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Standing apart – the Carthusians

By Nathan Boynes

In a noisy, busy, and increasingly virtual world, there exists a religious order which stands apart. The Carthusian Order diligently guards its silence and solitude and cherishes a certain hiddenness from the world.

“To the praise of the glory of God, Christ, the Father’s Word, has through the Holy Spirit chosen certain men, whom he willed to lead into solitude and unite to himself in intimate love.”

These words, taken from the prologue of the Carthusian statutes, beautifully introduce the vocation of Carthusians.

Founded in 1084 by St Bruno, they plod along in silence without public ministry: no parishes, no pilgrims, no visitors, no guests.

The Order represents for the Church the extent to which the love of Christ calls us to part with the world. Having come through an extended period of lockdown, quarantine and isolation, perhaps we can learn from a group that has been doing it for more than 900 years.

The Carthusian Order is not impervious to modern curiosity about their way of life. Since 1998, the monks of the Order have produced two albums and permitted the filming of one documentary. These projects gave the world a small glimpse into the desert of Cartusia.

The first and most curious project is a CD released by the English Carthusians who reside at the beautiful neo-Gothic St Hugh’s Charterhouse, Parkminster.

Released in 1998, In the Silence of the Word gained little traction commercially. The album begins with an abridged version of the Carthusian Night Office and includes five chants for Mass. The Night Office is the most distinctive feature of Carthusian liturgy. It combines the traditional morning prayers of Matins and Lauds and is sung in the dead of night in Carthusian chant, a variation of Gregorian chant.

Many who have been fortunate enough to attend the Night Office speak of it as a powerful experience. The slow and careful psalms contrast the magnificent and ornate responsories which seem to soar to Heaven.

The hymns are Ambrosian, some dating back to the 4th century. Like the psalms, they end with a doxology (the Glory be…) sung even more slowly than everything else out of reverence for the Trinity. The readings are carefully and deliberately pronounced, resounding in the large monastery church.

The album is quite an eccentric production. It does not aim to give a full reproduction of the Night Office, which lasts 2-3 hours, but instead aims to give a sense of what it is like, perhaps catering to modern impatience with a more commercially viable 75 minutes. To that end, many of the psalms, canticles and hymns are shortened.

For someone familiar with the monastic psalter, it is odd that many psalms which usually appear in Vespers and Compline (evening and night offices) are used to approximate Matins and Lauds (early morning and morning offices).

This is explained by a monk who writes that the CD is arranged around the theme of silence rather than a liturgical feast.

This also explains the choice of readings for Matins which all come from modern Carthusian writers, some even alive at the time. Usually the readings are a mix of scripture, Church Fathers, and other saints. The writings, however, fit well with the chosen theme of silence.

The last and most obvious oddity of this album is the language flip-flop. The monks seem to switch easily between Latin, which is predominant, and English, with the normal sprinkling of Greek at the Kyrie. However, one can detect a slight stumbling as they try to fit English words to the ancient chant designed for Latin.

It has been the custom for some time that the readings which follow each nocturn be in the local language of each Charterhouse. However, permitting the psalms and other prayers to be said in the vernacular is a more recent innovation.

It can seem confusing when a psalm has a Latin antiphon, but the text is English or when they have been singing in English for some time but then switch to Latin. It occurs most often in the Lauds section of the album.

This is perhaps a product of the confusing nature of any liturgical change and an indication that, unlike the rest of the Church, when it comes to liturgical reform, the Carthusians dip their toes before jumping headfirst.

It is said of them, unlike other Orders, ‘Carthusians never reformed because they never deformed’. It has been remarked however, that perhaps it is more accurate to say that their continuous and incremental approach to reform is to be credited.

In what may be the most pious rap-battle in history, the monks of the motherhouse, La Grande Chartreuse in France replied in 2007 with their own album.

L’Office de la Nuit (The Office of the Night) takes a decidedly different approach. Instead of appealing to modern sensibilities or trying to explain themselves in any way, the album presents the Night Office in its simple glory.

It is recorded live on a Sunday sometime in the summer, even capturing the rustling in the choir stalls and shuffling as monks stand and sit. Their voices show more accurately the natural imperfections of a choir of some 30 monks and yet, the beauty they are capable of while the world is asleep. They also avoid too much switching between Latin and French as more of their Office is in Latin.

The last major project was a film of La Grande Chartreuse and its monks. Released in 2005, Into Great Silence, was a resounding success. No dialogue, no plot but almost three hours of beautifully directed film giving a window into an entirely alien world. It is well worth a watch.

The Carthusians are a powerful sign of God’s love for the Church. Living such a life dedicated to God alone in silence and solitude can only be sustained by Divine Love. These glimpses into their life can give powerful assurance to those of us battling in the world.


Nathan Boynes is a Trinidadian student attending the University of St Andrews, Scotland. His local parish is St Ann’s. The nearest Carthusian community to T&T is the Charterhouse of the Transfiguration, Vermont, USA.


Names & Abbreviations:

Order of St Bruno, Carthusians

(after the Chartreuse valley), O Cart.

Date of Foundation: 1084

Founder: St Bruno

Motto & Charism:

Stat crux dum volvitur orbis, Latin for ‘The Cross is steady while the world is turning.’