The one thing needful

Last Tuesday was the Feast of St Bruno, founder of the Carthusian Order. The Gospel reading at Mass was the story of Martha and Mary, as told by St Luke, which includes these words of Jesus:

Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.

You could say that contemplative orders like the Carthusians, or the Trappists with whom I used to stay at Mount Saint Bernard Abbey when I was exploring Catholicism the first time around, have chosen Mary’s ‘better part’, or what the King James Bible translates as ‘the one thing needful’. Basically: Stop. Be quiet. And listen.

For those unfamiliar with the Carthusians, Philip Gröning’s film, Die Grosse Stille (Into Great Silence) is a wonderful introduction. Here’s the trailer:


On a lighter note, my Facebook friend Peter Palladian marked last week’s feast by sharing two stories, the first told to him by a man who narrowly escaped joining the Carthusians:

“I’d been accepted as a postulant,” he said. “Arrived on the appointed day with my suitcase. Lay brother asked me to wait in the cloister while he fetched the novice master. I watched him slowly walking off down that quarter of a mile corridor until he was just a speck on the horizon. I suddenly thought ‘I can’t do this, I simply can’t!’ So I turned tail and fled for my life.”

The second story was told by a Carthusian of many years’ standing, reflecting on his first days in the monastery:

The necessary ceremonials and formalities completed, he was pottering around his new hermitage, trying to take it all in, trying not to think “What on God’s good earth have I done!” Of a sudden – it being about the midday hour – the hatch linking his gaff to the cloister flew open, the gnarled face of the ancient-of-days lay-brother attending filling the hole. ‘Beer or cider?’ barked the face. Our hero, taking it as the sunny day it was, on a whim, opted for a refreshing flagon of cider rather than his usual, much preferred, beer.

Cometh the next day, cometh the hour for luncheon, our same hero was very much of a mind to revert to his beloved ale, waiting patiently to be asked his choice once more. That moment though did not come. The hatch door snapped open, his tucker with cider was shoved in, and before any “I say my good man, if it’s all the same to you…” slammed again shut it was. 

“It took a couple of weeks to sink in,” he mournfully told us, “but eventually I realised I’d made a choice for life on that first day. That’s how they do things in a Charterhouse and so for thirty-five years I’ve drunk nothing but blasted cider. Absolutely can’t stand the stuff now. Show me an apple tree and I’ll scream.”


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