St Bruno and the Rambling Carthusians

bruno calabria

I am living in the wilderness of Calabria far removed from habitation..I could never even begin to tell you how charming and pleasant it is. The temperatures are mild, the air is healthful; a broad plain, delightful to behold, stretches between the mountains along their entire length, bursting with fragrant meadows and flowery fields. One could hardly describe the impression made by the gently rolling hills on all sides, with their cool and shady glens tucked away, and such an abundance of refreshing springs, brooks and streams. Besides all this, there are verdant gardens and all sorts of fruit-bearing trees.
(St Bruno the Carthusian)

It has sometimes been argued that the idea of ‘nature’ was invented by the German Romantic movement of the 19th century. Before that time the world was viewed from a severely practical point of view, either as a potential resource to be harvested or as a potential source of danger to be guarded against. There is some truth in this. Before the Industrial Revolution and the increasing urbanisation of the human population it was not really possible to conceptualise a ‘world of Man’ (male and female) as being sharply distinct from a ‘world of nature.’ In that sense, then, those who inhabited the ancient or medieval worlds did not and could not view ‘nature’ from anything quite like the modern perspective, not least because they had no reason to apprehend a thing called ‘nature’ as being distinct from the humans who observed it. Where contemporary Man (male and female) see’s two realms, natural and artificial, pre-contemporary Man saw only one single realm.

Yet we can see from St Bruno’s 11th century rhapsody about Calabria that this did not imply a merely utilitarian approach to what we now call nature. For Bruno it offered more than the hope of food or the fear of wolves. It fed his heart and mind via his eyes and ears and sense of smell. It was a source of aesthetic pleasure to him. More than that, he also wrote-
Yet why dwell on such things as these? The man of true insight has other delights, far more useful and attractive, because divine. It is true, though that our rather feeble nature is renewed and finds new life in such perspectives, wearied by its spiritual pursuits and austere mode of life. It is like a bow, which soon wears out and runs the risk of becoming useless, if it is kept continually taut
Which indicates that he saw in the natural world a therapeutic resource which did not require to be cultivated or fenced off but simply to be enjoyed in itself for itself.

I have long held the view that many of the great spiritual teachers who lived before Freud and Jung were, despite that handicap (sic), shrewd and insightful psychologists. There is some 21st century research that points to the usefulness of taking exercise in the countryside or by the sea as an effective strategy against the symptoms of mild depression, stress or anxiety. For their part the monastic order founded by Bruno, the Carthusians, has a very characteristic practice, namely that once a week, every week, all the monks capable of doing so go on a long walk together through the surrounding country. In many ways the Carthusians are the most austere, silent and solitary of the Catholic religious orders and this regular phenomenon of a long chattering column of white-habited monks roaming at large seems at odds with their normal lifestyle but it constitutes precisely the slackening of the bow-string which St Bruno, the psychologist, recommended.

As the charismatic founder of a new and profoundly contemplative order Bruno was not only concerned to secure the mental and physical wellbeing of his monks but also to do honour to God. One cannot easily contemplate while on a long sociable walk but one will see and hear and inhale things from the world around. Carthusian rambles do not ordinarily take the same path each week, the whole range of the surrounding area its hills, forests and lakes are explored over time. Once or twice a year there is even a whole-day ramble which goes further afield again. In addition to its therapeutic benefits this practice also forms part of the architecture of the mind, more particularly the architecture of the contemplative mind which will, in its times of silent prayer and encounter with God experience it and Him differently precisely because that mind, through its body, has spent time immersed wholly within the natural world.

Even when, in contemplation, the mind is silent and still it is not in a wholly empty vacuum. It has walls and furniture. If you lead a busy active life that furniture will include your work, your home, your family, your health and so on. You may not consciously advert to it while praying but it will still be there, it will affect how you pray, how you contemplate, how you express and receive love. The Carthusian typically leads a life which is vastly less stimulated by the fruits of activity than most other orders of monks let alone people in the vita activa. If we experience the life of a Charterhouse in the form of a time-limited spiritual retreat it may have the effect of a refreshing plunge into the depths of calm and deep peace. If, however, we live immersed in this way of being for decades, for an entire adult lifetime, it might expose us to the risks of under-stimulation leading to apathy, listlessness, depression, despair or what the Desert Fathers called acidie, a sort of torpor of the mind.

And here St Bruno’s rambling tendencies appear as an inspired act of genus. Many other religious orders have compulsory periods of recreation where monks or nuns in a community have to speak to each other, whether they want to or not. Sometimes, like St Thérèse, they may even write, stage and perform in plays or something of the kind. But this regular perambulation through the natural world is a unique, or virtually unique, Carthusian practice. What it does, literally and figuratively, is give the monks (incidentally female Carthusians are called monks not nuns) perspective, it situates the solitary prayer in their cells and the corporate prayer in choir within the context of God’s wide, varied and beautiful creation. It is surely no accident that Bruno finishes his rhapsody with reference to fruit-bearing trees because interacting with this garden of Creation does bear fruit in prayer, contemplation and community life for the Carthusian Order, and also for those in the world who learn from their wisdom.

The word ‘Paradise’ comes, as I understand it and I may be wrong, from Persia and originally meant ‘walled garden’ or ‘orchard’ or ‘park.’ When used to describe the place where Adam and Eve resided prior to the Fall it means, really, the garden of what we now call ‘nature’ cultivated by God alone and enjoyed by Man (male and female) without onerous labour; although in Paradise Lost the poet Milton suggests that non-onerous labour by Adam was called for, which perhaps has found its modern echo in the existence of garden sheds into which men retreat to engage in perfectly useless work which they thoroughly enjoy. However, I digress, it seems clear that in the Divine scheme the natural world is given to Man not simply as a material resource to be plundered to the fullest possible extent for what it can physically give us but also as a spiritual resource to be enjoyed simply because it just is.

Nature itself and we ourselves have been altered as a consequence of the Fall but as it has not caused us to cease being spiritual creatures neither has it stopped nature being a spiritual resource as St Bruno so clearly perceived. What was previously achieved without labour- nearness to God, the acquiring of material resources, the inflowing of natural delights- now requires labour of various and differing types. And that means that these need to be regulated not by urgent sensual desire but by governing Reason. Which is to say that we need a balanced approach. If we do not preserve a Paradise, if we do not have a Calabria in which to ramble, then the bow-string will snap. Ultimately we will not only be unable to relax in nature but we will be unable to extract what we physically need from it. Man does not live by bread alone but by every Word that proceeds from the mouth of God and one of these words is the beautiful, bountiful Creation, the Garden. For our sins we must labour to steward it and by our sins we have the power to destroy it. In virtue and in reason let us by all means cultivate it but also, with St Bruno, ramble in it too.


The picture is ‘St Bruno Prays in La Torre, Calabria’ by Vicente Carducho 

Quotes from St Bruno come from his letter to Raoul le Verd.

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