Monday, August 17, 2015

Our Visit to the Only Carthusian Monastery in the U.S.

This past weekend, we spent the Feast of the Assumption at the Charterhouse of the Transfiguration, the only Carthusian monastery in the United States. High on a Vermont mountaintop, the monastery is surrounded by the solitude so essential to the monks' way of life.

The self-sufficient private complex was donated by a wealthy inventor who began his career in World War I and II by developing mustard gas and fissionable uranium for the atomic bomb. When he died without biological heirs, he left the land and buildings to the Carthusian order as if in expiation, hoping to salve his conscience.

The monks now living on the mountain grow their own food and bake their own bread, limiting themselves to a strict vegetarian diet. They also generate their own electricity through small water-driven power plants. Living under a rule of silence, they have a bare minimum of contact with the outside world. The most garrulous of the men has the job of interfacing with outsiders. The monks have a phone number and an email address, but deliberately shun full Internet access because of its potential for distraction. Their website is maintained by the same lay couple who runs the gift shop at the mountain's base.

Visitors can pay to hike the grounds at a rate of $15 per car and driver, and $5 more per each additional passenger. Family members and special guests are allowed to vacation overnight at the complex only once a year. Our family stayed at the Windswept guest house, formerly the main residence of the inventor and his wife. Decorated in what was the height of style many decades ago, Windswept has been meticulously preserved by the monks. Walking through the door is like walking into a time capsule. Bedrooms are scattered across the giant space, enough for our family of eight and more.

Having the kids along was like going on a family retreat. The seven-hour drive from our home in Long Island to the Vermont monastery was marked by harpoon ("hairpin") turns and rubberduckers ("rubberneckers"), according to our son Miguel. When we finally arrived, we had to say a few Hail Marys to navigate successfully along the winding, unmarked gravel roads within the complex.

Our kids obtained a thorough education in the virtues as a result of the trip. During last year's visit, our daughter Maria cried when we wouldn't let her stay in a bedroom near the library because the room hadn't been prepared for us. We never mentioned anything to the monks, but this year the bedroom had been cleaned and decorated with a little lamp and pretty sheets on the bed. Maria learned that good things do sometimes come to those who wait. Miguel gained a little wisdom when we asked him to put our four-year-old Elisa-Maria to sleep. "I told her to go to bed, but she just ran away," he said. "Mom, your job is a lot harder than it looks."

The monks said a special Mass for us on Saturday, August 15, the Feast of the Assumption. Before Mass, Manny asked the kids what the Assumption meant. "When God took Mary's body into heaven!" they shouted, nearly in unison. "Why did he do that?" I asked. "Because God loved her and she was about to die," responded Marga. "And because she's AWE-some," answered little Elisa-Maria. Yeah, they nailed it.

The monks celebrate their own liturgy, called the Order of the Carthusian Mass. The priest does not give a homily, and the congregants don't exchange the Sign of the Peace. The priest faces the altar rather than the people. And instead of singing, there are periods of silent prayer. Inspired by the timeless ritual and intimate setting, our rising second-grader Cecilia begged to receive Holy Communion. "You have to wait for your First Communion next spring," we told her. "Wait patiently for Jesus. He's waiting patiently for you."

After Saturday's Mass, we went swimming and rowing on Lake Madeleine. Fields of yellow and purple wildflowers encircled the shoreline. The strong shoulders of the mountains protected us from anything that might mar the peacefulness of the day -- including cell phone signals.

In contrast to the dated sumptuousness of the guest house and the sprawling glory of the grounds, the monks' chapel and residence is simple and gray, made of concrete and cinder block. The men walk the halls of the monastery with their hoods up, obscuring their faces, to emphasize their similarity and oneness as brothers.

A sign in the hallway outside the tiny chapel proclaims: "In solitude one lives in all ages." As attractive as it may seem, the thousand-year-old Carthusian way of life isn't for everyone. Some people sign up for a three-month retreat at the monastery, only to give up and return home after a single day.

Silence and young children certainly aren't the best of friends. During Sunday's Mass, I felt like keeping the children quiet was as futile as hushing the constant noise of a roaring waterfall. Like a perpetual motion machine, they rustled and squeaked and asked questions in piercing stage whispers. Only for a brief second did the silence peek through the clouds of endless sound, and we heard the cry of a hawk, far away, like a soul calling out wordlessly to God. It was an image that stayed with me on the long drive home and that I hope will stay with me for months and years to come.

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