Continuing to read Pope Francis’s Fratelli Tutti during Lent I am focusing on these words from Chapter 2: “Each day we have to decide whether to be Good Samaritans or indifferent bystanders” (FT 69). What if we live a life of solitude? Do we still have to make that choice between being Good Samaritans or indifferent bystanders? As I considered this question, I remembered a powerful moment from the past.
The last newspaper I had seen on the day I left the world to enter the Carthusian monastery was the Kentish Gazette, which I had read on the train from Kent to Sussex. It had a news story about the owner of a bicycle shop in Canterbury who had committed suicide due to the failure of his business.
I was impressed by one small human detail in the story, that the shop owner had hidden the financial collapse from his family, as he had been ashamed that the business inherited from his father had failed under his management. It was a small story in a local newspaper of the kind we usually shrug off, and then never think about again. I felt a momentary sadness for the man, then moved on to other news and finally dumped the newspaper in a bin at the village railway station in Sussex.
The story of the cycle shop owner did not remain in that railway station bin. Unconsciously I carried him with me into the Carthusian monastery at Parkminster and in my hermitage he became the first focus of my intercessory prayers. You cannot be an “indifferent bystander” in a hermitage: if your job is prayer, then you are obliged to get the details right. But I could not remember his name.
It is a privilege to be given an opportunity to test a vocation in any setting, but to fully experience the Carthusian life, and be given a two-story hermitage in which to live, represents a great act of trust by the monastic community. In return, there are sacrifices to be made. I had handed over my mobile phone to Dom Bruno* the Novice Master on the first day, after making final calls to family and friends.
“Does this mean we won’t see you again?” was their most pressing question.
“Not necessarily…” I tried various formulae to respond. “I may discover this is too hard and come out again; but if I remain here, I’m sure there will be opportunities for you to visit.”
I was aware that the honest answer should have been a simple “Yes” to their question. A visit from one close family member once a year would be possible. After a parcel with some cake and chocolate arrived from a friend, I was told that this kind of contact from the outside should be discouraged! It was all part of the deal. If I felt called to live in the Carthusian twelfth century, there was nothing to complain about. “Never reformed because never deformed.” The famous papal pronouncement on the faithful continuity of the Order was completely true.
The forgotten name of the deceased cycle shop owner continued to trouble me. I had been to his shop sometimes because I was a keen club rider with Canterbury Cycle Club. Sometimes he had spare parts that my preferred bicycle shop on my side of town didn’t have in stock, but I never spoke to him by name. I thought hard about that newspaper article I had read on the train and dumped in the bin at the railway station. I really couldn’t remember. In the ante-room to a Carthusian hermitage is the ‘Ave Maria’, a small room where the hermit must pause and pray to Our Lady before entering the main cell. I asked her to help me with the name of the bicycle shop owner, but in her wisdom she withheld it. I decided to write a note to the Novice Master.
“Dom Bruno, I would be grateful if you might allow me to briefly return my mobile phone so I could make one call to a member of my bicycle club, in order to be reminded of the name of a deceased person who I desperately need to pray for in my intercessions. Thank you. Pax.”
I had the folded note in my hand at midnight as I set off for the long walk through the Great Cloister for the three hours of the Carthusian night offices. Dom Bruno came out of his hermitage twenty yards ahead of me and walked on. I left my note on a windowsill about ten feet across the pavestones of the cloister, opposite his door: the customary place to leave a note for him. I followed behind his white-habited figure, with the pointed cowl covering his head, and the heels of his distinctive white Nike sports shoes the only reminder that this was the 21st century.
After the chanting of the long psalmody of Matins the lights go out and the monks sit in silence in their stalls, with only the red sanctuary lamp remaining lit. The choir stalls were bathed in moonlight coming in from the high gothic clerestory windows. Only two brothers in the stalls opposite went out and returned during the break. Dom Bruno sat directly opposite me in choir, and he remained there throughout. The lights went on and we began chanting the Latin antiphons for Lauds.
When the office finished shortly after 3 a.m., I crossed the floor and genuflected to Our Lord, and saw Dom Bruno outside in the porch opposite the Chapter room, where he was pinning a notice to the community board. So I walked into the Great Cloister ahead of him, for the long walk back to my hermitage. I felt invigorated by the night offices but at the same time ready to sleep. The regular rhythm of the timetable allows just three hours at this point before rising at six a.m.
As I passed my note on the windowsill I paused. I knew there had been no opportunity for Dom Bruno to reply because he had been in front of me as I left the note. He had remained in my sight throughout Lauds and Matins. He was now still behind me outside the Chapter room. But I stopped to look at my note one last time before he read it, just to check the meaning was clear.
As I unfolded the note in the dim light of the Great Cloister I felt a sudden shiver down the back of my neck and my spine. Five words had been written below mine.
“God will know his name.”
The words had appeared while the note lay on the windowsill. I folded the note and walked on, turning the corner in the cloister and heading for my hermitage door. There was no doubt in my mind that Dom Bruno had been in front of me as I had put the note on the windowsill. He had not left my sight during the night offices. He had not returned ahead of me to his hermitage. I wrestled with the mystery of it as I closed my hermitage door and climbed the stairs inside, and I have often thought about that mystery in the decade since that moment.
I paused in the Ave Maria. The previous occupant of the hermitage had left a large plaster statue of Our Lady on the shelf in this ante-room to the hermit cell. For reasons only known to himself, he had painted her silver from head to toe, with her cloak painted in glossy red. The immense distraction caused by the sight of this artistic aberration, and my daily resolve to find time to repaint it, was usually an obstacle to any meaningful dialogue with Mary in this space set aside for that purpose; but on this occasion I simply responded to her calming silvered presence with heartfelt thanks and a decade of the Rosary. For I was assured that God would know the cycle shop owner’s name.
The mystery of Dom Bruno’s movements at the centre of this story should not become its focus, for there is no satisfactory answer for me, but others will find a way to psychologize it, I am sure. There are many stories in Catholic and Orthodox traditions of spiritual men who performed inexplicable acts, even bilocation, but I tell the story rather to focus on the importance of intercession.
So, I return to Fratelli Tutti during my Lent reflections: “Each day we have to decide whether to be Good Samaritans or indifferent bystanders.” This can be interpreted in the sense of ‘active’ charity and apostolate, of course, but I think it can also be interpreted within our ‘contemplative’ vocation and our more hidden works of prayer. The Good Samaritan is also the person who takes seriously their obligation to pray for others, and if the above experience taught me anything it was that prayer of intercession is a mystical reality.
Images: © Gareth Thomas, used with permission. All rights reserved.