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Five monasteries in the world, 63 nuns, when once they were just 49

And in silence, the Carthusians grow

 E nel silenzio crescono le Certosine  DCM-006
01 June 2024

Mountains, dense forests, valleys, bare clearings, and narrow roads that climb as if chasing the sky. And then, there they are, the Carthusian Monasteries: isolated, far from inhabited centers, majestic yet simple, with their cells that line up and almost hold hands in a communal solitude around the cloister. Around the divine.

The Carthusian Order today consists of 21 monasteries worldwide, five for nuns and sixteen for monks.

The female monasteries are in Italy, in Dego, Liguria, where the Charterhouse of the Holy Trinity was established in 1994. In France, there are two, one in Notre Dame Reillanne in Upper Provence and the second in Nonenque in the Midi-Pyrénées region. There is one in Spain, the Charterhouse of Santa María de Benifasar in Castellón de la Plana (currently linked to one of the two French houses). Lastly, there is one is in South Korea, the Annunciation in Boeun County. A new foundation could arise in Latin America, but not in the near future, it seems.

At the end of 2022, there were 63 Carthusian nuns worldwide (there were 49 in 2005) and the monks numbered 288 (286 in 2015).

“On average, there is one vocation per year for each Charterhouse”, notes Father Ignazio Iannizzotto, prior of Serra San Bruno.

The foundation and eremitic life

The Carthusian Order arose in 1084 at the initiative of the monk called Bruno, born in Cologne, Germany around 1030, who died in 1101 in Serra San Bruno, where his relics are preserved. He was canonized in 1623 (although Pope Leo X authorized his cult on July 19, 1514). The first monastery, the Grande Chartreuse, was founded in the municipality of Saint-Pierre-de-Chartreuse, 30 kilometers from Grenoble in France. The name comes from the Massif de la Chartreuse. It was in the Chartreuse Massif, in the French Pre-alps, that the monk Bruno stopped dedicating himself entirely to God and the contemplative life, to revive in the West the spirit of the desert fathers.

The female branch of the Order was founded around 1145 when the nuns of Prébayon, in Provence, France, decided to embrace the Carthusian rule.

Over the centuries, Carthusian spirituality has remained based on contemplative life, eremitic and strict enclosure, a life of seeking God in solitude and silence. The motto of the Order is “Stat Crux dum volvitur orbis” (The Cross stands firm while the world turns).

Important Anniversaries

This year, 2024, brings about the commemorations of the 940 years since the foundation of the Carthusian Order and the 510 years since the canonization of the monk Bruno. It also marks the thirtieth anniversary of the establishment in Italy of the Dego Charterhouse of the Holy Trinity, located in the province of Savona in Liguria and falls within the diocese of Acqui Terme (province of Alessandria, in Piedmont), where currently there are about fifteen nuns.

Getting to the Charterhouse of the Holy Trinity is not simple: it seems like even the car’s navigator wants to accommodate the solitary prayer vocation of the nuns: it leads into a dense forest instead of to the monastery. Therefore, you have to take the road to the locality of Girini and then continue towards Porri, a hamlet of Dego. After about ten kilometers, you reach a barn, one of those rural buildings originally used as storage for tools and agricultural products. There’s a little road there that leads to the hamlet of Ca’ Bulin, at 600 meters above sea level. From there, climbing for a couple of kilometers, you find yourself in front of the gate of the Certosa. Silence envelops even our thoughts. And it’s pointless to knock. At the Charterhouse of the Holy Trinity, one cannot enter: the community of nuns observes a strict separation from the world. Even the relatives of the nuns can only visit them for two days a year. Only prospective Carthusian nuns can be welcomed into the monastery. It starts with a cloistered retreat. The path in the spiritual experience of the Charterhouse then involves a year of postulancy, two years of novitiate, and five years of temporary profession.

“Long is the journey, arid and parched are the paths to be traveled before reaching the sources of water and the Promised Land”; it is written in the Constitutions of the Order.

The Time of the Holy Trinity

Prayer, contemplation, and solitude mark time in the Charterhouse of the Holy Trinity. The nuns gather for vespers, the night office, and mass, celebrated by the Carthusian monk who lives in the grange. The profound silence also involves him.

Even the bishop of the Diocese of Acqui, Luigi Testore, has been to the Trinity only a few times. “I go when the mother prioress calls me. Usually, she invites me when there are special celebrations, such as the solemn profession of a nun”, says Monsignor Testore. Three times in six years. “After the celebration, I talked to the nuns: they asked me questions about life beyond the monastery”, he says.

The Carthusian nuns also observe silence among themselves. They eat alone, in their cells overlooking their small gardens. Once a week, they meet in “spaziamento,” or “spacing”, that time when “walking the same path” they walk together, in small groups, speaking softly. It is as if to represent “esichia”, or quietness, inner peace, silence, their main paths that lead to God.

Absence of words, home for the Word

The cell is a symbol of withdrawing into oneself while looking upward. The gaze is directed towards the sky. To transcend what is hidden. The monastery in the monastic tradition is paradisus claustri, a paradise.

The Order, being eremitic or semi-eremitic, also contemplates very few contacts with the media. “The last General Chapter (that of September 2023, ed.) reminded us that we must avoid them,” informs the prioress of the Charterhouse, Mother Marie Ange.

Solitude, prayer, conversion of the heart dwell at the Charterhouse of the Holy Trinity, in Ca’ Bulin. The Ligurian Sea cannot be seen from there. The gaze spans over beeches, oaks, chestnuts. In the morning, the mist lightly envelops the Charterhouse, descends onto the roof. Inside, prayer takes place. Moreover, prayer continues when the sun makes its way through the clear shadows. Towards evening, the colors of dusk accompany the cross that rises on the bell tower, slip between the columns, and illuminate the statue of St Bruno. Even the holy monk holds the cross in his hand. In winter, snow arrives there. In summer, the sun makes the monastery shine.

That female branch of the Order

The Carthusian nuns form a single Order with the monks, under the guidance of the same Superior General of the Carthusian Order, the Prior of the Grande Chartreuse, Dom Dysmas de Lassus, who has held this role since 2014.

In 1794, due to the French Revolution, the female Charterhouses were closed. However, in 1816, a small group of nuns gave a new beginning to the female branch of the Order. In addition to their own Chapter, which is held at the Grande Chartreuse in France (every two years since 1973), the Carthusian nuns also have their own Statutes, but they “remain in organic and spiritual union with the monks”.

The first presence of Carthusian nuns in Italy dates back to 1223 in Piedmont, also thanks to the proximity to France. In more recent times, in 1903, other Carthusian nuns arrived in the Diocese of Turin from France. The Beauregard community sent novices and elderly sisters to the territory of Pinerolo and to the Certosa di San Francesco, in Avigliana. This house, an ancient Franciscan convent, was not suited to the needs of the eremitic life of the Carthusian vocation. For this reason, in 1994, the community moved to Dego.

The Popes Enter the Carthusian Monasteries

While Carthusian nuns are gathered in their silent prayer, with very little contact with the outside world, Carthusian monks on some special occasions have opened the doors of their home. In 1984, on the ninth centenary of the Order, Pope John Paul II visited the Charterhouse of Serra San Bruno, in Calabria. “From this monastery, we are called to be lamps that illuminate the path on which so many brothers and sisters scattered throughout the world walk”, said the Pope during the historic visit.

Pope Benedict XVI was also welcomed to Serra San Bruno: in 2011, on the 910th anniversary of the death of the founding monk. “Even you, who live in voluntary isolation, are actually in the heart of the Church, and you make the pure blood of contemplation and the love of God flow through its veins,” emphasized Pope Ratzinger during the vespers celebration.

Those 18 years of waiting

In this hidden life in God within the Carthusian monasteries - over the centuries, there have been more than 300 of them - the German director Philip Gröning received special permission to enter to make the documentary Into Great Silence. The documentary, made in  2005, depicts the daily life of the Carthusians of the Grande Chartreuse in France. Gröning waited 18 years to make it. Perseverance and hope led him to obtain permission to enter the cloister and film the daily life of the monastery for six months. In the film, there are no dialogues, only the words of the monks’ prayers. There is no music, except for that of the liturgy. There is an intense silence of thoughts, of searching, of the infinite.

To learn about the life of the Carthusians, the Museum of the Grande Chartreuse was created (http://www.musee-grande-chartreuse.fr/fr/), located about a kilometer from the French monastery. Here you can enter the Charterhouse virtually, visit the church, the cells, and the workshop where manual work is done.

A documentary has also been made about the Carthusian nuns: Une vie en Chartreuse: de la nuit du monde à la Nuit Pascale (https://chartreux.org/moniales/it/). In the documentary, everything is prayer.

Distant yet intensely present, as in all Charterhouses. As Pope Francis emphasized in 2014, in a letter to the Carthusian Order for the 500th anniversary of Bruno’s canonization, referring to the saint: “Even today, because of the depth of his existence, entirely devoted to the constant search for God and communion with Him, he remains a bright star on the horizon, for the Church and for the world”.

A Journalist with the Italian publication “Oggi”