I came to volunteer at the Charterhouse in April 2017, and I have enjoyed volunteering at this special historic place. Over time while supporting the guides and the Brothers with their tours, I began to absorb the history of the place and became especially interested in the Carthusian Monks who lived here in the Monastery from 1371 – 1535.I began to research The Carthusians and their history on the internet and through associated books, which only made me want to know more about them.
In the UK we have one post-Reformation Carthusian Monastery in the parish of Cowfold, West Sussex. Established in 1873 by French Carthusians in exile, it was designed by French architect Clovis Normand who was given a generous budget. It’s built in a French Gothic style with an unusually tall spire (203 ft). The Monastery cloister is more than a kilometre long and considered to be one of the largest in the world. The building was completed in 1883. I wondered if I would ever be able to see it for myself?
Setting off on a Monday morning, I thought I would visit the chapel, which according to the Monastery’s website was open to the public. It wasn’t. Outside the building two Brothers were working on the grounds, so I was able to explain the reason for my visit and my disappointment at finding out the chapel is only open to the public on Sundays. Undeterred, I thought I would send a letter formally introducing myself to The Father and included a copy of the Charterhouse Guide Book. In my letter, I told him who I was, my interest in the Carthusians and my role as a volunteer at the London Charterhouse. I asked if he could send me some information from which I could expand my knowledge. Little did I know the response I would get and the set of events it has triggered.
A few weeks later a lovely handwritten card arrived from a Brother Simon apologising for the delay in replying. He informed me the Father was at The Grand Chartreuse and would respond to my letter on return. When his letter arrived, to my surprise it included an invitation to come and visit the Monastery. I wasn’t expecting that! A few weeks later I arrived at Horsham station to be met by a man holding a sign up with my name and Charterhouse on it. This was volunteer Philip who had been working at the Monastery for about 25 years. After a twenty-minute drive, some nerves kicked in, as I stepped out of the car outside the huge front door. Stepping through the smaller entrance door, I could feel the atmosphere change. Suddenly, the air was still and there were no sounds. On the way, Philip and I had been talking normally as he explained that visits were very rare, and I told him about the Charterhouse. Now we were talking quietly.
Then from around a corner, a small figure appeared in the familiar cream habit, hood up, walking slowly towards us. Philip whispered, “here comes The Father”. As he got nearer he slid his hood off, and with a broad smile, we shook hands as Philip introduced us and he sounded quite surprised when The Father assured him that he would be showing me around the Monastery. At this point, I was feeling a bit overwhelmed. Over a year ago I had never heard of The Charterhouse or The Carthusians and now I was in a monastery about to be given a private tour by The Father.
As we set off, I was trying not to shake with nerves. But after a while, The Father helped me relax. Who knew that monks would have a sense of humour? He made me laugh several times with his accounts of life behind the walls. The main chapel is in two halves, the front part being where the alter is. Further back is a low wooden wall with a connecting door in it. The front part is where they pray and sing, the part at the back is for the monks who don’t feel like singing and want to hear the service and contemplate. He explained that some of the monks should always be in this part as their singing is “not so good”.
I was shown one of several libraries (they have about 8,000 books, most in Latin) the refectory where they all eat on Sundays and numerous chapter rooms one of which had many flags in. One was associated with “Charterhouse of London” founded by Sir Walter Manny. The cloister was very long and he took me in to see a cell. Inside was very still with the windows overlooking an overgrown garden and beyond the outer monastery walls, and there was nothing to see but countryside. Then we went on to the monk’s cemetery where there were many plain wooden crosses. He explained there are no names on the crosses lest they incur the malediction of the psalmist: “Though they call the lands after their own names…. the land of the dead shall be their home.” (Psalm 48)
I was given a lunch of fish, vegetables, cheese, bread and biscuits with juice and some little chocolates. I ate alone in a room with a view of the vegetable garden. After lunch, I gave him a copy of Revealing the Charterhouse, our guide book as a gift from all of us. The subject of the Monks habits came up, I wanted to know whether they made them or had a supplier? He laughed and said the monks were responsible for making their own, with varying degrees of success (that humour again) but they had a tailor who helped. I explained the plan for the Norfolk Cloister at Charterhouse and how a habit was planned to be shown. I asked if an old one was available for us to have and he said he would see if it was possible.
After 4 hours my visit ended, and I felt mentally exhausted. As I shook Father’s hand, I felt I would be going back. So, in November, Brother Philip (a resident of our London Charterhouse) and I will be returning to pick up the monk’s habit which they are very kindly donating. All this from a simple letter…….