St. Bruno, founder of the Carthusians, was born into an unidentified noble family of Cologne, Germany. Called by his talents to an intellectual life, he studied first at Reims, then at Tours, and became a brilliant scholar in philosophy and sacred and profane literature. Returning to Cologne for theological studies, he was ordained a priest in 1055. Then he was named director of his Alma Mater at Reims. During the 20 years of his directorship, this noted school maintained its high reputation. Many of the alumni became distinguished scholars and churchmen including Odo of Chatillon, the future Pope Urban II.
Bruno was too omnicompetent, however, to be left in the schoolroom. Named chancellor of the diocese of Reims, he soon became embroiled with the archbishop, Manasses I. Manasses, who is said to have become archbishop through simony (buying his appointment) was in opposition to the church reform policy of Pope St. Gregory VII. When Bruno and some other diocesan officials stood for reform against Manasses, they were forced to leave the archdiocese. Bruno went back to Cologne. Eventually Archbishop Manasses was ousted and Bruno returned to Reims. He was even offered the Reims archbishopric himself, but he firmly declined. He had no ecclesiastical ambitions, and as a matter of fact, the whole episode had shown him the folly of church politics. Resigning his own offices and disposing of his possessions, he now retired with a few friends to the Cistercian monastery of Molesmes, France. Here they put themselves under the spiritual direction of St. Robert, founder of the Cistercian monks.
The Cistercians had been founded to provide a more ascetical approach to the monastic rule of St. Benedict. Bruno and his friends sought an even stricter life. They asked St. Robert’s permission to live apart from the Cistercian monks as hermits, but even that device did not satisfy them. At length Bruno persuaded his former pupil, St. Hugh, Bishop of Grenoble, to provide them with a still more remote site for a hermitage. In 1085 they moved to a hidden valley called Cartusia or LaChartreuse. Here they built a simple chapel and surrounded it by some small cells. This was the origin of the Carthusian Order of hermit-monks; this was its motherhouse, La Grande Chartreuse (The Great Chartreuse). Actually, Bruno had not intended to found a new order. His aim was rather to take the Rule of St. Benedict and give it a simpler and more ascetical interpretation. But the Carthusian slant could only produce an obviously different sort of institute.
Several years after the foundation of this community of hermits, a Benedictine abbot who paid a visit to the pioneer Carthusians wrote the following wide-eyed report: “Their dress is poorer than that of other monks, so short and thin and rough that the very sight frightens me. They wear hair shirts next their skin and fast almost perpetually; eat only bran bread; never touch meat, either sick or well; never buy fish, but eat it if given to them as alms … Their constant occupation is praying, reading and manual work, which consists chiefly in transcribing books. They celebrate Mass only on Sundays and festivals.”
How could this rigid life even survive? Bruno’s secret for survival was to inculcate a spirit of love and joy that made the austerity pleasant and achieved in its practitioners a wonderful sense of balance.
Most religious rules in the history of the Church have had to be altered or adapted. Since the Carthusian rule was compiled, it has never been changed, for it has never needed to be changed. Hence the proverb about this rule: “nummian reformata ouianumauam deformata” (never reformed because never deformed”).
Naturally, in a period when the whole Church badly needed general reform, St. Bruno, with his joyful austerity, became one of the reformist leaders. In 1090 his former pupil, Pope Urban II ordered him to come to Rome and serve as his adviser. The Saint obeyed, provided that he be allowed to maintain, as best he could, his eremitic life. Pope Urban permitted him to have a little hermitage tucked away in the vast ruins of the Roman Baths of Diocletian. Inevitably, however, the hermit was drawn into the turmoil of public life. He no doubt assisted the Pope loyally in defending him against antipope Gilbert of Ravenna, and in running several reformist synods. But the Abbot’s monastic detachment enabled him to remain ever the monk. Thus he refused to accept the bishopric of Reggio, and he was able to establish two monasteries in Italy following his way of life. In Italy as in France, he acquired the reputation of a wonder worker.
Bruno the Carthusian died in 1101 without ever returning to his original monastery, but he had already set firmly the Carthusian mode of life. A popular cult of him quickly developed in southern Italy. Pope Leo X canonized Bruno viva voce in 1514. His feast was extended to the whole church in 1623.
Carthusian monasteries have been ever since a strong, if select, presence in the Church. During the Reformation, 50 Carthusian monks died for the faith. The first and only “Charterhouse” in the U.S.A. was founded in 1950 at Arlington, Vermont. St. Bruno’s arm is long!
–Father Robert F. McNamara