Kartause, Gaming ~ January, 2008
The air is cool and clear, and the night is still above the silent courtyard, within the old Carthusian monastery that I would call home for the next four months. The deep, black sky is dotted with stars, but they are so far away, they give light to the heart more than the eyes, filling one with the sense of depth and beauty that God infused into the night sky…
I pull open the large, metal door, feeling the heaviness as it swings open slowly. Into the coolness and stillness of the chapel. But it is a different stillness than outdoors. The place is dim, and hushed with an air of reverence for the place that this is. And I am reminded that the monks knew best how to build the house of God, the way my eyes are immediately drawn up the long, straight expanse of the church to the throne of the One to Whom this house belongs: to the red flickering of the tabernacle lamp against the silver and gold of the tabernacle: the dwelling of the Most High, the Holy of Holies. And I walk up to the front, and bow before the throne, then duck into the side door that leads to the chapel.
Here, the room is small and intimate: the yellow, warm light of the candles filling the small space with the peace and security of the children of God. And I bow my head before the God of all creation in thanksgiving for the beauty of all He has made, and of Himself, which is so apparent in this place. And I take a deep breath, and let out everything I have, lay all that I am at His feet: all my fears and expectations, all my homesickness, all the great, unknowns that surround me. I am an ocean and a continent away from home, away from all that I have, and all that I know: and I do not know what He wants from me, and I do not yet know fully why I am here, or what He has in store. But for a moment, I just drop it all into His arms, and rest in the peace and wonder and beauty of this sanctuary.
I look around the small room, and I am wrapped up in the depth and reality of the moment, as the handful of grateful children in this place lay all they are and all they have before the glory of the King of Heaven, hidden away in this little corner built of stone. The stones of these walls are old, so old they have a feeling of ancientness about them, as if they hold within themselves the depth of the ages. And they do. So many words, and events, and sights and sounds are contained in them; leaving their mark on them. They have seen so much. And now, it is as if they smile at me kneeling within their security, at the handful of others whose heads are also bent in prayer, and they remember another time, when this was all that they saw: silence, light, and a prayer rising to the throne of heaven… only then, the heads bent in prayer were perhaps not all so young…
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Silence. Light. Prayer. And the three things merge into one in the coolness and shadows of the night. The material and the immaterial, the visible and the invisible: gathered together in a silence thick and heavy with the sound of meaning… the beating of a heart that is not made heavy, though it bears the whole world; carries it to the throne of God.
Silence. Light. Prayer. All caught in time and space, in this place of wood and stone, that yet becomes the meeting place of the spirit with the transcendent. And the transcendent has descended, has come to the world. The Power that made the universe is caught captive in gold, and surrounded by stone: the firmness of the earth, harvested by the hands themselves formed by the one they have built this space for. His most serious servants have built Him this house: to hold a God and Master who is also a lover: and that is why He comes.
The silence barely scratched by the tread of feet, the stillness gently pushed aside, as the quiet, steady, sure, serene figures come, robed in light; white, glowing light—they have put on Christ, and they are ready, ready for their daily bread, for the work of their hands, and of their hearts. And as they gather and kneel in the silence of this place, the sound rises gradually—a note, two notes, a song. And the steady, mellow voices, that sound as if they contain the voice of the one who said to the wind and the sea, “Be Still,” and it was. And the sound rises and falls, mixing with the silence—it does not clash in violence, but is woven together, a continuous thing, all for the praise of His glory. And the sound is itself like the wind, or the sea, rising and falling, swelling and fading away, a great chorus of heaven, sung silently in the stillness and darkness, where there’s no one else to hear—no one but the one for Whom they sing, for Whom they lift up their whole heart in prayer.
And it goes on and on, in a continuous strain, and there, in that place, one can’t help but think: they have laid hold of eternity: there can be no end. For here, in the secret, in the quiet, in this corner of stone and darkness and flickering light, the world is kept turning, the earth is upheld, and all can sleep safely, for they are born in the hearts of the Father’s own, who pray without ceasing, and offer their bodies as living sacrifices, for the sake of His Body, in defense of His Bride. For five hundred years, they pray and sing and work and offer all they have for the kingdom… Thus, how can there be an end, where the heart of the Church is sustained, where the strength comes from that goes out to the children who labor in the place of no lasting city, to carry out the work of God with the hands He has given them?
But there are other shadows, different than the serene ones chased into corners by candle light…
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Brilliant sunlight, glancing off the whitewashed buildings, and the red tiled roof: off the rubble and stone, and broken rock. The wind whistles through the skeletons of windows long since deceased, blowing where it will, with no one to stop it, filling the expanse of the walls built to house the Maker of this wind. And the choir loft that once heard the angelic voices of the children of God now echoes with the single, lonely song of a little bird, becoming home to the creatures of the sky. And the glaring sun, and cheerful song clash strangely with the overgrown grass, and the sad abandonment of the place. The green of grass and weedy growth crop up between the carefully laid old cobblestones, and the wild roses have taken over the courtyard. Broken tiles where holy feet once tread, and the steady plod of a cow through the sacred place where the little chapel had stood. An archway is all that is left of the place where the hearts of the world had been lifted to God. The silence still hangs in the air, but it is a solemn, ominous, dead silence, only the ghost of the old stillness that had been so alive.
And where are the hands that were to always be folded, holding the tears of the Bride? And where are the heads always to be bent under the load of the Son of God? And where are the voices that were to always be raised, lifting the world to the Lord? They were chased out, shut down by the powers that could not see a use for the idleness of spending a life in prayer; that could not understand that the quiet fortress of stone held more than men in silence—it held the backbone of the world.
And then the armies came, to the empty, lonely house of God, and destruction came with them. The holy, sacred spaces converted into soldier’s barracks, and the sunny cloisters into training grounds for war. The careless violence of the soldiers worked with the deterioration of the ages, and left the old sanctuary in pieces, long after they too were gone.
A child is walking up the road, his hand clasped in that of his mother, and he pauses before the old place, sprawling out, still large and impressive: the towering steeple and the half broken courtyard, the skeletons of the monks’ houses, lined stately and proud along the road in neat rows, just the outline of what it had been, like a forgotten dream of an age gone by. And he asks: “Mutti, what’s this?”
And she answers, “It was something great, once. Religious men lived there, a long time ago…”
A long time ago, something great. A man in a long black coat and stiff black hat, standing in the shadow of a broken archway, listens as they pass by, and shakes his head sadly. His eyes look deep, and understand: they see where others do not see. He is examining every inch of the ruins. He watches an ancient farmer, driving his cows through the archway, around the rubble, along a path worn by the feet of similar beasts for years on end. He looks as though he could be almost as ancient as the stone walls that he passes through every day on the way to the fields. The man in the black coat calls out to him, “What was this part of the monastery, a long time ago? What used to be here?”
He stops, stick in hand, the cows plodding on through the broken arch, and says, “This? This was the monk’s chapel.”
The man in the black coat stands in silence, stunned, watching the man and his cows plod on, still wearing a path through the floor of the chapel that is long since gone: and his mind and heart are stirred. The vision is coming together in his head, and he has made a decision. He pulls a notebook out of his pocket, and scratches a few words.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
The place that for so long was still, echoes and rings aloud with foreign sounds: the hammer and chisel, the rumble of machinery, and the high spirited chatter of men at work. The old stones creek and grumble, and yet begin to respond to the experienced hands that work under the guidance of the man whose passion for this old place is slowly calling it from the dead. The doorway from the twelfth century is being given its old, smooth, rounded form, and the pillar from the sixteenth is re-carved in its original likeness. He has brought in historians, craftsman, artists, to restore this treasure to the fullness of the life it once had: to return it to the glory of the eighteenth century, before it was shut down.
And the architect stands, in his black coat, and sophisticated hat, to survey his work, and watches the dream become a reality: watches this bulwark of Christendom, at the heart of what was once the Holy Roman Empire, awake from sleep, and breathe again. Long, careful months of labor: because attention must be taken to every detail, to be true to the various ages this place was formed through.
And he stands in the courtyard, when all is done, and looks at the little chapel that had been a cow path for so many years, now restored to what it was in the beginning. And he looks and listens; but something is missing: the tread of steady feet, the folded hands, the heads bowed in prayer, and a Presence: the heart and soul of the physical reality, the invisible soul of the visible structure: the heart to carry the world. He can restore the structure to it’s grandeur, but he can’t replace the soul of the building: he can’t replace the spiritual presence of the monks. But where could he find such a presence today?…
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Silence, Light, prayer: the flicker of candles, dancing on the stone walls, and a head bent in prayer. The old wooden door squeaks open, and I lift my head to see another person enter the small chapel. I am brought back to the present. It is the middle of the night, and all the world is asleep. But in this little chapel, in the heart of the Austrian hills, where monks for 500 years did their part to uphold the Body of Christ, a handful of young students from across the ocean bow their heads in prayer before the God of the universe, who suffers Himself to be contained in a monstrance of gold, to be near His children. And as they kneel through the night, in this structure of stone, lifting the world in their prayers to the throne of heaven, 500 Carthusians smile from above, because their chorus, their continual rhythm of prayer has not been broken, and the passion of their heart for the Bride has not been put out. For in their own chapel, throughout the night, with hearts burdened with the world and yet not weighed down, these young students continue the silent lifting of their hearts to the same Father.
And here we are, day and night, so blissfully unaware of what we really do: of those who came before us, and the shoes that we are filling; the place that we have stepped into, the role that we have taken over, for the glory of God–and the bigger work that we have become a part of. But He Who sent us was not unaware, and I can see Him smiling with those 500 Carthusians, smiling over the young people from across an ocean, and another continent, who kneel now where He has called them, to pick up a strain of glory that has been going for 500 years…