Guigo, Fifth Prior of Chartreuse: Two Writings on Solitude

Guigo (1083-1136) entered the Carthusian monastery of Grande Chartreuse in his early twenties and died there as its fifth successor to St. Bruno, founder of the Carthusian order. Guigo compiled the order's constitution, or "customs," and is credited with several miscellaneous writings, including his own Meditations.

The first of the two writings below is a little essay tracing the role of solitude in the spiritual formation of monastic predecessors back to the Old Testament.Of the Letter on solitude, composed just before Guigo's death, translator Thomas Merton has written that it is

a masterpiece of its kind. ... It contains some of the classical tropes on the solitary life; the otium negotiosum, or the contemplative leisure which is more productive than any activity; the militia Christi, in which the monk, soldier of Christ, fights not against others but against his own passions, overcoming the world in himself, offering his bod-ily life in sacrifice to Christ. The hermit, sitting alone in silence and poverty, is the "true philosopher" because, as Guigo says in another place, he seeks “the truth in its nakedness, stripped and nailed to the Cross."

Both texts are copyright, Trustees of The Thomas Merton Legacy Trust, with the Letter specifically credited to Thomas Merton as translator.

1. Praise of Life in Solitude.

In praise of solitude, to which we have been called in a special way, we will say but little; since we know that it has already obtained enthusiastic recommendation from many saints and wise men of such great authority, that we are not worthy to follow in their steps.

For, as you know, in the Old Testament, and still more so in the New, almost all of God's secrets of major importance and hidden meaning were revealed to His servants, not in the turbulence of the crowd but in the silence of solitude; and you know, too, that these same servants of God, when they wished to penetrate more profoundly some spiritual truth, or to pray with greater freedom, or to become a stranger to things earthly in an ardent elevation of the soul, nearly always fled the hindrance of the multitude for the benefits of solitude.

Thus -- to illustrate by some examples -- when seeking a place for meditation, Isaac went out to a field alone (Genesis 24:63); and this, one may assume, was his normal practice, and not an isolated incident. Likewise, it was when Jacob was alone, having dispatched his retinue ahead of him, that he saw God face to face (Genesis 32:24-30), and was thus favored with a blessing and a new and better name, thus receiving more in one moment of solitude than in a whole lifetime of social contact.

Scripture also tells us how Moses, Elijah and Elisha esteemed solitude, and how conducive they found it to an even deeper penetration of the divine secrets; and note, too, what perils constantly surrounded them when among men, and how God visited them when alone.

Overwhelmed by the spectacle of God's indignation, Jeremiah, too, sat alone (Jeremiah 15:17). He asked that his head might be a fountain, his eyes a spring for tears, to mourn the slain of his people (cf. Jeremiah 9:1); and that he might the more freely give himself to this holy work he exclaimed, "O, that I had in the desert a wayfarer's shelter!" (cf. Jeremiah 9:2), clearly implying that he could not do this in a city, and thus indicating what an impediment companions are to the gift of tears.

Jeremiah also said, "It is good for a man to await the salvation of God in silence" (Lamentations 3:26) - which longing solitude greatly favors; and he adds, "It is good also for the man who has borne the yoke from early youth" (Lamentations 3:27) — a very consoling text for us, many of whom have embraced this vocation from early manhood; and yet again he speaks saying, "The solitary will sit and keep silence, for he will lift himself above himself" (Lamentations 3:28). Here the prophet makes reference to nearly all that is best in our life: peace, solitude, silence, and ardent thirst for the things of heaven.

Later, as an example of the supreme patience and perfect humility of those formed in this school, Jeremiah speaks of "Jeering of the multitude and cheek buffeted in scorn, bravely endured."

John the Baptist, greater than whom, the Savior tells us, has not arisen among those born of women (Matthew 11:11), is another striking example of the safety and value of solitude. Trusting not in the fact that divine prophecy had foretold that he would be filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother's womb, and that he would go before Christ the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah (cf. Luke 1:11-17); nor in the fact that his birth had been miraculous, and that his parents were saints, he fled the society of men as something dangerous and chose the security of desert solitude (cf. Luke 1:80); and, in actual fact, as long as he dwelt alone in the desert, he knew neither danger nor death.

Moreover the virtue and merit he attained there are amply attested by his unique call to baptize Christ, and by his acceptance of death for the sake of justice. For, schooled in sanctity in solitude, he alone of all men became worthy to wash Christ (cf. Matthew 3:13-17) -- Christ who washes all things clean -- and worthy, too, to undergo prison bonds and death itself in the cause of truth (cf. Matthew 14:3-12).

Jesus himself, God and Lord, whose virtue was above both the assistance of solitude and the hindrance of social contact, wished nevertheless, to teach us by his example; so before beginning to preach or work miracles he was, as it were, proved by a period of fasting and temptation in the solitude of the desert (cf. Matthew 4:1-11); similarly, Scripture speaks of him leaving his disciples and ascending the mountain alone to pray (cf. Matthew 14:23). Then there was that striking example of the value of solitude as a help to prayer when Christ, just as his Passion was approaching, left even his Apostles to pray alone (cf. Matthew 26:39-44) -- a clear indication that solitude is to be preferred for prayer even to the company of Apostles.

We cannot here pass over in silence a mystery that merits our deepest consideration; the fact that this same Lord and Savior of mankind deigned to live as the first exemplar of our Carthusian life when he retired alone to the desert and gave himself to prayer and the interior life; treating his body hard with fasting, vigils and other penances; and conquering the devil and his temptations with spiritual arms (cf. Mat thew 4:1-11).

And now, dear reader, ponder and reflect on the great spiritual benefits derived from solitude by the holy and venerable Fathers -- Paul, Antony, Hilarion, Benedict, and others without number — and you will readily agree that for the spiritual savor of psalmody; for penetrating the message of the written page; for kindling the fire of fervent prayer; for engaging in profound meditation; for losing oneself in mystic contemplation; for obtaining the heavenly dew of purifying tears, -- nothing is more helpful than solitude.

The reader should not rest content with the above examples in praise of our vocation; let him gather together many more, either from present experience or from the pages of Holy Writ.

2. The Solitary Life

Letter to the Reverend N. Guigo by the least of those servants of the Cross who are in the Charterhouse to live and to die for Christ.

One man will think another happy. I esteem him happy above all who does not strive to be lifted up with great honors in a palace, but who elects, humble, to live like a poor country man in a hermitage; who with thoughtful application loves to meditate in peace; who seeks to sit by himself in silence.

For to shine with honors, to be lifted up with dignities is in my judgment a way of little peace, subject to perils, burdened with cares, treacherous to many, and to none secure. Happy in the beginning, perplexed in its development, wretched in its end. Flattering to the unworthy, disgraceful to the good, generally deceptive to both. While it makes many wretched, it satisfies none, makes no one happy.

But the poor and lonely life, hard in its beginning, easy in its progress, becomes, in its end, heavenly. It is constant in adversity, trusty in hours of doubt, modest in those of good fortune. Sober fare, simple garments, laconic speech, chaste manners. The highest ambition, because without ambition. Often wounded with sorrow at the thought of past wrong done, it avoids present, is wary of future evil. Resting on the hope of mercy, without trust in its own merit, it thirsts after heaven, is sick of earth, earnestly strives for right conduct, which it retains in constancy and holds firmly for ever. It fasts with determined constancy in love of the cross, yet consents to eat for the body’s need. In both it observes the greatest moderation for when it dines it restrains greed and when it fasts, vanity. It is devoted to reading, but mostly in the Scripture canon and in holy books where it is more intent upon the inner marrow of meaning than on the froth of words. But you may praise or wonder more at this: that such a life is continually idle yet never lazy. For it finds many things indeed to do, so that time is more often lacking to it than this or that occupation. It more often laments that its time has slipped away than that its business is tedious.

What else? A happy subject, to advise leisure, but such an exhortation seeks out a mind that is its own master, concerned with its own business disdaining to be caught up in the affairs of others, or of society. Who so fights as a soldier of Christ in peace as to refuse double service as a soldier of God and a hireling of the world. Who knows for sure it cannot here be glad with this world and then in the next reign with God.

What else? A happy subject, to advise leisure, but such an exhortation seeks out a mind that is its own master, concerned with its own business disdaining to be caught up in the affairs of others, or of society. Who so fights as a soldier of Christ in peace as to refuse double service as a soldier of God and a hireling of the world. Who knows for sure it cannot here be glad with this world and then in the next reign with God.

Small matters are these, and their like, if you recall what drink He took at the gibbet, Who calls you to kingship. Like it or not, you must follow the example of Christ poor if you would have fellowship with Christ in His riches. If we suffer with Him, says the Apostle, we shall reign with Him. If we die with Him, then we shall live together with Him. The Mediator Himself replied to the two disciples who asked Him if one of them might sit at His right hand and the other at His left: “Can you drink the chalice which I am about to drink?” Here He made clear that it is by cups of earthly bitterness that we come to the banquet of the Patriarchs and to the nectar of heavenly celebrations.

Since friendship strengthens confidence I charge, advise and beg you, my best beloved in Christ, dear to me since the day I knew you, that as you are farseeing, careful, learned and most acute, take care to save the little bit of life that remains still unconsumed, snatch it from the world, light under it the fire of love to burn it up as an evening sacrifice to God. Delay not, but be like Christ both priest and victim, in an odor of sweetness to God and to men.

Now, that you may fully understand the drift of all my argument, I appeal to your wise judgment in few words with what is at once the counsel and desire of my soul. Undertake our observance as a man of great heart and noble deeds, for the sake of your eternal salvation. 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.

Here, then, I urge you to an enterprise that is good to undertake, easy to carry out and happy in its consummation. Let prayers be said, I beg you, that in carrying out so worthy a business you may exert yourself in proportion to the grace that will smile on you in God’s favor. As to where or when you must do this thing, I leave it to the choice of your own prudence. But to delay or to hesitate will not, as I believe, serve your turn.

I will proceed no further with this, for fear that rough and uncouth lines might offend you, a man of palaces and courts.

An end and a measure then to this letter, but never an end to my affection of love for you.