Diving into the Absolute of God, at the School of St. Bruno of Cologne

The spiritual influence of St. Bruno and the Carthusians has remained strong throughout the centuries

Anthony van Dyck, “Saint Bruno Praying,” ca. 1620
Anthony van Dyck, “Saint Bruno Praying,” ca. 1620 (photo: Public Domain)

The spirituality of the founder of the Carthusians remains an undying landmark in the turmoil of a world that is forgetful of God.

Exactly 920 years have passed since St. Bruno of Cologne was born in heaven. Yet, his spiritual legacy is still vibrant, and continues to live through the Carthusian communities across the planet.

Bruno was born in Cologne, Germany, about the year 1030, into a wealthy family whose name remains unknown. Around the age of 14, he went to study theology and philosophy at France’s prestigious Cathedral School of Reims, one of the most renowned institutions in Europe at that time. A brilliant student, Bruno rapidly became a doctor, then canon of the cathedral chapter, then rector of the cathedral school, in 1056. He was long considered one of the greatest masters of his time. 

But the prestige of his position also confronted him with the rampant corruption and immorality of the local clergy of that time. In particular, he found himself in opposition to his archbishop, Manasses I, who would later be deposed by the reforming Pope St. Gregory VII in 1081 on the ground of simony.

The episcopal office was offered to Bruno him after Manasses’ deposition, but he refused it, thus renouncing to the emblematic episcopal see of Reims (where St. Remigius baptized King Clovis in 496) to embrace the monastic life.


Like the Desert Fathers

“Bruno chose to leave the fleeting shadows of the world to go in search of eternal goods,” Dom Marcellin Theeuwes — grand prior of the Carthusians until 2012 — recounted in a very rare interview with newspaper La Croix in 2001, on the occasion of the 9th centenary of the death of the saint. “He had sensed that the best and most fruitful reform was the one that began in one’s own heart. What pushed him to live as a hermit, therefore, was a very strong and exclusive attractionfor the things of God, which slowly matured in his soul.”

After putting his affairs in order and donating his goods to the poor, St. Bruno left for Burgundy with some companions to finally get to Grenoble (southeastern France), in 1084. There, St. Hugh of Châteauneuf, then bishop of Grenoble, led them to the nearby Chartreuse mountains — which would give their name to St. Bruno’s order — so that they could set up their hermitages.

“Bruno placed himself in the right line of the Desert Fathers, the pioneers of Christian monasticism who left such a mark on the Church of the first centuries,” Dom Theeuwes added. “In today’s terms, we would say that Bruno wanted to put the value of being before that of doing, challenging the primacy of efficiency and profitability.”

Some six years later, however, one of his former students in Reims, who became pope under the name of Urban II, called him to Rome to make him one of his close advisers as he was undertaking new reforms for the Church. Reluctantly, he obeyed the Pope’s will and left the silence of his French mountain to join the tumult of the Roman life. One year later, in 1092, he was granted the permission to resume his monastic life and was sent to Calabria, in southern Italy, where he founded several other hermitages. He died at the Abbey of Santo Stefano del Bosco a decade later, on Oct. 6, 1101. The Carthusian Order was built according to his life and spiritual legacy around 1125.

One of his brothers of Calabria remembered him in these words, quoted by the Carthusian Order’s website: “Bruno deserves to be praised for many things, but above all for this: he was a man of always even temper; that was his specialty. His face was always cheerful, his speech modest; with the authority of a father he showed the tenderness of a mother. No one found him too proud, but gentle as a lamb.”


The Strength of Radicality 

The spiritual influence of St. Bruno of Cologne has remained strong throughout the centuries, and several saints have been touched by this model of radicality in self-abandonment to God. This was the case, for instance, of St. Ignatius of Loyola, who went regularly to the monastery of the Grande Chartreuse during his years of studies in Paris. St. John of the Cross was considering joining the Carthusians when St. Teresa of Ávila asked him to found the the first convent of Discalced Carmelite Friars in Duruelo, Spain.

Still today, in a postmodern world that has little to do with that of our great medieval saints, the Carthusian model continues to be a source of fascination. For Guillaume d’Alançon, author of the book Saint Bruno, la solitude transfigurée, such a lasting spiritual fruitfulness is explained by the fact that the Carthusians have followed the same rhythm every day for the past millenary. 

Recalling the famous Carthusian adage Cartusia num quam reformata quia numquam deformata (“The Charterhouse has never been reformed because it has never been deformed”), d’Alançon reckons that “they teach us, as Catholics, not to be too attached to fashions, but to put our roots in what remains.” 

“The Order has never experienced a crisis because, in accordance with St. Bruno’s wishes, it has a very strict custom,” he told the Register, explaining that the monasteries are mostly in very remote and deserted places, while outside visitors cannot attend services or Masses. 

The Carthusian monks, whose life consists mostly of prayer and fasting — their Lent period is from Sept. 14 to Easter — see their parents only once a year. “The asceticism on which their daily life is based is a matrix that invites them to stay out of temptations.” 

“In a world where we are overwhelmed by communication, consumption, leisure, the Carthusian life, by its radicality, responds to a secret thirst of the soul,” he continued. “St. Bruno wrote and spoke little, but through his Carthusians disciples, he remains a witness of the essential.”  

Evangelizing Loneliness

It is more specifically St. Bruno’s relation to loneliness that inspired the book of Guillaume d’Alançon, who was struck by the suffering generated by the increasing unwilling solitude in our current societies, especially in the big cities where communities and families are more fragmented than ever.

“I wanted to evangelize this loneliness and guide those who suffer toward other people who experienced such loneliness, who welcomed and overcame it, finding a meaning to it through the presence of God,” he said.

Loneliness, indeed, is a fundamental part of the Carthusian vocation. Outside of offices, meals and the spatiamentum(their weekly walk), the monks lead an eremitical life in small houses connected by a cloister, and say Mass on their own, without concelebrating.

“The life of solitude with God makes us contemporary with eternity, because it makes us go beyond the passing of time — through hope and attention to the present moment.”

“We live things with the purpose of being with God,” he concluded. “That’s why the Carthusians generally are very good philosophers because they have a special approach in their doctrine, a philosophy of being, a theology of the presence of God; in this constant union with God, they make us aware of the permanence of things.”