Lessons From a Carthusian Monastery

My visit to Spain in the fall of 1964 .

J. R. SPANGLER, Associate Secretary, Ministerial Association, General Conference

During my visit to Europe in the fall of 1964 I had the opportunity of visit­ing a sixteenth-century Carthusian monas­tery near Zaragoza, Spain. A short time in this gloomy, austere atmosphere convinced me that we Adventist ministers have some things to learn about dedication and loyalty to our own movement and religious princi­ples.

Total Surrender

To begin with, our priest guide, second in command of the monastery and formerly a teacher with a Ph.D. in chemistry, made it clear that those who join their particu­lar order must yield completely to the rigid regulations in force 365 days a year.

Silent Men

There are no discussion groups seeking changes of order. No counseling, no ex­change of ideas, no words of encourage­ment—just silence. One three-hour walk a week in nearby fields and forests affords the only conversational opportunity. Contact with the outside world is virtually nil. TV's, radios, newspapers, and magazines are to­tally lacking. Our amiable guide is the only one permitted to read a newspaper. The penalty for this privilege is a complete di­vorce from all human companionship. This prevents him from infecting the others with mundane bits of knowledge.

A two-day visit from their parents and the sending and receiving of three or four letters a year is the extent of communication with loved ones and friends. Even attend­ance at a nearby funeral of a close relative is forbidden. Once behind the thick walls of this institution, a life of dedication to its system is demanded and received.

11:00 P.M. Worships

The daily time schedule never varies. Retirement at 7:30 P.M. is interrupted at 11:00 P.M. by a short march to the chapel where chanting and reading of prayers con­tinue until 3:00 A.M. Then again at 6:45 A.M. priests and lay brothers are awakened for another day's duties.

Other religious activities include weekly confessions to one another. Fifteen separate chapels are provided for the saying of mass by individual priests. A special chapel is used on feast days for a public denouncing of one another's faults. Punishment is meted out by the one in charge.

3,000 Feet of Living Space

Surprisingly, we found the individual liv­ing quarters large. The living room with a few pieces of rough-hewn furniture was not small. It puzzled me as to why they had extra chairs, since no visitors are allowed. A large bedroom with a small cubicle for the bed joined the living room. Dry corn­stalks stuffed in a sack made the mattress. A straw-filled pillow was perched at one end. Both items were supported by a wooden platform. A bell hung over the bed with a rope attached leading out to the hall­way. The sleeper would be awakened by a man appointed to go around and pull the bell ropes. In response to this, the awak­ened monk would take a large heavy stick by the bed and thump the floor, signaling he was both alive and awake. Each suite had a small library and a long hallway leading back to a workroom, which was complete with a primitive saw, hammer, chisel, and other carpenter tools. Each man would fashion his own eating utensils, furniture, et cetera. The living space was made complete by a garden space enclosed by high walls where each man tried to raise his own food. Including the garden space, the size of the entire area was approxi­mately three thousand square feet.

Almost Vegetarians

A small portholelike opening in the liv­ing-room wall was the entrance for food and notes. Living alone meant eating alone. Only on Sundays did the men eat together in a large but dismal dining room, but no talking was permitted. Priests were segre­gated from lay brothers. Silence was broken only by the rattle of silverware and the voice of a reader who was secreted in a wall niche high above the silent diners below.

Fasting was allowed by permission. If granted, a small wooden sign with the word abstinencia printed on it would be exhib­ited in the opening of the living room. The diet was vegetarian except for fish twice a week. Milk and eggs were on the menu only at Easter and Christmas. Generally speaking, they ate one meal a day, which was at noon, but if they so desired they could drink a little wine and eat a few pieces of hard bread before retiring. Weight control seemed to be no problem in this institution.

Announcements Inaudible

One interesting item was a large sign­board in the hallway of the main chapel. Instructions were printed on small boards, which were pulled out from slots on speci­fied days. This board took the place of audible announcements, thus aiding them in their objective of near absolute silence. Some of the commands pulled out for the day we were there read as follows: "Time for walking," "shave," and "launder clothes."

Our guide had been in the monastery for sixteen years. His face expressed melan­choly and sadness. He stated that for the first seven or eight months he suffered aw­ful loneliness. He finally became accus­tomed to it and now claimed to be happy with God. He then related how contact with the outside world disturbed him greatly. When sent to town, which was a special duty of his, he could hardly wait until he was back in his cell of silence.

We were free to ask questions, and we made good use of this privilege. I asked if the thick walls and strict regulations kept out Satan and sin. He looked at me quizzically and said quietly, "There is no such thing as keeping out the devil with walls. He has no bounds!"

I then asked him if this type of life ac­tually meant their salvation. He replied, "Not exactly, but it makes it easier for us to be saved if we do these things." Then I asked, "What do you hope to accomplish by being here under such stern regimen­tation?" His answer was revealing. "First of all," he stated, "we help to save ourselves and second, we feel that our sacrificial type of life is a means of saving those in the world who are in sin." We were walking toward the cemetery at this point, and as I viewed the many graves of men who sin­cerely and earnestly had entered this place never to leave in life or death, I couldn't help thinking that there was little difference between the living and the dead in this monastery.

Here's the Point

As the solid iron gates closed behind us when we left, the prayer of Jesus for His disciples came forcibly to my mind. "I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil" (John 17:15). What these poor men were doing was nothing short of spiritual suicide. Self-centered re­ligious activities can only result in a living death. These men have a barren, pointless existence by being imprisoned with walls, futile regulations, and the evil of elevat­ing self through man-made rituals and mortifications.

The question that gripped me above all others was How can these men, regardless of motives, make such tremendous per­sonal sacrifices for a totally useless, fruit­less, and thankless cause? Then I con­nected this question with the thought that certainly many of us who are a part of the Adventist denominational working force could certainly exercise more self-disci­pline and self-sacrifice and constancy in our daily lives. If monks, ignorant of the grand truths of righteousness by faith, can exhibit such determination and endure great hardship and privation, then we who claim to be motivated by love for our Saviour surely can overcome, through God's power, the various hindrances that militate against our efficiency, dedica­tion, and loyalty to God's last visible or­ganization on earth.

Well-ordered Lives

Take the constancy of their daily pro­gram. These men have learned to adjust to a rigid, unchanging routine. Variation is unknown. In our own work we could profit by developing a similar attitude. Paul declares, "Let us not be weary in well doing" (Gal. 6:9) and "Be ye stedfast, un­moveable" (1 Cor. 15:58). "Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them," "Give thyself wholly to them" (1 Tim. 4:16, 15), "Endure afflictions" (2 Tim. 4:5). I believe these statements con­tain a definite note of constancy, an un­changing dedication in a man's daily pro­gram.

It is no easy task for a minister to follow a routine program, but by determined ef­fort many of us can surely set up rules that will govern our daily schedule to a great degree. Time schedules can be used. A def­inite time to rise, eat, study, visit, retire, et cetera, can spell the difference between frustration and peace of mind, success and failure in our work. A well-ordered life influences the church and certainly has a powerfully good impact on our own fami­lies. An erratic disorganized life dishonors our high calling. We must cope with irreg­ularities, but we are not to live in a con­stant state of emergency. Proper planning can avoid many of these so-called emer­gencies. Maniacal living is like eating soup with a fork.

The words "study to be quiet" are ap­propriate in this confused age. The New English Bible puts it, "Let it be your am­bition to keep calm" (1 Thess. 4:11).* God through David declares, "Be still, and know that I am God" (Ps. 46:10). If monks can have a definite program, why can't we?

Avoid Satan's Diversionary Tactics

Many of our personal problems, such as financial burdens, could be partially solved if we practiced the art of simplic­ity. If the inmates of this monastery achieve a type of peace of mind, their life of simplicity should get a large share of the credit. The increase of material goods above a certain level inevitably brings with it an increase of perplexity and trials. This is true of excessive, unusable knowl­edge. "He that increaseth knowledge in­creaseth sorrow" (Eccl. 1:18). Too many of us are involved in programs and plans that are only hindering our accomplishing the real goal of leading souls to Christ. All diversionary tactics of the devil must be thwarted. The good counsel to Timo­thy, I feel, is more significant to the minis­try today than it was in Paul's day. "A soldier on active service will not let himself be involved in civilian affairs; he must be wholly at his commanding officer's dis­posal" (2 Tim. 2:4, N.E.B.).*

Sit down a moment and run your brain through an imaginary IBM computer and tally up how much time, energy, and even money you spend on unnecessary things! The ability to segregate the essential from the nonessential is a never-ending task. The best leaders in all areas of life are skillful at this job. The industrialist Henry L. Doherty said, "I can hire men to do everything but two things: Think and do things in the order of their importance." Our Lord was a Master at leading a sim­plified life. By tongue and action He was simplicity personified. I would be thrilled to hear Christ say about me what He said about Mary, "The part that Mary has chosen is best" (Luke 10:42, N.E.B.).*

Testimony of Medical Allowances

Then consider the simplicity of diet this order follows. Those I saw appeared to be in excellent health in spite of the fact they were never served desserts, rich foods, soft drinks, candy, meat, and many other items. Furthermore, the amount they ate seemed to be microscopic compared with the average intake of many an American. Yet these men were alive, active, and able to follow a rugged program of study and work. The wandering Israelites and these men surely had something in common—simple diet! Judging by present-day medi­cal allowance expenditures, perhaps emula­tion of this program to a certain degree would save both men and money. Simplic­ity in all phases of life is summed up in the words "Godliness with contentment is great gain. . . . And having food and rai­ment let us be therewith content" (1 Tim. 6:6-8).

Middle of the Night Worships

To think of worshiping four hours a night every night of the year probably as­tounded me more than any other part of their program. How many of us spend two hours during the daytime in personal devo­tions? Dare we think what would happen to our movement if every minister would conscientiously fortify his heart and mind by prayer and study for two or more hours a day without fail! I cannot escape the feeling that Pentecost would be repeated soon. Set time for personal devotions and study is not an impossible goal.

The world languishes for God's Word. Today our own church desperately needs messages direct from the Word. Our mem­bers are hungry for spiritual food. Only as we take time to prayerfully study the Word are we able to feed our flocks. Must we be enclosed by walls and bound by rigid rules before we set up time goals for this most important phase of our ministry?

Fight Because We Love

May our love for God prompt us in all areas of life to make the necessary sacrifices so that our lives will fragrantly bless our sick, dark world. "And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corrupt­ible crown; but we an incorruptible. I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air: but I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway" (1 Cor. 9:25-27).

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

comments powered by Disqus

J. R. SPANGLER, Associate Secretary, Ministerial Association, General Conference

September 1965

Download PDF
Ministry Cover

More Articles In This Issue

Teamwork in Korea

The team spirit at work in Korea.

It Worked in France!

How we implemented the Bible-marking method in evangelism in France.

A New Venture in Evangelism

Our women conduct a public effort.

"So We Fasted and Besought Our God

Evangelism in Hamburg, Germany

Evangelism in the Austral Union

A new awakening in the South American Division.

Five Hundred Souls in Three Campaigns

Reports from Latin America.

"None of Us Liveth to Himself"

The need for encouragement and fellowship.

View All Issue Contents

Digital delivery

If you're a print subscriber, we'll complement your print copy of Ministry with an electronic version.

Sign up
Advertisement - RevivalandReformation 300x250

Recent issues

See All