The Secrets of the Great Silence

When Silence Speaks. The Spiritual Way of the Carthusian Order

by Tim Peeters

(Darton, Longman and Todd, £12.99)

Anthony Redmond

A few years ago, I had the good fortune to see that truly wonderful film, Into Great Silence, which told the story of the Carthusian monks in their motherhouse in the Grande Chartreuse in the mountains near Grenoble in France. It made a huge impression on me. 

I have now just read the most extraordinary and riveting book entitled When Silence Speaks which describes the solitude, silence and deep spirituality of the Carthusian monks and their daily routines of manual labour, prayer and Lecio Divina.  

The author, Tim Peeters, is a priest of the Archdiocese of Mechelen-Brussels. The original Dutch version of this book received the award for Religious Book of the Year in Belgium. It is nothing less than a masterpiece.

The Carthusian order began in 1084 in the mountains of Chartreuse Massif in Grenoble in France having been founded by St Bruno. St Bruno wanted to follow in the ancient traditions of the Desert Fathers who searched for God in silence and solitude. 

They found God in the silence of their hearts. St Bruno wanted a community of hermits or anchorites. Bruno did not leave a written rule. 

It was not until 1109 that a written rule and foundation, which gave stability to the order, was established by Guido 1 who was elected fifth prior at the age of 26. He wrote the Customs of Chartreuse which gave direction and order to the life of the monk.  

It could be said that the life of the monk is a total contradiction to the ways of the world. It is a life of asceticism and continuous concentration on God. The Carthusian monks sing the liturgy in Gregorian chant and most of their time is spent in isolation in their cells in prayer and spiritual reading.  

Normal sleep patterns are interrupted. Around midnight, the entire community gathers in the church for the offices of Matins and Lauds and before night prayer, each monk prays the Matins of Our Lady in his cell. 

Night prayer can take up to three hours.  The author writes: “Night prayer is a means of physical asceticism, because the biological human rhythm is radically interrupted. Each night, the Carthusian monk has to awake from his sleep and leave his warm bed. As he is not a nocturnal animal, he has to confront the darkness and cold. It is an extreme effort, especially during the long, snowy winters.

“It may take a long time to adapt physically to the interruption of sleep,” he continues. “The human body may never get accustomed to it. The Carthusian monks try to go to bed and to fall asleep as quickly as possible, to resume their sleep after the night office. The practice may seem inhuman to outsiders, but for the monks night prayer occurs at the most intimate moments of the day.”

The Carthusians bury their deceased monks without a coffin directly in the earth. The body is placed on a stretcher and the hood is pulled down over the monk’s face. 

They have anonymous graves with no names written on crosses and no tombstones or decorations. The emphasis is on simplicity. As Cardinal Danneels says: “Monks are like candles: they burn for God.”

There is something profoundly moving and uplifting about this extraordinary book. It has a poetic and lyrical quality and a deep spirituality. It describes in loving, meticulous detail a way of life that may be totally incomprehensible to many people, a life that is the polar opposite of our materialistic, hedonistic and superficial lifestyle. 

The author, Tim Peeters, sums up: “Carthusian monks do not accomplish anything, they are of no direct use to the world, or even to the Church because they do not preach, or administer the sacraments to the faithful, or practise concrete charity. This is quite incomprehensible to most people, even for most Catholics. 

“In the opinion of our competitive society it is completely incomprehensible, even idiotic! Like the biblical Mary, the sister of Martha, Carthusian monks and nuns sit at the feet of the Lord: they watch and listen, that is all they do. However, Mary had chosen the better part, had she not?”  

There is a wonderful comment which I love by the Monk, Dom Jacques Dupont. He says: “Indeed, we waste our lives for Jesus because we love him. But whoever has fallen in love knows that love is capable of the greatest foolishness!” 

Like the film, Into Great Silence, this superb book will stay with you for a long time.