Monday, April 30, 2012

Carthusian laundry

I have a good sized collection of books devoted to elected silence and the contemplative life, ranging from Sara Maitland's A Book of Silence to Thomas Merton to St. John of the Cross to the desert fathers, and I'm always on the look out for new additions. I recently stumbled across First Initiation into Carthusian Life — an introduction to life in a Charterhouse written for Carthusian postulants and novices.

My first thought was it might be useful background reading for my students for the next time I teach the course on contemplative traditions in the West. Two pages in, I am ready to tuck the book into my bag for my upcoming retreat (a week in solitude in a hermitage here).

The anonymous Carthusian author invites the postulant to read the book slowly, as lectio divina, to reflect deeply on the scripture passages that treat of a contemplative life. It's a rich banquet set out, one I want to do more than taste, one I want to linger over — or to use the novice master's metaphor — to get past the rind and into the interior.

The section on community life is a helpful meditation for anyone living in community - and we all do. (This Carthusian community is male, hence the non-inclusive language.) "We listen carefully to each other and try to understand each others' point of view. We never condemn, or judge a person. We never repeat any evil we have heard. We do not look at the speck in our brother's eye. We avoid all criticism. We try always to adopt a positive attitude, to see the good in our brother's actions and to discover the face of Christ which is gradually being formed in him. At times, one has to accept the fact that one is not understood nor can one understand the other — but all all times we can love." The italics are mine, as that's the piece I need to think about before I start typing into com boxes, or rehearsing arguments in my head, but it all bears contemplating.

What might we have the time and breath to say if we were not criticizing others? If we gave over trying to convince each other to change entrenched positions, particularly on matters principally of style (Communion in the hand, Latin in the liturgy, partisan politics)? How might we "offer each other discrete but very precious mutual help along the steep paths" we follow?

But as my friend Lisa is fond of saying, it all comes down to the laundry. The last two pages of the book deal with the practicalities of getting your laundry done when you are living in solitude and silence within a community of other silent solitaries. There is almost as much as instruction given about laundry as there is about meditation. Which as postulants and novices, might be more what they need. There is almost a scriptural character to the advice given about bloodstains: "If anything is stained with blood, it should be put at once into COLD water and it will be found that after a couple of hours, the stain has been entirely removed." My experience with newborn sheep suggests not, or maybe my faith isn't strong enough?


  1. Sasha K12:09 PM

    not related to this post at all - but I wanted to let you know that I loved your reflection in Give Us This Day today... you talk about the notes of the psalms stretching to infinity and I have often thought exactly the same thing during the prayers at Mass, that if I listen hard enough I can hear the voices of all the faithful who have come before me and all those who are yet to be.

  2. Thanks, Sasha! One Body, indeed.