By far one of my most precious days in France was a visit to the Chartreuse Monastery. Nestled within the Chartreuse Mountains it was breathtakingly peaceful.
The visit was led and organised by our ‘Dear Guichard’, a professor at the university who had returned from retirement to share his wisdom and sarcastic humour with the Erasmus students. Monsieur Guichard is one of those gems of higher education who really enjoys sharing knowledge and appreciates the interest of his pupils.
The original monastery was founded in 1084 by the hermit Saint Bruno and was subject to countless wars, revolution and restorations to become the Carthusian establishment that it is today. The monastery is the first ever Carthusian monastery, or ‘Charterhouse’ as they are known in the UK and its structure and organisation is quite particular. The monastery is headed by a prior and contains choir monks, also known as hermits, and lay brothers. Various rules are the same to other orders but they lead slightly different lifestyles within the monastery. Because access to the walled monastery itself is forbidden, a museum was built 2km below in 1957 inviting visitors to learn about the living quarters and lifestyle of the monks of the 900 year old ‘Order of Chartreuse’. The life of the hermit is very isolated; they live in private quarters which consist of an upstairs room where the hermits eat, sleep, meditate, pray and write, and a room downstairs with a small workshop where firewood is also kept. On this level there is a door to a small walled garden where monks may grow flowers and vegetables. They lead lives of near complete isolation and are vowed to silence. I have written this off as a future career path (I gather the life of the Carthusian nun is quite similar). The lay brothers have more practical duties and are responsible for cooking, laundry and monastery repairs, among other pious duties. Once a week, all the inhabitants take a walk in the surrounding mountains, and they share a meal in silence on Sundays.
It was humbling to see the simplicity and strictness of the lifestyle; it was serene and idyllic to look at, but as our group picnicked and chatted at the foot of the mountain as they sun beamed through the trees I must admit I did not envy them. After a visit to the museum, there is a short walk up to the monastery itself where silence must be respected. We could only walk around the perimeter wall and up the hill above the monastery as the monks have no contact with the outside world whatsoever except for two days a year when immediate family is allowed to visit.
Standing at the top of the hill over the looking the monastery as the bells chimed, it felt good to be alive.