The International Writers Magazine:

Raymond K. Clement

There are four major monastic orders: The Benedictine, The Dominican, The Franciscan, and The Franciscan ‘Minori’. But hidden away in the highlands of south central Calabria is a monastery complex not a member of any of these Orders. It has been there for more than one thousand years, but it is virtually unknown.

Its Cloister is inhabited by a small Order of monks known as Certosini. It is the Certosa of  San Bruno. At present there are nineteen in residence. They are an Order dedicated to contemplation, solitude, and prayer. It is also unusual for one singular characteristic: it is dedicated to carrying out its mission in complete silence. For the majority of time the Certosini spend their days in a small, spare, room or cell; where they read, think, and contemplate-in silence. At work (in the fields, the library, or the kitchen) they are absolutely silent. At Mass, matins, devotions, and meals, not a word is spoken.

         Sunday is the one day of the week when they may converse. It is their community day. But even then the conversation is limited to the matters of the Certosa-no “small talk.” Orders for the coming weeks are issued by the Priore, Jacques Dupont, who has held that position for the last ten years. Other issues of importance to the entire community are raised and discussed. Silence then again reigns. The depth of this commitment to silence is evidence by the following:  The ban on speaking, by a vote of the Certosini themselves, was left in place during the visit of Pope John Paul II a few years ago. Of course, not being bound by their rules he praised them for their steadfast devotion to their order and the Church. Since then, in his honor a place has been set for him at the head of the table for every meal.

         The regimen of the Order is strict, rising at 7:00 a.m. and retiring at 7:00 p.m. Meals are taken in a common dining room. Twenty-two place settings of white linen and simple knives, forks, and spoons (not of gold or silver, as rumor has it.) Wine, water, and milk are served with good, basic food, a lot of which is produced in the gardens of the Certosa. Meat is served, (the Certosini are not vegetarians, again another rumor). Meals are taken in silence except for readings from scripture or other theological works while the men eat.

         There is no television, no radio, no newspapers, no magazines, no popular fiction or non fiction books permitted. Computers are used in the library, but no Internet. Only tomes on theology or church doctrine are permitted. The Monastery of Serra San Bruno has a fine library of ancient manuscripts and books. (In a bow to the twenty-first Century a catalogue is now available from the Museum Book Shop on CD-ROM.) Qualified scholars may make arrangements to do research. (The library strictly enforces the no talking edict.)

         The Order was formed in 1053 by San Bruno, then Brunone di Colonia at Chartreuse, near Grenoble, in France. At that time he dictated  the strict rules which still govern the Order to this day. Through his close association with the soon to be Pope Urban II he was able to obtain from Ruggero the Norman (future King of Sicily) a grant of land in the fastness of the Calabrian interior upon which he establish his Certosa. in 1091. He spent his remaining ten years at the Certosa. In mortification he often slept upon a stone bed hewn of rock. On October 6, 2001 a celebration of his death was held at the monastery.

         Silence, solitude and reflection are the daily guide for the men who reside in “cloister.” Women may not enter the cloister-ever. The brothers go about their duties in silence. The common rooms, the chapels, the dining room, the halls, walls, and walkways are absolutely spotless. It would pass, with flying colors, any “white-glove” inspection.

         At the beginning of a long hallway is the wooden door to the cell of the Priore, the remaining eighteen or so Certosini are in identical rooms along the interior wall. Inside a large cabinet stands against a far wall; it contains a bedstead with a rude mattress, a wardrobe, and a small personal chapel. A plain deal table and chair complete the furnishings. Every room is identical. Hanging in the wardrobe, in different weights, are the plain, unbleached white woolen robes worn by all the Certosini, and a pair of sandals, and personal toiletries. The loose fitting robes are tied at the waist by a woven white cord, a peaked hood which is usually in place covering their visage completes the ensemble.

         It should be noted that there is one difference that puts a small stamp of individuality upon the resident of each cell. Upon each door there is a small hand carved sign containing a short passage from the Bible. Each one is different, and they are in Latin. The one on  the door of the Priore reads: “Ambula coram me et esto perfectus.”  “Walk before me, and be perfect.” Genesis, Chapter 17.

         It is an arduous, and long road one must travel to become a Certosini. If one is interested he contacts the Priore for an appointment. If the Priore agrees an interested candidate can spend one week living the cloistered life. If after that experience one is still interested a dialogue is commenced between the candidate and the Priore - by letter. This can last up to one year. If the Priore is satisfied that the candidate has the “makings” of a Certosini he is invited to enter upon a noviate of seven years duration, during which time the candidate participates fully in the cloistered life. At the end of this period he is granted the robes of a full Certosini, and welcomed into the community. A question of how many fail as against succeed, went politely unanswered.

         One enters the courtyard of the cloister, once again impressed by the all encompassing silence. The stone walk-ways are similar to the ones inside, worn smooth by the passage of sandaled feet over the centuries. The grounds are perfectly manicured. The scent of the fruit trees’ springtime buds permeated the air. Then, in a secluded corner one sees the cemetery. And one is astounded when its story is revealed; for here lay the bones of all the Certosini who have lived here since the fourteenth century!

         The graveyard measures no more 40 feet deep, by 60 feet wide. (A request to take a photograph was denied.) In the center stands a plain stone cross. It is surrounded in neat rows by what were once rough hewn wooden crosses, but which have been worn smooth and now have been  made dark with a patina of the centuries. The crosses bear no names and no dates, but beneath each cross there lie the bones of not one body, but many. No one knows for sure the exact number, over one thousand was hazarded as a guess.  In recent years records, secret records, have been kept so that relatives, male relatives, may know the final resting place of a brother, father, or uncle.

         It is fitting that these men who live in anonimity, and silence, should find their final resting place in like circumstances.

         The crunch of the white gravel stone beneath one’s shoes leaving the confines of the cloister is a welcome sound to the ears. One passes the ruins of the once imposing fourteenth century Basilica of which only one wall and some columns remain after the ravages of earthquakes over the centuries. At the large oaken doors that allow one to exit a knock brings a burly guard to open the doors. One steps into a different world. The sounds we take for granted most of the time almost seem to grate on the ears, at the same time they are welcome, you are back in your own world, leaving behind the Certosini and their self-imposed silence.

         As with all closed societies, especially those of a religious orientation, the Certosa of San Bruno has had more than its share of rumors, some of which have already been mentioned. However, it is the sensationalism surrounding supposed “Visitors” that has roiled the public’s imagination. These range from a sojourn of a member of the crew  of the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb, who supposedly died there and is buried in the small cemetery, to most recently, an extended visit by the noted Economist Federico Caffe. It is difficult to dispute a rumor, much less disprove it, and the Certosa is at a further disadvantage due to the cloak on anonimity that protects those within its cloistered walls. It is a problem that the Priore finds difficult to comprehend, much less solve. But the rumors still persist.

         The Serra San Bruno stands at a elevation of almost two thousand two hundred feet. As one retraces the tortuous road with its hair pin turns to the valley below, one is again enthralled by the fields of green pasture and those given over to agriculture. Few buildings mar this pristine scene. One reflects on the Certosini who own some of these fields, and their self imposed regimen. But then one also recalls momentary glimpses of the faces of these men as they go about their routine; in those faces one sees reflected the possibility that these men have discovered which so many of us seek and do not find - peace and fulfillment.

In order to “open” as much of the Certosa as it rules allow a new museum has been built. It takes the visitor on a “virtual” tour of the facility, with pictures, sound, and words. In a short forty-five minutes one can come to a good understanding of what The Serra San Bruno is, who the Certosini are, and some idea of what it is like to live a cloistered existence. (Museum open: 9-1, 3-8:00  May to October and 9-1, 3-6:00 Nov to April. Admission Euro 2,00 Tel. 0963 70608).  Last year the Monastery was visited by more than 30,000 people. The Director, Dott.Antonio Zaffino, expects this figure to significantly increase, due to the new museum.
 © Raymond Clement Nov 2006
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 Verba volant, Scripta manent. (Roman proverb)
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