Leave No Trace

As soon as I finished Diane Ackerman’s Natural History of Love, I picked up The Power of Silence by Robert Cardinal Sarah and Nicolas Diat. Bridget had bought me a copy for Mother’s Day (she’s very thoughtful), and I’ve been looking forward to reading it. After Ackerman’s section on Religious Love, though, I found that I couldn’t get to Cardinal Sarah’s book fast enough. What do they say about being unable to teach people who think they already know everything?

Anyway, I’ve not gotten far in The Power of Silence. Every time I pick it up, the volume in the house gets turned up at least three notches. Ironic, isn’t it? It looks like the structure of the book is a Q-and-A format (like Pope John Paul II’s Crossing the Threshold of Hope). Diat asks Cardinal Sarah a question; the good prelate answers it. Apparently, according to the introduction (which I got through with lots of sniffling and swiping at my eyes), inspiration from the book came from Cardinal Sarah’s encounter with a young monk, Brother Vincent-Marie of the Resurrection, who lived and died at the Abbey in Lagrasse (France). Brother Vincent had lost the ability to speak (the result of his multiple sclerosis), but that only served to make his meetings with Cardinal Sarah more meaningful.

As Diat explained in the introduction, one thing led to another (as it always does) and he ended up with Cardinal Sarah at a Carthusian monastery:

Without Brother Vincent, without Father Emmanuel-Marie [Abbot at Lagrasse], we would never have gone to the Grande Chartreuse.

When the idea germinated of asking the Father General of the Carthusian Order to take part in this book, we scarcely thought that such a project was possible. The cardinal did not want to disturb the silence of the principal monastery of the Order, and it is extremely rare for the Father General to speak.

Nevertheless, on Wednesday, February 3, 2016, in the early afternoon, our train stopped at the station in Chambéry …

The seventy-fourth Father General of the Carthusian Order, Dom Dysmas of Lassus, welcomed the cardinal with an especially touching simplicity.

It’s Diat’s description of the monastery and the practices of the order that I find fascinating and beautiful (and strangely familiar after reading Louise Penny’s novel, The Beautiful Mystery) :

At the heart of this mystical geography, Saint Bruno’s dream of solitude and silence has taken shape since the year 1084. In the historical anthology La Grande Chartreuse, au-delà du silence, Nathalie Nabert speaks about an incomparable blend: “Carthusian spirituality was born of the encounter of a soul and a place, from the coincidence between a desire for a quiet life in God and a landscape, Cartusie solitudinem, as the ancient documents describe it, the isolation and wild beauty of which attracts souls to even greater solitude, far from the ‘fugitive shadows of the world,’ allowing men to pass ‘from the storm of this world to the tranquil, sure repose of the port.’ …

I kept thinking about the generations of Carthusians who had hastened their steps in order to participate in the Divine Office. The Grande Chartreuse is the house of the centuries, the voiceless house, the holy house.

I thought again also about the hateful, disturbing eviction of the religious on April 29, 1903, following the passage of Émile Combes’ law on the expulsion of the religious congregations, which was reminiscent of the dark hours of the French Revolution and the forced departure of the Carthusians in 1792. It is necessary to reflect on that profanation and the arrival in the ancient monastery of an infantry battalion after it had smashed the heavy entrance gates, then of two squadrons of dragroons and hundreds of demolitions specialists. The magistrates and the soldiers made their way into the church, and the Fathers were brought our of their choir stalls one by one and led outdoors. The enemies of God’s silence triumphed in shame. On the one side there were the fierce supporters of a world liberated from its Creator, and on the other—the faithful, poor Carthusians, whose only wealth was the beautiful silence of heaven. …

While the earth is sleeping, or trying to forget, the nocturnal Divine Office is the burning heart of Carthusian life. … It was quarter past midnight, and monks were extinguishing the few vigil lights that were still lit in the church. Perfect darkness covered the whole sanctuary when the Carthusians intoned the first prayers. The night made it possible to observe more clearly than ever the glowing point of light marking the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. … The liturgy unfolds in a half-light that seeks God. There are the voices of the Carthusians, and a perfect silence.

Toward half past two in the morning, the bells rang for the Angelus. The monks left the church one by one. Is the nocturnal Divine Office madness or a miracle? In all the Charterhouses in the world, night prepares for day, and day prepares for night. We must never forget the sweet, powerful statement of Saint Bruno in his letter to Raoul le Verd: “Here God gives his athletes, in return for the labor of the combat, the desired reward: a peace that the world does not know and joy in the Holy Spirit.” …

Before we departed, the cardinal wanted to have a moment of recollection in the cemetery. We walked through the monastery, those long magnificent galleries, like labyrinths carved out by prayer. The large cloister measures 709 feet from north to south, 75 feet from east to west, or a quadrilateral with a perimeter of 1,568 feet. The foundations of this Gothic complex go back to the twelfth century; since then, permanent silence has reigned. In the Carthusian deserts, the cemetery is located at the center of the cloister.

The graves bore no names, dates, or mementos. On the one side, there were stone crosses, for the generals of the Order, and on the other—wooden crosses for the Fathers and the lay Brothers. The Carthusians are buried in the ground without a coffin, without a tombstone; no distinctive mark recalls their individual lives. I asked Dom Dysmas de Lassus the location of the crosses of the monks who had been his contemporaries and whose deaths he had witnessed. Dom Dysmas no longer knew.

The gusts of wind and the mosses have already done their work,” he declared. …

Since 1084, Carthusians have not wanted to leave any trace. God alone matters. Stat Crux dum volvitur orbis—the world turns and the Cross remains.


  1 comment for “Leave No Trace

  1. Jessica
    July 17, 2017 at 7:25 pm

    Cardinal Sarah’s book has been on my side table since it’s release in April. I’m slowly getting through it. Many things conspire to make me take so long with it –including the volume level in my house (and in my life in general) but mainly because I get about two paragraphs into it and then have to stop and absorb. It’s beautiful.

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