The Silence of Certosa Di Serra San Bruno

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, Italy, is a monastery complex not belonging to any of these Orders. It has been there for more than one thousand years, and is still virtually unknown to the outside world.

The monastery is called the Certosa of San Bruno. Its Cloister is inhabited by a small Order of monks known as Certosini. At present there are nineteen monks in residence. They are an Order dedicated to contemplation, solitude, and prayer. They are also unusual for one singular characteristic: they are dedicated to carrying out their 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 the monks 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 the position for the last ten years. Other issues of importance to the entire community are raised and discussed. Silence then resumes.

The depth of the monks’ commitment to silence is demonstrated by the following occurrence: 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, John Paul II 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 with twenty-two place settings of white linen and simple knives, forks, and spoons (no gold or silver, despite some rumors.) 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, which is again a 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 celebration of the twenty-first century a catalogue is 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 laid out the strict rules, which still govern the Order to this day. Through his close association with the then soon to be Pope Urban II, he was able to obtain from Ruggero the Norman (then the future King of Sicily) a grant of land in the vastness of the Calabrian interior upon which he established his Certosa in 1091. He spent his remaining ten years at the Certosa. In mortification, he often slept upon a stone bed hewn in rock. On October 6, 2001, a celebration of his death was held at the monastery.

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

At the beginning of a long hallway in the cloister 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 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. Also, there are a pair of sandals, and personal toiletries. The loose fitting robes are tied at the waist by a woven cord, and a peaked hood, which is usually in place, covers their visages.

It should be noted that there is one characteristic that puts a small stamp of individuality on each resident in 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 all in Latin. The one on the door of the Priore reads: “Ambula coram me et esto perfectus.” “Walk before me, and be perfect.” (Genisis, 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. The question of how many fail as compared to succeed, went politely unanswered during my tour of the Monastery.

One enters the courtyard of the cloister impressed by the all-encompassing silence. The stone walkways are worn smooth by the passage of sandaled feet over the centuries. The grounds are perfectly manicured. The scent of the fruit trees’ springtime buds permeates the air. Then, in a secluded corner one sees the cemetery and is astounded when its story is revealed: here lie the bones of all the Ceterosini who have resided here since the fourteenth century!

The graveyard must measure no more 40×60 ft wide. (My request to take a photograph was turned down.) 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 darkened by the patina of centuries. The crosses bear no names and no dates, but beneath each cross lie the bones of not one body, but many. No one knows for sure the exact number of bodies present, over one thousand was my 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 anonymity and silence should find their final resting place in similar circumstances.

The crunch of the white gravel stone beneath one’s shoes leaving the confines of the cloister is a welcoming 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. Here one steps into a different world. The sounds we take for granted most of the time now grate on the ears, but 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 most roiled the public’s imagination. These range from a crewmember of the Enola Gay, (he supposedly died here and is buried anonymously in the small cemetery), to an extended visit by the noted Economist Federico Caffe. However, it is difficult to dispute such rumors, since the cloak of anonymity protects those within the cloistered walls.

The Serra San Bruno stands at a elevation of almost 2,200 feet. As I retraced the tortuous road down, I was enthralled by the fields of green pastures and agriculture. Few buildings disrupt this pristine scene. I reflected on the Certosini (who own some of these fields) and recalled momentary glimpses of the faces of the monks as they went about their routines. In their faces, I saw reflected the possibility that the men have discovered that which so many us seek but do not find – peace and fulfillment in our lives.

[All photographs in this story were taken by Cavilier Vittorio Vecchione of Cosenza]

[In efforts to “open” as much of the Certosa as its rules allow, a new museum has been built. It takes the visitor on a short “virtual” tour of the facility,with pictures, sounds and words. With this tour, it is possible to get a good overview of The Serra San Bruno, who the Certosini are, and what it is like to live a cloistered existence. For more information, visit Tourist information is available in English.]

March 4th, 2004 by