Portcullises of the Interior Life of the Warrior Monk

Written by on July 7th, 2013. Subject: History. Filed in Medieval, about Monasticism

|||Bruno and Guigo. Early Carthusian Writings. Leominster, Herefordshire: Gracewing. 2009.|||

Bruno of Cologne What else [is necessary]? A happy subject [it is] to advise leisure, but such an exhortation seeks out a mind that is its own master. Who so fights as a soldier of Christ in peace refuses double service as a soldier of God and a hireling of the world. You must, [dear hermit] follow the example of Christ poor if you would have fellowship with Christ in His riches. You must die to the world to merit eternal beatitude.

The life of holiness presented by Guigo is predicated upon a radical renunciation of the world. Interestingly, the rhetoric describing this life of solitude is not “separatist,” that is, it is very much aware of the world around it as well as the particular role that solitude and silence play in the world. Solitude and silence, when taken together, form a barrier, a sort of portcullis1 for the monk in his quest for victory in spiritual warfare. Congruent with the rhetoric of crusader activities during the twelfth century, the Carthusians understood themselves to be militia Christi, a “retinue” of soldiers of Christ,2 whose principle purpose was to wage a war, not on a battlefield in Outrémer, but in the dark silence of their cells. Success in this battle, however, was dependent upon contemplation and knowledge of the divine, which, likewise, was possible only in quiet recollection. Guigo, in writing his Praise of Life in Solitude, gives the reader a glimpse into the quiet world “recommended by saints and wise men of such great authority, that we are not worthy to follow in their steps.”3 It is in solitude that the chaos of the world is firmly put in its place. It is here that the hermit trains for war and where he meets his King. The Carthusian had no need of being convinced about the truths of his faith; what he needed was to understand those truths as revealed by God to him in silence, for their truths armed him in his spiritual combat.

Importantly, military references abound in Guigo’s writings. Recalling the miracles of our Lord, he notes that it was only after a long period of “fasting and temptation in the solitude of the desert that our Lord began to preach and cure the sick.”4 While the Carthusians are an eremitical not an active order, one could argue that their activity is precisely in their contemplative solitude, wherein the great spiritual battles against the devil the flesh and the world occurs. The battlefield is the soul and the war is against the “rulers of this world of darkness.”5 “Become a recruit of Christ and stand guard in the camp of the heavenly army watchful with your sword on your thigh against the terrors of the night.”7

A soldier is aware that eventually his service could lead to his physical death and he is constantly vigilant and ready to answer the call should his sacrifice be necessary. The monk, I argue, undergoes a number of deaths in his pursuit of the monastic calling in search of eternal life. He experiences the death of the world when he first pursues the spiritual life in the monastery as a young hermit; he experiences the death of his passions and his appetites as he progresses through his spiritual journey; and finally he experiences a physical death at the end of his life when our Lord has deemed him worthy to merit eternal life. While the references to death are not new to monastic literature, I think there is a difference present in Guigo’s rhetoric precisely because of the crusader mentality of the world around him. The Carthusian lives out his life as a “dry” martyr through constant vigils, fasts, and penance. According to St. Bernard, a contemporary of Guigo, “the knight of Christ is the minister of God for the punishment of the wicked.”7 Of course, Bernard is talking specifically about the crusading knight going to the Holy Land to engage in “holy war” against the “Muslim infidels”, but I think the reference is equally valid here. There really was no difference between the knight and the Carthusian, except for the fact that the knight engaged in physical combat to free the Church in the Holy Land while the Carthusian engaged in spiritual combat to free the Church throughout the world.

About John Heitzenrater

John W. Heitzenrater is a teacher of history at St. Peter’s Classical School, is a visiting lecturer at the Walsingham Society for Christian Culture, and a guest instructor for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth. He graduated from the College of Saint Thomas More and is currently finishing his Masters degree with the University of Dallas where his thesis will explore Individualism and Personalism in Catholic Social Thought. He can be reached at [email protected].

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  1. Portcullises fortified and protected the entrances to castles and monasteries in Medieval Europe. 

  2. Guigo I, Praise of the life of Solitude 

  3. Ibid 

  4. Ibid 

  5. St. Paul Letter to the Ephesians, 6 v. 12. 

  6. Guigo I, Praise of the life of Solitude 

  7. Ibid