The monastic family of Bethlehem, of the Assumption of the Virgin and of Saint Bruno, is a Roman Catholic religious order with Carthusian spirituality, founded in 1950 in Rome. Here in Lithuania the community began the foundations in 1994 and even now continues to grow and expand. Currently 15 women live here, who have given their lives to God completely. In the world there are about 700 sisters and about 50 brothers who share this vocation. They live pray and work in solitude, each in a separate house in the forest. They meet daily to pray in the Church and have a sharing day once a week. All the rest of the time, they live in prayerful silence.
This article is about my personal experience of staying here for 5 days. I was moved by experiences of silent listening, self-awareness and reflections on purity of heart.
A little bit of background
1950 November 1st Pope Pius XII was declaring the dogma of Assumption of Mary and while listening to this talk 7 pilgrims from France (6 lay people and 1 priest) heard a calling in their heart from God and the Virgin Mary to unite oneself with Mary’s life in the Holy Trinity.
In this Christian monastery, the center of being is a life with God. Their prayer style reminds of the Orthodox, byzantine style. Sisters are largely supportive of the Ecumenical movements. The explanation for that is that about 10 years after the foundation of the first monastery, some sisters travelled to Greece and returned strongly inspired to pray with the Byzantine style Liturgy. That style has been kept to now.
Guests are welcome to stay near the sisters, but they need to be interested and open to pray together, to be respectful of their silence and spiritual values. Sisters are very helpful in assisting with any needs, even helped me do a load of laundry. :).
Being here is an experience that leads to a deeper awareness of ourselves. After a few days in this silence I began to acknowledge some deeper emotions and was able to understand better what is happening inside my heart.
Recently, I have been reading a book that holds a collection of thoughts about religious life called The Wound of Love written by the Carthusian monks. St.Bruno, who is the founder of the Carthusian order is also closely tied in spirituality with the sisters of Bethlehem. Here is a quote from this book:
True solitude, really worthy of the name, must trace its way back to its source. It is not obedience to an external law, nor a flight from others, nor a world closed on itself, but an encounter with the living God… it is through Jesus Christ that we will penetrate into the true solitude. (p.24)
About the art of listening
Since my arrival here, I have felt a deep peace of heart. Only after experiencing this can I say how deeply I needed it. A week latter I am surrounded by ideas of building a tiny house near the sisters. Perhaps a desire like this only happens when one truly finds something that connects at a deep level.
This place has memories for me since 12 years ago. I remember arriving here troubled with life’s difficulties and tired. Bearing all kinds of questions about Christianity and how to live this in the world. There was something here that lead me to feel known and loved despite my weaknesses and sins. Despite being human. Where everything was inconsistent, here I always found consistency. Where everything was problems needing solving, here I found acceptance. Over the years, I learned so much about myself and about Christianity and about what it means to be true and authentic as a person.
Here is another quote that deeply touched my heart. It speaks about the dangers of being in solitude and the journey of self-renunciation that every Christian encounters:
Don’t think that I am deliberately exaggerating the severity of the temptations that will assail you in your cell: it is of utmost importance for us to realise that we have to go beyond the human satisfaction that solitude gives us in order to open ourselves up completely to the light and truth which are not to be found in ourselves, but in forgetting and abandoning the self. It is only then we can start speaking of solitude for God. (p. 47).
What is the essence of life in this monastery?
To contemplate the Holy Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. To be satisfied purely by this divine love, attaching to it more than to any other created thing or person.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. Jn 3:16
As one sister explained: God has so loved the world, us his people, everyone of us, that He sent his son. So to there is nothing greater in this world than to love him and to love every person as he loves them.
The quest is to silence the internal noise. Internal silence is more important than external silence but it is not so easy to acquire – it takes struggle. But when you reach the internal silence you find a peaceful port.
In the words of St. Bruno:
What benefit, what divine delight, solitude and the silence of the hermitage bring to those who love them, only those who have experienced can tell.(p. 239)
I asked one sister (who wished to remain anonymous) about how can a person find a deeper relationship with God. She answered:
By being faithful to one’s heart and the inspirations that one receives from God. Certain methods can help to live a deeper life with God that help to hear God’s voice: prayer, the Word of God and humble listening.
About purity of heart
Let’s listen to the Carthusian family tell us about this:
Continual prayer is not possible without the purity of heart relieved of its egoism and passionate inclinations… We cannot hope to live in communion with Christ without the thorough renunciation of everything that separates us from him: sin first of all, but also things good in themselves which claim too much of our attention (for example, a too human curiosity, hyperactivity and excessive preoccupation with ourselves). We need great simplicity of heart, a purity of mind.
I think in our times it is extremely difficult to walk the journey toward purity of heart, unless we really desire it. It takes a lot of sacrifice and discipline – words that don’t easily fit into the westernised vocabulary. Yet simplicity is reachable, especially when we realise how overwhelmed we are.
When facing this inexhaustible depth of wisdom and familiarity with this monastery, I feel so joyful and complete. I wish every person, who seeks to find true peace with them, discover this. Here, or elsewhere. Routine and work and home in the busy city can be so heart-numbing that it is hardly possible to enjoy the mere fact of being alive. Hardly possible, to notice the small changes or movements in our hearts or the hearts of others.
We all carry a certain desert within us. I suppose it is a matter of being comfortable enough with our own company, to enjoy reflective time, perhaps by writing a journal or talking to a good friend about what is really important. Entering one’s own heart knowing that we are not alone, we have never been alone… that is only the beginning.