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In a hollow just north of Bennington, Vermont, near the New York state line, nineteen monks at the Charterhouse of the Transfiguration live and die in seclusion. It’s the only Carthusian site in North America, a remote spot in the shadow of Mt. Equinox, highest peak in the Taconic Range. In 2005 the documentary Into Great Silence gave secular audiences a reverent look at the Grande Chartreuse in France, the “Mother House” of the Carthusians, and particularly the regimen of solitude and prayer, which struck viewers around the world as blissful, sweet, and wholly otherworldly. Here in New England it’s the same. There are no signs or markers pointing the way there. A bumpy side road passes a small reservoir, turns a corner, and the monastery appears, blank and quiet. The compound spreads across two acres behind an entrance crowned by a twenty-foot cement cross on a hill beside the gate. A ten-foot wall of monochromatic gray stone surrounds the buildings and gardens. The cemetery inside has a row of eight plain wooden crosses with no names or dates.

Sixty years ago, Joseph Davidson, an industrial chemist at Union Carbide, and his wife donated the eleven square miles that they owned to a group of Carthusians who’d settled in the area fifteen years earlier. Legend has it that one day an unknown hunter shot the Davidson’s dog on Equinox property, leading the couple to turn the land into a No Trespassing zone by giving it to the monks, though when the tale came up in conversation with three residents of the Charterhouse during my visit in late November, they only smiled. A Connecticut architect was hired, a spot halfway down the mountain in a cleared field was chosen, plans drawn, giant slabs of Vermont granite delivered, and construction finished a few years later.

The only cars passing by these days are those heading up Skyline Drive to the top of the mountain, where an observation center offers views in all directions of hills and valleys with few signs of habitation. Once in a while members of a monk’s family turn left halfway up the mountain, drive another half mile, and park beside a small structure outside the monastery walls where they may visit a son or brother who has joined the order and committed to silence. Such visits may happen only a few days per year. St. Bruno, who founded the Carthusians in 1084, was clear about the eremitic way; the Statutes of the order insist on isolation and silence. At all times, they say, monks must “diligently keep themselves strangers to all worldly news.” They cite the model of Jacob, who didn’t see God face to face until he had sent his retinue forward and walked alone. Moses, Elijah, and John the Baptist also sought solitude, while the prophet Jeremiah advised: “It is good for a man to await the salvation of God in silence.” Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days, making him, the Statutes continue, “the first exemplar of our Carthusian life.” Pope Benedict himself asserted in a 2011 homily delivered in Serra San Bruno, the monastery where St. Bruno died in 1101, “by withdrawing into silence and solitude, human beings, so to speak, ‘expose’ themselves to reality in their nakedness . . . in order to experience instead Fullness, the presence of God.”

The Carthusians own the road to the summit. An outside management team hired by the monastery charges cars $25 to enter, which thousands do, especially in the fall when leaves are turning. Like the twenty-one other Charterhouses around the world, the Transfiguration house has to sustain itself. Only at the Mother House is the famed Chartreuse liqueur made and sold (130 Alpine herbs and flowers go into the four-hundred-year-old recipe, which is known by only two monks at any given time). In Vermont, the Carthusians allow a local firm to tap ten thousand maple trees at an annual charge. They also sell excess electricity produced by a small dam on the property, donating another portion of its output to a school nearby.

It is, indeed, silent here—no traffic noise, no voices in the hallway. Snow blankets the mountainsides today. The only sound I hear outside the room during our first interview, which lasts three hours, is a bell at the end calling us to Vespers. While we speak in a reception parlor just inside the gate, the rest of the fathers are in their cells praying. The Carthusian brothers may have work assignments at that hour of the day—cooking, cleaning, repairing—but they finish them in silence, then return to pray in their own cells.

My hosts take me to a cell, pointing out an empty cabinet installed in the wall to the right of the portal before we go inside. The door to the cabinet is open, and I can see that in the back of the space is a matching door. It’s a delivery system. A meal is brought to the cell in a wooden box. It is set inside the cabinet, the outer door is shut, a buzzer is pressed, and the monk within opens the back door and draws out his food so that no human contact occurs. Everything else he needs is already there: a cot, woodstove, oratory, and a shelf that holds Scripture, the Statutes, and books of the monk’s choice taken from the monastery’s library, which offers theology, history, philosophy, literature, art, tales of the Desert Fathers and the saints, reflections on monasticism (I spotted an entire shelf of Thomas Merton), and lots of “Carthusiana.” The monk may take notes on his reading, but keeping a journal of his life in solitude requires permission. He may share his theological thoughts with others only during a walk the monks take every Monday. Otherwise, the Statutes prohibit all conversation apart from brief exchanges about pressing practical matters. Inside the cell, reading aloud is encouraged—not his own words, but the words of Scripture, and not too loud, either. Firewood is stored in a room below, which each monk must cut and chop himself. A door leads to a private garden attached to the cell, with a fruit tree and vegetables tended by the occupant, and more ten-foot walls separating it from other gardens.

Each cell is one monk’s “desert.” That’s what they call it. It’s cut off from the world and from the rest of the monastery so that it may do its work on the inhabitant. “Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything,” Desert Father Abbot Moses told novices who came to the Egyptian desert in the fourth century. The Statutes require monks to let themselves “be molded by it.” The space we tour is spare and vacant save for utensils for eating and a dozen books: Anchor Bible commentaries, the Statutes, three volumes of Cardinal Newman, and Christopher Dawson’s The Making of Europe. The monk remains inside his cell nineteen hours a day, leaving only for daily Mass and prayers in the church, a common meal in the refectory once a week, and the Monday walk with others for two hours. Over time, the dwelling space acquires in the monk’s mind a being and character of its own, an evolving one. Dom André Poisson, Prior of the Grande Chartreuse a generation ago, declared the cell “an extraordinarily efficacious instrument . . . the vehicle of grace, so long as we give ourselves up to it.”

The cell has two “countenances,” the monks in Vermont tell me: the Tender Mother and the Harsh Teacher. When a “retreatant” arrives for an initial trial, a honeymoon phase begins. The retreatant has been accepted after undergoing a physical and psychological appraisal done by a professional sympathetic to the ways of the order. Only genuine candidates for vocational discernment are admitted; the Carthusians do not run de-stressing furloughs for wound-up professionals. One of the fathers tells me that an implicit question hangs in the air: “Are you prepared to be useless?” (A habit and hair shirt are given only at the later novice stage.) When he steps inside and the door shuts, every secular thing he wished to flee is gone—other people, too, which may have been the worst part of life outside, or at least the most distracting. If it is escape from the world that has motivated him to enter, the cell answers with a resounding silence, and he relaxes. The Tender Mother gives protection and comfort.

Hours pass, days and weeks, relief deepens, but a change is inevitable. The routine is set: Matins at midnight, go to sleep at 2:00, rise at 6:30 for mental prayer, Mass in the church an hour later, free time in cell till dinner at noon, prayer and wood chopping in the afternoon, more solitude until Vespers at 5:00 in the chapel, return to cell for bread and drink, then examination of conscience before sleep at 8:15. Day after day of silence. He’s never experienced anything like it before. After a month his previous life has dimmed. The things he sought to escape have been escaped; the past means less and less; he has a new life whose dimensions are 12’ x 12’. Nothing changes from one day to the next. The walls are solid, the view from his window fixed, the routine steady. He can’t keep saying, “I love it here—so peaceful—no phones ringing, no bills to pay or pesky neighbors . . .” That’s old news. The cell emerges as its own place, not the world’s contrary. The bare walls and endless quiet become tedious and void. Waiting for food is irritating. He can’t share the experience with anyone who’s known him before. No family, no friends to call. A faithful Christian shouldn’t feel lonely, but the cell forces it.

The Harsh Teacher takes over. The room that was at first a haven now seems desolate and comfortless. What to do for three hours? He keeps praying, but the void persists; the offices seem repetitive and without effect. No one’s listening. God is far away. It does no good for him to despise the world—the world’s out of the picture. He’s stuck with his sole self, led “to the end of his being,” as one of the fathers put it in our discussions during my visit. The accidents of his existence have fallen away; the interior life is all that’s left. He’s gone out of the world and into himself, a dimmer place. Fond memories are of no help, communication with loved ones forbidden. Perhaps he once believed that following the path of the Desert Fathers would be an ennobling romance. Now he knows the dreary truth. There is nothing to distract him from a life’s regrets and disappointments—and, most of all, from his sin. The usual diversions are over. He’s in the desert. It feels like a compelled march, without warmth and calm. But this is the path that the cell, the Teacher, has laid out from the start. In the words of His Eminence Robert Cardinal Sarah, delivered a few years back at the Grande Chartreuse, the solitary monk is on “the quest for a God Who Reveals Himself in the depths of our being.” Until that journey ends, seventh-century ascetic Isaac of Nineveh observes, “our soul is suffocating: it is in a full storm.”

“Silence is a confrontation with dismal realities within us.” So says the current prior in Vermont, Fr. Lorenzo Maria, who heard the call to monasticism long ago on the other side of the world. There is no abbot here, as with the Benedictines, only priors, who are elected by fellow residents and remain “first among equals.” Monks proceed through defined stages (retreatant, postulant, novitiate, and so on). It’s a ten-year process marked by periodic votes on the candidate, done the old-fashioned way by passing a wooden container around the room for each father and brother to drop a white or black ball into the center compartment. It is one of the sadder tasks of Father Prior that sometimes he must tell a monk, “You must go.” Forty years ago, he was a graduate student in philosophy in the Philippines, born to a wealthy family whose every child had his own servant. Manual labor and ascetic practices were foreign to him. One year a priest invited him to Christmas Midnight Mass. In a packed house that night, an unexpected feeling came over him as he knelt with the rest, shut his eyes, and prayed. “I became lost,” he told me, insensible to everything but his reverie. When he came out of it, everyone was gone, the space dark and silent. The word “Trappist” echoed in his mind. A friend told him about the order and paid for travel to the closest Trappist monastery, where a sublime peace came over him the moment he entered, though he soon left for the more eremitic life of the Carthusians.

When I mention the terrible solitude of the cell, Father Prior corrects me. “Oh, the Devil is very smart,” he remarks with a mischievous glance, though I can tell he means it. The other two monks in the room, Brother Mary James and Dom Johan, nod in agreement. Satan’s in the cell, too, sparking the imagination of the idle monk with horrors that will never come about and small temptations that seem harmless. The latter tactic is subtler than the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness or the demons who battered St. Anthony in his tomb, but just as threatening. “The journey is long, the way dry and barren,” Dom Johan adds, quoting the Statutes. Struggle is a natural part of life in the cell. Father Prior likes a maxim of the Desert Fathers: “We rise and fall, we rise and fall . . .” As assistant novice master in the Charterhouse, Dom Johan is near to the younger ones in discernment, and no doubt has witnessed much suffering up close. The Carthusians compare the most grievous spiritual agonies in the cell to the worst moment in the Passion: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

I gained the impression that a person incapable of that depth of despair might not be judged by the monks a likely candidate. Carthusians at prayer have an unspoken premise: “Lord, help my unbelief.” At the end of Mass, they lie on the ground for five minutes, humble and prostrate, mindful that God is great and “I am nothing.” At Vespers, the three Psalms we sang during my visit were penitential (at other times, I am told, celebratory Psalms are sung). Father Prior puts it this way: “Faith is like being in the dark and feeling for the wall.” I’m not surprised when he and Br. Mary James recall some who came to the Charterhouse with due intentions but didn’t last. One arrived by taxi, without luggage, of course, entered the building, approached his cell, then stopped, turned around, and sped back to the same taxi, never to return. Another stayed one night, then departed the next morning, though the fathers urged him to give it another day. Father Prior doesn’t regret their departure: “God has other plans for them.” I can’t help wondering if those who left so suddenly sensed the dark night of the soul that would soon descend, and they couldn’t bear the thought of it. Or perhaps they passed the cemetery, spotted the bare crosses, and saw themselves dead without a trace, no sign they’d ever made any mark on this world.

The cemetery is like the architecture, austere and rough. It evokes the desert. When the architect of the monastery offered to smooth the granite slabs and cover the scars of stonecutting, the monks declined, preferring the unpolished look. The crosses on the graves couldn’t be simpler; all are exactly the same. A cement cross just like the one outside the gate stands in the center. When a monk dies, the community conducts two days of prayer before burial. The monk is sewn tightly in his habit and laid directly in the ground and covered up. No coffin. When we stepped outside to examine the row of graves, Father Prior pointed to the last one on the right and stated that it contained two bodies, one monk plus that monk’s confessor. When the second died two weeks after the first, the fathers thought it a fitting and lovely outcome to open the grave, set them beside one another, and close it until the Second Coming would release them together. If, far from the Charterhouse, a monk’s parent or sibling is dying, he may not leave to join the family. Not even a phone call is allowed, only a letter in which the monk promises to pray for the sufferers.

It seems a cold existence—until you’ve stayed and met the people. In the late November chill I spent the hour of Mass in scarf and overcoat and shivered, while they kneeled and sang with no socks on their feet, only sandals like those of the Desert Fathers. They stride into church in single file with heads down, no greetings. Bare walls, frosty air, dusky winter light, and “great silence” envelop them all day, bread and drink their only nourishment at night for much of the year. Why, then, are they so convivial and tender with me, an interviewer with no monastic impulse? During my visit, their transition from sober penitent at Mass to amiable tour guide, cordial food-server, and mentorly conversationalist was a snap. They provided coffee, bread and cheese, and brownies, related life stories, answered with pleasure every question, explained the rules of the order as if they were a soothing nine-hundred-year bond with St. Bruno, and sent me home with two rosaries made by Carthusians in Spain, a bottle of Chartreuse, and a loaf of home-baked bread.

I hope I don’t sound sentimental when I say that the very presence of Father Prior, Br. Mary James, Dom Johan, and Fr. Mary Joseph, who joined us on the second day, spread ease and patience the moment they entered. To be in their company was an instant repose. As they spoke of the workings of Satan and dark corners of the heart, their inner gratitude didn’t flag one bit. One longed to share it. Carthusians, they told me, insist on fidelity to the Magisterium, no change in the essentials, but this firmness seemed a restful security in our time of frenzied impermanence. They noted changes in church language, such as “Blessed is the man who fears the Lord” becoming “Blessed are they who fear the Lord,” and decided, “No, not for us, we’ll stay with the old way”—which I heard as trusty force against the modern melting of foundations that is so often miscast as progress. Our first conversation, which lasted all afternoon, felt like thirty minutes.

These men have passed through dark nights of the cell and emerged with an infectious love of God. All seems well here. The anguished novice back in his quarters, lonely and shaky, stuck on himself, is right where he should be—for the moment. His journey has started. God still exists, but He is far away. The silence conveys God’s absence better than any nihilistic word uttered by Nietzsche. “My God, my God,” the monk repeats, until the cell changes his mind, subdues the worldly ego, and out of that submission he begins to recognize that God is with him. Everyone has “an instinctive refusal of humility,” says Dom André, and the cell overcomes it. It confronts the monk with his sin, his vanity, too. The journey into the self is not a mode of self-realization, not a self-development. One isn’t out to acquire strength and surety of that kind, of becoming “comfortable with who you are.” The world promises that, the cell doesn’t. The empty hours and confining walls leave the monk with a truth that the world he left behind never communicated. As Father Prior put it, “I cannot move one more inch without God.”

The humbling has to happen. Without it, he can’t absorb the full teaching—“The journey is long . . .” The impulse of every ego, of every fallen will, is to humanize God, to make him relatable. A desperate self frames God as a reassuring power: Jesus calming the waters. We shun the voice in the whirlwind thundering at Job. The cell blocks that effort to blunt God’s sovereign majesty. It tells him, “The god you summon isn’t the real God, for what you desire is something that props you up, that makes Him but another being in the world, supreme, yes, but brought down to your measure.” Questions pile up in the hours of silence. Do you really think that your few years on earth are comparable to something that falls outside of time? Can you know God as you would another person? Are you proud enough to say that you would’ve stayed awake while Peter and the others fell asleep? The solitary who admits his dependence doesn’t ask God to stay close and empower him. He accepts, instead, a terrifying fact: the absolute otherness of the Lord. By proclaiming his nothingness, the monk is able to receive God’s eternal dominion. His faith has been purified of human projections. What he thought was God’s abandonment is really His transcendence. The presumption that God is absent from the cell was a misinterpretation of our finitude paired with His infinitude. The Being who created the heavens and the earth must appear to all creatures great and small as forever beyond and above, of course! The Wholly Other hasn’t forsaken you; he awaits your love.

While in Vermont, I visited old friends who live an hour south of the Charterhouse of the Transfiguration. When I spoke of my experience in that withdrawn yet joyful place, they asked, “What do they do?”

“They pray,” I replied.

“That’s all?”

“Pretty much.”

My friends weren’t critical of the monks. They were rather respectful, in fact. But the solitary, prayer-centered life puzzled them. They’re not alone. To dwell in silence, denying pleasures and dodging current events, strikes other modern minds I’ve met as a gloomy enclosure. What, they wonder, does prayer accomplish? Why choose solitude, silence, and the discipline of the Statutes over the fun and freedom of the outside? It doesn’t occur to them that unleashed desire, the gospel of our liberated age, can mean a loss of freedom, or that immersion in media can become a mode of ignorance. Merton once wrote, “He will perhaps understand the history of his age better if he knows less of what takes up space on the front page of the newspapers. He will have a different, and perhaps more accurate, perspective.” He was right.

The Carthusians I met on the slopes of Mt. Equinox wouldn’t bother to quibble with those who doubt the utility of their way of life. They’d likely say, “What better way to live than by loving God with all your heart?” There is no higher happiness. When I mentioned to the monks the secular assumption of the uselessness of prayer, they referred straight off to the uselessness of the Crucifixion. To give all and get nothing in return, to seek no worldly reward yet feed the hungry souls of those who can’t make the sacrifice—that’s a model. The nuns of the Charterhouse of Notre Dame believe that “in our prayer we intercede for all and give thanks.” Dom Johan asserted, “If I pray for someone, that person is not alone.” He answers email queries sent to the Charterhouse, and attaches to every response a note that he will pray for the inquirer.

As head of the monastery, Father Prior sometimes has to travel to other sites, including the Mother House. He recounts to me strangers approaching him, clasping his hands, and thanking him for praying for him and her and everyone else. The Charterhouse receives 5,500 Mass requests a year, and more than sixty serious applications from those interested in joining. (Transfiguration can take only one new retreatant per month.) Those requesting a Mass know that a solitary’s prayer does have consequences, though the Mass takes place a thousand miles away in a modest chapel lit only by candles, a place the petitioners have never seen. Into Great Silence won several awards including the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Festival in good part because the contemplative image of monks at prayer impressed even the pagans of the independent movie scene. Charterhouses around the world received a flood of inquiries from people captivated by the film, prompting the Mother House to warn priors against accepting retreatants over-influenced by the movie version of things, however respectful the filmmaker.

So it was when I expressed my enthusiasm during the snowy visit last November. I urged the monks to double the fee for the maple trees and to open a few more charterhouses in the United States. They said nothing, only smiled once again. Growth is a worldly ambition. Father Prior tells a story of a monk dying not long ago at another charterhouse. After a few days it became clear that his body was not corrupting. A miracle was happening. Days passed, the monks prayed and marveled at God’s work. They proceeded with the funeral, however, and lay the body in the grave, whereupon the prior faced downward and asked the deceased in a gentle voice, please, to allow decomposition to begin. They did not want word of a miracle to circulate and turn the charterhouse into a pilgrimage site.

Their only ambition is to grow in love of God. Many Carthusians were martyred in the 1530s in England when Henry VIII seized the monasteries. In 1793 mobs in France trashed the churches and killed hundreds of priests and nuns, and again in Italy in 1944 Carthusians suffered when the Charterhouse of Farneta hid Jews and Italian refugees from the SS before a band of Nazis tricked their way inside the walls, collected the hidden ones for transport to camps, and beat and shot the monks. But the Carthusians don’t broadcast their sacrifice. They pray, that’s all, and their prayers serve the highest good, which is, in the words of St. John Paul II (speaking of the order), to be the “untiring sentinel of the coming Kingdom” and to “make visible the Savior’s presence and action in the world.” The monk who stays in his cell and prays for a parent in a hospital room far away provides the very best form of consolation. The Carthusian nuns in Benifaçà in Spain believe that “our hidden life is fertile for the world.” Seclusion is not rejection. “We, too, even though we abstain from exterior activity,” the Statutes say, “exercise nevertheless an apostolate of a very high order.”

Silence and solitude bring joy and composure. The voices of the monks are resonant. Here is a happiness that the world rarely allows, the riches of poverty, the fullness of withdrawal, the opening of a humble heart to the magnitude of God. The coldness I felt in my first impression was in me, not in them. By the end of my stay, the gray walls and dark corridors had lost their austerity and become rich in spirit. Perhaps it is idolatry to discern in each face I see at the Charterhouse of the Transfiguration a small transfiguration, but I do. I thought of saying at the end, “May I stay?” But the way of the Carthusians is beyond my capacities. And had I made that request out loud, I’m sure a kindly, sublime smile would have been the reply.

Mark Bauerlein is contributing editor at First Things.

Image by Wikimedia Commons on Creazilla, licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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