On October 6, the Church celebrates the Memorial of St. Bruno, Founder of the Great Carthusian Order, where males lead a life of complete isolation and silence, raising their prayers and sacrifices to Heaven.
Newsroom (07/10/2021 12:03, Gaudium Press) His exact date of birth is unknown, as is most of his life. It is only known with certainty that he came into the world between the years 1027 and 1035.
An oral tradition indicates that he was a native of the city of Cologne, the ancient Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensis of the Romans, and came from a patrician family, perhaps of the Hartenfaust, of the family Æmilia. His father’s name was also Bruno.
Born in “German Rome”
Years before his birth, this region had been blessed with the presence of a saintly duke and archbishop, who died in 965: St. Bruno the Great, brother of Emperor Otto I. A genius of organization, he had made Cologne the first city of the Holy Empire and had encouraged monastic life by building hermitages and monasteries.
In Bruno’s childhood, the city – then known as Holy Cologne or German Rome – had nine collegiate schools, four abbeys, and nineteen parishes, an astonishing number for the time and even for many modern metropolises.
All higher education took place in the schools of the monasteries, cathedrals and other churches, which, shortly after the Saint’s death, would adopt the name ‘universitas’, or university.
It is not known where Bruno studied, but it is indisputable that he made the most of the lessons he received, for while still an adolescent he continued his brilliant intellectual career in the city of Reims.
At the age of about fifteen, Bruno went there to study theology and philosophy under the tutelage of Canon Herimann.
Due to excellent progress, he received the Canonicate at St. Cunibert, in his native Cologne. From 1057, when he was between twenty-six and twenty-eight years old, he assumed the office of Magister Scholarum or Scholasticus of the Cathedral of Reims, succeeding Canon Herimann.
Among his pupils were great names of the time, such as Oto de Chatillon, Canon of Reims and later prior of the Abbey of Cluny, who was later elected to the Pontifical Throne under the name of Urban II.
Around 1076, St. Bruno was appointed Chancellor of the Cathedral by Dom Manassés de Gournay.
As a secular canon of the cathedral and a member of the Chapter of Reims, St. Bruno carried out his teaching duties with a certain freedom: although he was obliged to take part in the Office recited in the cathedral, he lived in his own house, had canonically stipulated incomes, and had servants at his disposal.
Nevertheless, it was at this time that the desire to dedicate himself entirely to recollection and penance germinated in his soul.
The decision to abandon the world
In his search for an ideal form of contemplative life, he visited various convents and religious orders, since it was not yet clear what God was calling him to. It is certain that he held in esteem the “black monks”, the Benedictines, according to whose rule he was inspired to later found the Carthusian monastery.
However, it was a supernatural event that occurred outside the cloisters that led St. Bruno to decide to abandon the world for good. The biographer of the first five Carthusian priors gives an account:
“About the year 1082 of the Incarnation of the Lord, […] a certain doctor [Raymond Diocrès] of life, fame, doctrine, and science and excellent in appearance, fell seriously ill and died soon after.
“Following Parisian custom, the coffin with the body of the deceased was soon publicly placed in the school, in preparation for the singing of the Divine Office. This brought together students and doctors alike, for the purpose of giving so illustrious a man due funerary honours and a worthy burial.
“When the reverend gentlemen approached to take the coffin and carry it to the church, suddenly, to the astonishment of all, the dead man raised his head, and with a loud and terrible voice exclaimed: ‘By the just Judgement of God, I have been accused’. Having said this, he lay down and remained motionless as before.
“As there were heated discussions about what had happened, it was impossible to bury him that day, and he remained until the next morning.
“On the second day, when the news had spread, a great crowd gathered to accompany the coffin to the church, but the deceased, as on the day before, raised his head and with a sorrowful and terrible voice exclaimed: ‘By the righteous Judgement of God, I am judged’.
“The crowd present heard the sentence loud and clear, and were even more astonished than the day before. Desirous to know the meaning of such an unusual and unexpected pronouncement, they made the decision to postpone the burial.
“On the third day a large part of the city assembled on the spot, and when everything was ready to take him to the grave, again the dead man, as on the two previous days, cried out with a most sorrowful cry, ‘By the just Judgement of God, I am condemned’.
“Having heard this, almost all were seized with great fear and trembling, convinced of the condemnation of that man, who in appearance had led an honest, illustrious, and worthy life, and had shone by his knowledge and wisdom.
“Now, in the midst of that tumult was Master Bruno, of the city of Cologne, born of illustrious parents, and Canon of the Church of Reims, where he taught Theology. Moved by the words of the condemned man, he remarked to some of his companions present there:
‘What to do, my dear ones? We shall all die, and the only one saved is the one who flees from this world. If this can happen in the appearance of splendour, what will it be like in times of aridity? If a man so worthy, so learned, who led an apparently honest life and was famous for his knowledge, has been condemned, what will happen to us, the most miserable of men?
‘After the terrible things we have heard today, let us not harden our hearts, but let us leave Babylon, let us flee from the Pentapolis already condemned to fire and brimstone. Following the example of the blessed hermit Paul, of the blessed Anthony, Arsenius, Evagro, and other saints like St. John the Baptist, let us flee to the desert caves; let us save ourselves in the mountains, and flee from the wrath of the Eternal Judge and from His sentence of eternal damnation.
‘Let us flee from the flood by entering the Ark of Noah, the Ship of Peter, where Christ makes the wind and the storms cease, that is – the ship of penance, so that we may reach the port of eternal salvation”.
The dawn of the Great Carthusian Order
With these and other words, St. Bruno exhorted his companions, so that six worthy men decided to follow him, seeking solitude to do penance and to forget all the riches, delights, and honours of the world.
Initially, they went to the Benedictine monastery of Molesme, in the former diocese of Langres. The abbot at the time was St. Robert, who in 1098 would found the Cistercian Order. But St. Bruno aspired to a more austere life of greater isolation. So he left with his six companions for the desert of Sèche-Fontaine, a few kilometres from Molesme.
After a period that biographers estimate at between one and three years, St. Bruno left for Grenoble, whose bishop, St. Hugo of Châteauneuf, was one of his former pupils. The latter granted him the Chartreuse mountainous region, in the Saint Pierre desert, where St. Bruno erected a building in the year 1084.
From a human point of view, the choice of the site seemed madness: it was an area between 780 and 1150 meters above sea level, accessible only by steep paths. The climate was harsh, with frequent snowfalls, and the soil was poor. The absence of roads made it difficult to explore the woods; the place was impenetrable for most of the year, compromising the arrival of help in case of fire or illness.
However, St. Bruno set himself upon divine criteria, not human ones, and none of these difficulties discouraged him. Indeed, even today, the robustness, good health and longevity of the Carthusians is remarkable.
Aiming at a purely hermitic life, strictly isolated, and with only a few religious activities in common, he organized the work with the rigours of winter in mind: individual and separate cells, but connected by a covered cloister that allowed access to the church, the chapterhouse, and the refectory.
This early Carthusian structure was to be the model for all the others founded throughout the world over time.
On September 2, 1085, Bishop St. Hugo consecrated the church, dedicated to the Blessed Virgin and St. John the Baptist.
A few decades later, after an avalanche, the monks were forced to rebuild the Carthusian monastery two kilometres to the south, on a safer site, where it stands today.
Foundation of the second Carthusian Monastery
After waiting more than half a century for his dream to come true, St. Bruno was able to enjoy solitude for only six years. Pope Urban II, remembering the virtues of his former master, summoned him to Rome in the name of holy obedience. The founder of the Carthusians arrived there in 1090.
When he learned that the Pope had appointed him to the Episcopal See of Reggio Calabria, he availed himself of the right to refuse such an election, since he was certain that this was not his vocation.
After spending a year at the Papal Court, he obtained permission from the Pontiff to return to the contemplative life, but not to France: Urban II imposed the condition that he remain within the limits of present-day Italy.
Thus it was that in 1091 St. Bruno founded a monastery in Calabria, in Santa Maria della Torre, Diocese of Squillace, where he would remain until his death. The work, like all future foundations, was given the Cathusian name, in memory of the Mother House, and soon obtained the necessary approvals and authorizations from Pope Urban II.
Precious spiritual legacy
St. Bruno died on 6 October, 1101. Of the nearly seventy-one years of his life, he spent only sixteen in his much-prized solitude: six in the French Carthusian and ten in the Italian.
Of the few known writings of St. Bruno, there is a letter written in 1099 or 1100 in which he describes the joys of the contemplative vocation:
“Only those who have experienced them know how much usefulness and divine joy the solitude and silence of the desert bring to those who love them. Here, striving men can withdraw as much as they wish, live with themselves, eagerly cultivate the seeds of virtue, and be happily nourished by the fruits of Paradise.
“Here one acquires that serene gaze which pierces the Spouse with love, and with which, cleanly and purely, one sees God; here one practices a laborious idleness, and rests in a quiet activity; here, for the effort of combat, God rewards his athletes with the longed-for reward, namely: ‘the peace which the world ignores and the joy in the Holy Spirit’.”
Although the spiritual legacy of the Carthusian Order is by far its most precious patrimony, it also translates into countless concrete aspects, among which is the famous Chartreuse liqueur, composed of one hundred and thirty herbs. Its long preparation process, with four distillations and five infusions, is known only to two Carthusians.
It is astonishing that one of the most austere Orders of the Church, whose customs prescribe strict fasts and do not even allow this liquor on their tables, should have offered the world such a marvel.
In fairness, on the shield of the Order there are seven stars representing St. Bruno and his six first disciples, making half an arc over an orb crowned by the Cross, and the motto ‘Stat Crux Dum Volvitur Orbis’ – The cross stands while the world turns.
Text taken, with adaptations, from the magazine Heralds of the Gospel n. 238, October 2021.
Compiled by Sandra Chisholm