A Carthusian’s life is not an easy one

When Silence Speaks
by Tim Peeters, DLT, £12.99

It might be imagined that the life of a Carthusian – dominated by silence and solitude and away from the cares of the world – is always one of peace and contentment. Assuredly, the rigours of the order can lead men to moments of extraordinary spiritual depth and encounter, but the road is sometimes rocky.

Tim Peeters invokes a technical term, acedia, which refers to a sense of apathy or spiritual darkness. It is not uncommon for this malaise to descend on Carthusians, especially during the early years of their monastic careers, as they sit alone in their cells. One of Peeters’s interviewees talks of “aridity, monotony [and] confrontation with your own self”, while another describes a “dark tunnel of faith”.

To master life as a Carthusian, great perseverance is often required and it is perhaps unsurprising that such a small proportion of those who embark upon this vocation stay the course.

For those who do, there can be rich spiritual rewards but, as Peeters laments, the Carthusians are often treated more as an anachronistic curiosity than a dynamic, worthwhile order – even by some in the Catholic world. Peeters has heard grumbling about men hidden behind high walls who play no significant sacramental or pastoral role and seem to have no interest in evangelisation. “Is it not an escape from the world, an escape from responsibility, a form of complacency?” the critics ask.

An obvious rebuttal is that there are many ways to serve God, and Peeters’s sympathetic but even-handed book should reignite your admiration for the Carthusians. It offers a rewarding potted history of the order, a detailed account of daily life, an analysis of the “architecture of solitude” that defines Carthusian houses, and some precious insights into the order’s centuries-old spirituality.

We should not assume, writes Peeters, that Carthusians retreat from the world out of a “sense of misanthropy”. Indeed, while most of their time is spent alone, they relish the “intense moments of fraternal encounter and consolation” with their confrères. It is always, though, back to the cell, the praying of offices and the interrupted sleep.

It can’t be easy.