Nestled in the Chartreuse Valley in the French Alps is one of the world’s oldest and most austere religious orders.

Their way of life has been described as a perpetual Lent.

As a rule, they do not eat meat; their one main meal a day is at noon, consisting of bread, fish, vegetables, cheese and fruit, and they don’t eat again until sharing in a light supper before night prayer. Their days are spent mostly in silence and solitude with their fellow monastics, engaging in manual labour and prayer during the day and even more prayer throughout the night.

This religious order is the Carthusians, and ever since their beginnings in AD 1084, when the German cleric Bruno of Cologne led a group of men into the Chartreuse Valley with the dream of establishing a hermitage, their way of life has been mostly unchanged—a rare feat for a religious order. Even the charterhouse in France, called La Grande Chartreuse, is the one originally founded by St Bruno nearly a thousand years ago.

Their motto is Stat crux dum volvitur orbis: ‘The cross is steady while the world turns.’

The charterhouse makes saints but does not make them known.

The Carthusians have always been wrapped in an air of mystery. It bewilders people that this severely ascetic religious order could gain so much popularity and attract so many adherents. It is equally bewildering that it has been so heavily persecuted through the years—there have been countless Carthusian martyrs, with various revolutions in Spain, England, Bohemia and, of course, France resulting in the burning of Carthusian charterhouses and the death of Carthusian monks.

A silent documentary was released about them in 2005 by German filmmaker Philip Gröning called Into Great Silence. It took 18 years to acquire permission from the Carthusians to film the documentary and another five years to produce it.

They do not have many canonised saints either. ‘The charterhouse makes saints,’ they say, ‘but does not make them known.’

We might wonder how such an order could speak to 21st-century Australians. Lent is hard enough; enduring a perpetual Lent is, we might say, a very specific vocation.

But their way of life has given rise to a beautiful spirituality—one that can help us to go deeper on our journey through the Lenten season.

Gaspar de Crayer St Bruno
St Bruno of Cologne by Gaspar de Crayer (1655)

There are not many well-known Carthusian writers. One of the most recent texts, however, is only 17 pages long and it is called Letter to a Friend on the Prayer of the Heart. Originally published anonymously, it was later attributed to Dom André Poisson, Minister General of the Carthusians from 1967 until 1997.

It is because the Father loves me that I may speak to him with utter trust and assurance.

Considering its origins in such a penitential religious order, the text is surprisingly beautiful. While we might not always think of the penitential life as one characterised by the joy and simplicity of love, to read this letter is to encounter someone who knows what it means to love and be loved by God.

It is a simple and vulnerable text. Poisson reflects from the outset on what it means to call God Abba, ‘Father’.

‘To call God by that name is to know with certainty that we are loved,’ he writes. ‘It is because the Father loves me that I may speak to him with utter trust and assurance.’

He explores what it means for the prayer of the heart to be a way of life, a manner of being, and how we cannot pray except with and in our bodies. While we might grow frustrated with the limitations and constraints of the flesh, he is adamant that these constraints are not something we need to flee to find God—an encouraging thought when we feel too tired or too weak or even too lazy to pray.

‘Between God and me, such experiences are not obstacles … They are truly the points at which God’s love makes an entry into our lives,’ he says.

To view our journey towards God as one that requires the denial or contempt of the body is not Christian, he assures us. ‘God loves me the way he made me. Why should I want to be more spiritual than he?’

Genuine love is always a victory of weakness. We do not love by dominating, possessing, or imposing ourselves on the Beloved, but by defenceless acceptance of the Other coming to us.

In fact, the experience of weakness and vulnerability in the human condition is in some sense a prerequisite for the experience of true love, because ‘genuine love is always a victory of weakness.’

We do not love by dominating, possessing, or imposing ourselves on the Beloved, but by defenceless acceptance of the Other coming to us. In return, we ourselves are sure of being accepted without judgment, condemnation, or comparison. For two beings who love each other, trials of strength must cease. A mutual understanding arises from within and assures us that we shall never have to fear harm from the Other.

Lent may be a time of testing, of growth and deepening, but it is also a time of repentance. What does repentance mean other than admitting our weakness and desperate need for grace? In this experience of repentance, we experience what it means to be loved, and to be saved.

Poisson’s letter offers a timely reminder of this for the Lenten season, especially as we experience the desire to grow and change, and the limits of what we can achieve on our own.

Every Christian lives in and by the mystery of the cross. This mystery, as Christian writers from the apostles onward have said in their own way, is that despite the cross being the epitome of human desolation, pain and abandonment, it was, simultaneously, the victory of love.

The Carthusians seek to live a constant and personal way of the cross in order to ‘discover the vastness of love,’ their Statutes say (35:1). Not only is this vocation their path to intimacy with God, but their lives of sacrifice and prayer (especially during the night) are means of intercession, so that, while the world turns, they stand with the cross, interceding in love for the sake of the world.

In our own way—within our own capacities and states of life—we can seek to do the same thing during Lent. Reading Poisson’s short letter may be a good start.

Banner image: La Grande Chartreuse.