A Journey to the Impenetrable Monastery Where Monks Live in Isolation and Silence

They are not permitted to speak, other than a brief conversation in the courtyard, once a week. They see their families only twice a year. They receive their food through a window in their room. A visit to La Grande Chartreuse, one of the world’s most reclusive monasteries

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A resident of La Grande Chartreuse.
A resident of La Grand Chartreuse. Credit: ZEPPELIN / SIPA / AP
Yuval Ben-Ami
Yuval Ben-Ami

In 1984, a letter was sent to a small monastery near the city of Toulon, in France. The writer was Philip Gröning, a young German filmmaker. He asked if he could spend five days in the monastery to experience its way of life first-hand and make a short film about it. The negative reply wasn’t long in coming. We have just had visitors from the outside, the prior wrote, and we must now return to the silence in our life.

The refusal could have been anticipated, as the monastery belongs to the cloistered Carthusian order, which practices silence. But 16 years later, Gröning received another letter from the prior. After mulling the proposal in the interim, he wrote, he had decided that it had merit. He related that he was no longer the prior at the same monastery but was now the reverend father – the head – of the entire order. He invited Gröning to make a film at La Grande Chartreuse, the head monastery of the order and the place where it was apparently founded.

Almost 1,000 years old, it lies high in the French Alps, near Grenoble. Since the early 20th century, it had been closed to visitors (as opposed to the other Carthusian monasteries housing nuns or monks), and it burns bright in the imagination of many adventure-seekers. Gröning succeeded where many have failed, entered the forbidden space and shot a rare documentary film there. After his departure, La Grande Chartreuse was sealed up again and remained silent and solitary in its hidden valley.

I first heard about La Grande Chartreuse five years ago, while hitchhiking in southeastern France. Near Grenoble, the driver pointed to the mountains and told me with some excitement about a huge monastery, closed off to the world, the bastion of those who wear the white habit.

Carthusian monks are almost completely cut off even from their families. They are allowed to meet with them only two days each year. After taking the vow of silence they are only allowed a brief conversation once a week in the courtyard. Beyond that, only prayer is permitted.

Free-spirited nun

I moved to southern France a little more than a year ago, and since then have driven on the Chartreuse plateau twice, but each time I was on my way to someplace else. A couple of weeks ago, when my wife was away on a working trip, I was left with the car, two free days and the old curiosity. Why shouldn’t I drive three hours into the mountains and confront this mystery? From the outset, I took into account that this would be a trip without an end point. The roads around La Grande Chartreuse are closed to traffic. In the summer, you can visit the museum located at the ascent to the institution, but now, in winter, when the mountain roads are often blocked by snow, even the museum is closed. I was about to embark on a monastic journey, to make a pilgrimage to a forbidding, shuttered gate.

Our 2-year-old daughter falls asleep as soon as we reach the expressway, thus allowing me to reflect on the ironies the trip entails: a Jewish, secular father, traveling to a devout Christian site dedicated to relinquishment of family life.

The valley of Chartreuse.Credit: Yuval Ben-Ami

Grenoble is a slice of Paris that was mistakenly plunked down in the heart of wild countryside. It’s a city of splendid architecture and bustling street life, but the mountains choke it, hamper its traffic flow and congest its streets. Well, never mind: The pilgrimage to the sacred Mount Miaofeng begins in suffocating Beijing, and pilgrims crawl on their knees to the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico City.

My only acquaintance in Grenoble is actually a nun, named Claire, with whom I have occasionally argued via Facebook. Friendship with a nun sounds like a novelty, but of course we hold very different worldviews on issues such as abortion and the LGBT experience. Nevertheless, our friendship is strong and she invites us to stay over in her house.

I knew Claire before she took her vows, when she was a student and a street singer. She doesn’t belong to any order. “I tried with a few, but I was too free for them,” she admits. Instead, she established a nonprofit that supports homeless people, and for the past 11 years has shared with them a residence affiliated with a church in the southern part of the city.

We’re sitting in her kitchen along with her pet turtle dove, named Pieu Pieu, and one of her tenants, a wild-haired, sad-eyed lad, and delighting in a love song by Louis Aragon. There’s nothing odd about a nun singing a love song. She is married to the Lord of the Universe, after all, and even wears a ring.

Claire had some Christmas shopping to do when I visited. We went to Grenoble’s lovely holiday food and gifts market and partook of some of the region’s flavors. Almost all of them are made of cheese melted onto something. “Here you go,” Claire says, pointing to something behind my back. I turn around and encounter the word “Chartreuse” painted above a drawing of a hot drink: hot chocolate laced with liqueur.

Chartreuse liqueur is a poetic irony. It turns out that the severe monastic order of that name supports itself by producing and selling the strong, sweet alcoholic beverage – fuel for a good-time culture and debauchery. More than 20 million bottles of Chartreuse are sold every year. There isn’t a self-respecting cocktail bar in Las Vegas, Bangkok or Beirut that doesn’t carry both types of Chartreuse, the green and the yellow.

The liqueur is made of more than 130 different herbs, plants and flowers. Its recipe is a secret and the identities of only a few of its ingredients are known, among them fennel seeds, olive leaves and nuts of the ginkgo tree, originating in China. The recipe was made known monks at the Carthusian monastery in Paris in 1605 by a French artilleryman. He acquired it from an urban alchemist who marketed it as an elixir of long life. Another century passed before the recipe reached La Grande Chartreuse, where it was slightly modified. Among other changes, the alcohol content was reduced from 70 percent to 55 percent.

For many years the liqueur was produced there, from start to finish. These days, the herbal mixture is prepared in the monastery’s old bakery, which is part of the same walled complex, and taken to an industrial distillery in the village of Aiguenoire, in the foothills of the ridge. Another room in the monastery serves as a laboratory and control room. Its interior can be seen in a 2015 promotional film for the liqueur, featuring bottles and test tubes filled with the telltale green liquid. A screen on one of the walls allows remote monitoring and operation of the activity in the distillery.

Credit: Yuval Ben-Ami

Since Claire began helping drug addicts and alcoholics, and keeping an eye on their habits, she has displayed solidarity and has refrained from drinking. To show solidarity with her, I pass up the jacked-up hot chocolate and order a chocolate crepe, but the girl at the counter pampers me with a shot of Chartreuse and I am emboldened to invite Claire to join me for the rest of the trip. I was afraid that my destination would rile her, as I’d come to look for an extreme and “exotic” aspect of a world that she belongs to – but she accepted the invitation.

Two worlds

In the beginning there were no orders, only monks and monasteries. “All the monastic movements are based on a charter written by [Saint] Benedict in the sixth century,” explains Sophia Menache, a historian of medieval Christianity at the University of Haifa. “It is a beautiful charter that dictates poverty, abstinence, discipline, permanency of place and a division of time between prayer and work. Benedict said that idleness is the enemy of the soul.

“What is fascinating about the monastic movement in general,” adds Prof. Menache, “is that on the face it, the intention is to withdraw from the world, yet it is a product of the transformations that occurred in the society. In the 11th century, there was a significant population increase in Europe, which called for economic measures. The Crusades were a type of response to the problem, as were the monasteries. After all, a person who enters a monastery is enjoined not to be fruitful and multiply, and in addition, here’s a solution for all the masses who don’t have a roof over their head: a roof not only for this world but also in the world to come as well.”

Toward the end of that century, in 1084, seven nomads entered the chambers of Hugh de Chateauneuf, the bishop of Grenoble. He was flabbergasted, explaining that he had seen them previously in a dream, with seven stars shining above their heads.

The leader of the seven, a Cologne-born priest named Bruno, had been educated and trained in a different French city: Reims, in the Champagne region. The monarchs of France were traditionally crowned in the Cathedral of Reims, and Bruno was about to be appointed the city’s bishop. However, he spurned the honor and chose to flee into the Alps with six of his disciples. Hugh led the seven to a hidden valley in the mountains, which he called the “Desert of Chartreuse,” and gave it to them as a gift. Each of the seven built a small, separate dwelling at some distance from the others, in order to live a life of prayer, hermitage and poverty. This was the genesis of the Carthusian order – which takes its name from the valley of Chartreuse.

Initially, Menache notes, the reclusiveness of La Grande Chartreuse was anything but exceptional: “The story is told of a Cistercian monk in the 12th century who was descended from a noble family. A year after he entered the monastery, his mother came to visit him and he refused to see her. The principle of abstinence can be absolute. A monastery, by its nature, cannot be an open house or a youth hostel; in principle, the monks’ withdrawal is meant to be total.”

In the 13th century, the understanding of monasticism underwent a revolution with the appearance of the mendicants: the Franciscans and the Dominicans. Francis of Assisi maintained that the whole world is a monastery. He greatly modified the principles of asceticism and isolation, and preached the injunction to help others. These were the first social workers, establishing their monasteries in poverty-stricken neighborhoods in the burgeoning cities of the Middle Ages.

Claire, at home in Grenoble. There’s nothing odd about a nun singing a love song. Credit: Yuval Ben-Ami

Bruno, the founder and first prior of the Carthusian order, lived a solitary life for only six years. He was then summoned by Pope Urban II to serve as a bishop in southern Italy. Today Bruno is considered the patron saint of the Calabria region, of parts of Germany, and also, for some reason, of all the Slavic countries between the Bug River and the Urals. He is identifiable in artworks by a skull in his hand or placed next to him.

The original premises of La Grande Chartreuse were destroyed in an avalanche in 1132 and rebuilt some distance away. Fire consumed the new premises for the first time in 1320 and then six additional times. One of those fires, in 1592, was set maliciously. At the height of the religious wars in France, the Protestant forces found La Grande Chartreuse to be an irresistible, symbolic Catholic target.

These events were a portent of things to come. The religious wars ended with a Catholic victory, but in the 18th century, the Church encountered a new foe: the secularists of the French Revolution. The forces of the revolution did not raze La Grande Chartreuse, but did exile its monks. The only monastery of the order that continued to operate after the revolution was in Gruyere, Switzerland. In 1816, following the Napoleonic wars, monks from Gruyere ascended the Chartreuse mountains and resumed life at La Grande Chartreuse.

During those years visitors were allowed at the reopened monastery. In the mid-19th century, the English poet Matthew Arnold visited, and composed a poem with plenty of exclamation marks, in the spirit of the time. He describes how he ascended the mountain and knocked on the door, and what he saw inside: “The silent courts, where night and day / Into their stone-carved basins cold / The splashing icy fountains play – / The humid corridors behold! / Where, ghostlike in the deepening night, / Cowl’d forms brush by in gleaming white.”

For some 50 years, La Grande Chartreuse welcomed poets and others with romantic souls. But in 1901, France passed the Association Law, which revoked a Napoleonic restriction on the establishment of various organizations, but did not include religious ones. The militant secularist drafters of the legislation rationalized this by pointing out that the latter associations were typically funded from abroad.

Two years later, police officers appeared in the silent valley and escorted the monks politely to the road leading to Spain. The monks finally returned under the auspices of the Vichy Regime, in 1940, with wounded spirits and a defensive bearing. The gates of La Grande Chartreuse remained shut. That is, until they were opened to a German filmmaker, in 2002.

“I had one of the first HD cameras,” Philip Gröning relates from his home in Dusseldorf. “I had to work with one, because there wasn’t a lot of light. I was fortunate to have this technology, and on the other hand I felt strange coming into the monastery with this modernity.”

His film, “Into Great Silence,” is 160 minutes long and barely a word is spoken in it. The 21st-century world is present in minute details: a sticker on an orange, a colorful bag of seeds in the garden, an electric device used by a barber, a laptop in the bursar’s room, an airplane passing by in the sky above. Beyond that, everything is stone and wood, snow and budding flowers, ascetic cells, echoing corridors and a mute colonnade through which figures in white slip by.

Credit: Yuval Ben-Ami

The anachronism of it all fascinated Gröning and drew him close to the community of monks. “I was surprised at how technologically advanced they are, even as they are living in the Middle Ages. They are not against modernity. What they care about is being quiet, and anything modern that will assist in that, they will embrace. The moment they discovered that they could operate the distillery by remote control, they preferred that method. They adopted a very advanced, complex system, one of the first of its kind. They are not nostalgic,” he sums up, “they are simply very religious.”

Gröning spent six months La Grande Chartreuse in 2002, and returned the next year to shoot supplemental footage. He lived in a cell like the monks and ate their food.

“I asked only to be allowed to drink a little coffee,” he says, and confirms that the residents of La Grande Chartreuse do not partake of caffeine – or Chartreuse liqueur. “They do not eat meat, but they have fish once a week. Other than that, their diet is very simple: salad, bread, a great many soups. At monasteries the period of Lent is exceptionally long."

The meals are distributed to the hermetic monks through a window in the wall of their cells, while they are immersed in reading or in prayer. Special meals are held in a common dining room, but even then there is no table chatter. At every communal meal one of the monks reads passages relating to Carthusian thought and precepts to his brethren, who dine and listen. On the one hand, the silence is bewitching; on the other, it is oppressive – at least to an outside observer. Not even gesturing with one’s head is customary. Only when one of the monks takes food to the cats that prowl around does he allow himself a slight jesting conversation with them, which helps lighten the burden.

There are also weekly hikes, in which conversation is permitted and where laughter abounds. In one such outing, documented in Gröning’s film, the monks slip as they climb a snow-covered slope. During the hikes the filmmaker was able to learn something about the monks’ background. Some joined at the age of 19, others while in their 40s. Some attended very good universities, where they did not take religious studies, but “microbiology and things like that.” The camera frequently follows a young monk. A different gaze is apparent in his eyes: He still feels a connection to the outside world.

Did the director’s presence affect the routine? “I did not feel that I was violating it,” says Gröning, “but the voyeuristic element exists. To free myself of it, I shot portraits of them, in which they look straight into the camera. When I started to shoot, it was a disturbance for them, because they are undergoing a sacred process that they have to live within, not look at. Others perhaps became more conscious of what they were doing.”

At the same time, life in the monastery touched Gröning deeply. “I was amazed by the fact that all this has been going on in the same place for 860 years [since the avalanche]. I was amazed at the continuity. I was also impressed by the fact that the Carthusians behave not according to rules but according to what they call ‘customs.’ They are one of the only orders that refused to lay down rules. They do not have a formal system of laws.”

The filmmaker adds that he feels changed by the experience of being at La Grande Chartreuse. “More than anything else,” he says, “it allowed me to reconcile with the Catholic faith. The Catholicism I came to know in the 1960s was so much about guilt and sin. In the sermons there, guilt and sin were absent. The subject was grace. The very fact one was alive meant infinite grace.”

"Zone of Silence." A sign near La Grande Chartreuse.Credit: Yuval Ben-Ami

Dark chamber

In the morning, we drove from the city to beautiful verdant summits on our way to a place that’s cut off from the world. We will not be able to do the last part of the journey in the car, so we had better hurry before the weather turns on us. We continue climbing until we reach a dirt lot in the heart of a forest of towering firs and oaks. From here the way is blocked, but the path is paved, so the baby can be taken in a stroller. A prominent sign with a drawing of Carthusian monk states, “Zone of silence.” Claire explains: It is forbidden to raise one’s voice here, but talking is permitted.

A first building of the monastery appears sooner than I had expected, fixed within a wall. Our conversation fades. It feels inappropriate this close to the premises. As we continue on along the wall, our field of vision expands and the site’s public buildings, capped with red roofs, are visible. “Chateau!” my daughter shouts, and immediately invents a song: “La la la la! Chateau! Chateau!” All my attempts to quiet her are useless. We violated La Grande Chartreuse the instant we arrived there.

Claire points to a large gate with a sign next to it reading, “No visiting in the monastery.” “This is the life-changing gate,” she whispers. “A young monk will go through it, and from that moment his life will change completely.” After reflecting a moment, she abandons the pathos and quips, cynically, “It’s so huge, this place. There must be some woman who cleans it.”

In Gröning’s film the monks are actually seen cleaning the place, and also cooking and sewing their robes. But Claire's comment is a good one. As I try to stifle my laughter, she points to something. Lower down in the wall there is another gate, half open. She steps inside, I follow. We are inside the wall, in a corridor with two doors. She tries one of them. It opens. This is as far as visitors are allowed to go.

The room we enter is almost totally dark. The only illumination comes from a lightbox screening the image of the famous Shroud of Turin: a mysterious piece of linen found by pilgrims in northern Syria. The image of a man is visible in the weave, and many Catholics believe that it is an image of Jesus’ body, imprinted after his crucifixion. For Claire this is a serene and holy place. We are in a small chapel that is meant for pilgrims’ devotions. She asks me to say a prayer in Hebrew.

I recite the Shema and Ve'ahavta prayers, my back to the shroud and my eyes gazing in the direction of Jerusalem. So, the Jew within me has found a place in La Grande Chartreuse. Matthew Arnold dedicated the last several stanzas of his poem, “Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse,” to the sounds that enter the monastery from the outside, such as the ruckus made by hunters. He imagines the monks’ inner response to this: “O children, what do ye reply? – / ‘Action and pleasure, will ye roam / Through these secluded dells to cry / And call us? – but too late ye come! / Too late for us your call ye blow, / Whose bent was taken long ago…’”

Only my secular identity remains alien here. I go outside to find a response for it in nature. Claire says she will remain inside, in prayer. My daughter returns to her stroller and begins nodding off. I take her out to view the dramatic landscape of cliffs around the monastery. From the green hill before me, I will obtain a panoramic view without losing eye contact with my daughter. I explain to her that I will be right back, and start to climb.

At the top of the hill stands a cross of iron, and rising from the steep crag above it soars another. Opposite me loom the towers of the monastery, black and angular. When Gröning visited this place, it had 30 occupants. There is no way to know how many monks are here now, but anyone with ears might assume that the valley is empty of human beings. Only the clanging of a bell surprises the forest from time to time.

This is a more impressive silence than any I have ever experienced. More evocative than any mosque minaret or cathedral dome. I have arrived at an unrivaled primeval spectacle. Without feeling that I need to believe in anything, I stand tall, fill my lungs with clear mountain air, and am silent.

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