Yesterday a friend and I drove about an hour north of York to the ruins of a medieval monastery. Mount Grace Priory was a house of the Carthusian Order. I’m borrowing quite a lot from Wikipedia rather than summarize the material. I have added photos to the text. Then I will share some of my initial thinking about how Mount Grace Priory and its vision of Christian practice.
There are no Carthusian abbeys as they have no abbots, and each charterhouse is headed by a prior and is populated by choir-monks, referred to as hermits, and lay brothers.
Each hermit — that is, a monk who is or who will be a priest — has his own living space, called a cell, usually consisting of a small dwelling. The reconstructed cell has three rooms on the first floor: a living room with fireplace, a study and bedroom. The bedroom in addition to the bed has an alter for the hermit monk to say daily Mass.
Each cell has a high walled garden, wherein the monk may meditate as well as grow flowers for himself and/or vegetables for the common good of the community, as a form of physical exercise.
Next to the door of each cell is a small opening in the wall. A tray would be pushed to the back and the hermit could then pull the tray into the cell without having to see anyone.
Most meals are provided in this manner, which the hermit then eats in the solitude of his cell. There are two meals provided for much of year, lunch and supper. During seasons or days of fasting, just one meal is provided. The hermit makes his needs known to the lay brother by means of a note, requesting items such as a fresh loaf of bread, which will be kept in the cell for eating with several meals.
The hermit spends most of his day in the cell: he meditates, prays on his own, eats, studies and writes (Carthusian monks have published scholarly and spiritual works), and works in his garden or at some manual trade. Unless required by other duties, the Carthusian hermit leaves his cell daily only for three prayer services in the monastery chapel, including the community Mass, and occasionally for conferences with his superior.
Additionally, once a week, the community members take a long walk in the countryside during which they may speak; on Sundays and feast days a community meal is taken in silence. Twice a year there is a day-long community recreation, and the monk may receive an annual visit from immediate family members.
The Carthusians do not engage in work of a pastoral or missionary nature. Unlike most monasteries, they do not offer retreats and those who visit for a prolonged period are people who are contemplating entering the monastery. As far as possible, the monks have no contact with the outside world. Their contribution to the world is their life of prayer, which they undertake on behalf of the whole Church and the human race.
In addition to the choir monks there are lay-brothers, monks under slightly different types of vows who spend less time in prayer and more time in manual labor; they live a slightly more communal life, sharing a common area of the charterhouse.
The lay brothers provide material assistance to the choir monks: cooking meals, doing laundry, undertaking physical repairs, providing the choir monks with books from the library and managing supplies. All of the monks live lives of silence.