message to the monks of today, as well as confirm the value of the contemplative life.

ZENIT: Who was St. Bruno?

Tassone: St. Bruno was born in Cologne, Germany, in 1030, when there were strong manifestations of evangelical radicalism and many movements were active that propounded an ever more intense return to God and to conversion.

A very young Bruno went to Rheims, France, to study and soon he became first a docent and then rector of the chapter school of that city. He immediately showed striking intellectual capacity, which he succeeded in uniting with a conduct of exemplary life, and a coherence between what he studied and his everyday life.

This coherence led him while still young to line up against his bishop, Bishop Manasse, who was guilty of simony. The sad affair ended and Bishop Manasse was deposed, and while thought was being given to making him the successor, Bruno began to look for something different.

Beyond his teaching experience he wanted to find a place and way to live in greater communion with God. For this reason, after some experience of hermitic and monastic life, he went to Bishop Ugo of Grenoble, France, to request to that he make available land to begin a new religious experience.

Thus in the valley of Chartreuse, Bishop Ugo supported this small group of devotees and in a wonderful natural framework, the monastic experience began.

The hermits began to live their lives in small wooden cabins built around a small church in which, periodically, the monks gathered for community prayer.

It was a design that was already clear in Bruno's mind: to create an environment that would make possible solitude, but avoid the evils of isolation. And he created in this way, based on the example of the desert Fathers, a place favorable to the encounter with God.

After close to six years Bruno was obliged to leave the hermitage to go to the court of Pope Urban II, who after having had him as teacher in Rheims, wanted him as personal adviser.

The times were troubled and the papal court, fleeing to southern Italy, was certainly not an environment consonant to a person who harbored the desire of an isolated life and wished to live in profound relationship with God.

The meeting between Urban II and Ruggero d'Altavilla resulted in creating conditions to allow Bruno to recreate the monastic experience in the land of Calabria, Italy, based on the model of that carried out in France. This design, though responding in part also to political motivations that made the Pope and d'Altavilla determined to restore Calabria to the spiritual dominion of the Church of Rome, created the providential conditions for the beginning of this now 900-year-old monastic experience to be carried out in the Calabrian Serre.

ZENIT: Why did St. Bruno build monasteries and found the Carthusians?

Tassone: St. Bruno, strictly speaking, cannot be considered the founder of the Carthusians, because in fact he didn't write the Rule.

Rather, he was the initiator of a new monastic experience, which though taking into account the preceding monastic experiences, above all the most ancient, proposed an innovative model of consecrated life to God.

The Carthusian monastery is an environment in which the solitary life and community life are wisely balanced -- communities of solitaries that had no precedents in the Latin tradition of monasticism.

This life is made up above all of extended moments in which the monk lives the solitude of the cell, which is the place of his consecration and the altar of his sacrifice; it is the mountain of the Lord's revelation.

The Carthusian statutes, however, provide that in the span of the day and of the week, there are also occasions that help the monk attain that intimate communion with brethren and with the world that renders solitude fruitful.

ZENIT: What are the reasons and what is the timeliness of the spirituality and the ways of contemplation of the Carthusians in today's world?

Tassone: Monastic life does not seek justification.

The monastic choice has in itself a component of provocation addressed to the world and its contemporaries, today as previously, whether in Christian churches or in any religion. Monasticism says to the man of today that another life is possible, that there are values for which it is worthwhile to commit one's whole life.

Although monasteries are silent, their silence is deafening. It could be said that the contribution of the contemplative life to the world is as the vital sap of trees, which runs silently and rises from the roots to the last leaf.

If there were no monks, the world would probably be worse, but the fact that they continue with their experience, to lead their lives in a silent way, leads them to seem strange and detached. However, they know the problems and vicissitudes of the world and of the Church, but their charism and their task keep them outside of the fray; they cannot be dragged in by anyone.

Contemplative life would be necessary to the world even if the world itself were to banish it completely.

ZENIT: Does the Pope know the story of St. Bruno? What does he think of Carthusian spirituality?

Tassone: The figure of St. Bruno of Cologne is very well known in Germany; certainly the Pope does not ignore it.

The very fact that the Holy Father decided to come to visit this Carthusian monastery could also be in relation to a certain interest of his in the figure of St. Bruno and Carthusian spirituality.

On October 6, 2006, in an impromptu homily to the International Theological Commission, Benedict XVI said, referring to St. Bruno: "But silence and contemplation have a purpose: They serve to preserve, in the dispersion of daily life, a permanent union with God. This is the purpose: That union with God always be present in our souls and transform all our being. Silence and contemplation -- characteristic of St. Bruno -- serve to give us the ability to find in the dispersion of every day this profound, continuous union with God. Silence and contemplation: the beautiful vocation of the theologian is to speak. This is his mission: In the loquacity of our time, and of other times, in the inflation of words, to render present the essential words, to render the Word present in words, the Word that comes from God, the Word that is God."

Also, recently the Pope reflected further on Carthusian spirituality when in the general audience of November 3, 2010 he reflected on the figure of Margherita d'Oingt, 13th century Carthusian, reviewing her extraordinary spiritual experience.

ZENIT: If you had to explain to a youth the reasons for the beauty of the contemplative life, what arguments would you give?

Tassone: It seems to me that today young people are attracted to the contemplative life, and even in this period of vocational crisis, monasteries continue to receive requests for admission by young men.

Monastic life has a certain fascination, even if the distance with our way of living in the world is ever greater and this could lead to a certain diffidence and hardship.

If I had to say what I like about monastic life, though not being a monk, but living on the margins of this monastic community, I would say that I like the opportunity I have to be deeply in the monasteries themselves.

Only before God we cannot pretend to be different, to be other than ourselves. Only God can love us without reservations and without conditions just as we truly are.

Freedom is another element, which although it is limited by the physical space of the cell walls, is an essential element of Carthusian life. Only if man willingly gives himself limits can he enjoy true freedom.

And finally, I like the coherence, not that to live in a monastery is necessarily a sign of coherence and dedication, as if it is not, necessarily, having promised fidelity to live with one's wife, but as I said earlier, the path is traced and one tries to live it daily as if it were a climb to ever loftier aims.

ZENIT: Why can one never visit the Carthusian monastery of Serra San Bruno?

Tassone: Carthusian monasteries are environments of strict cloister that are not compatible with daily visits of tourists, and all the Carthusian monasteries that at present can be visited in Italy are either entrusted to other religious orders, which have need of less pressing isolation, or are true and proper monuments/museums open to the public.

The Carthusian monastery of Serra San Bruno, precisely to respond to the needs of tourists and pilgrims, following the example of the Grande Chartreuse, has been equipped with a museum that is ideal to respond to the needs of the public. It is not a museum understood as the exhibition of treasures of the monastery, as in other cases, but rather a course that helps the visitor look through history, objects and the reconstruction of the environments, through the use of teaching and multimedia works, to be immersed in the atmosphere of the monastery and to know in depth the existence and habits of monks that live in Serra Saint Bruno.

An attempt is made to liberate the Carthusian experience of the superstructures of the traditional curious and of popular beliefs, to help persons who approach the museum with the desire to know monastic life more profoundly to come into contact with the essential nucleus of the existence of Carthusians, that true venue centered on solitude and communion with brethren and with God.