The existence of the Carthusian nuns goes back almost to the origins of the Order. This women’s branch has accompanied it always ever since. It has a tradition of eight and a half centuries.
Saint Bruno and his companions arrived at the Chartreuse Desert in 1084. They were looking for a solitary place to relive in the West the tradition of the ancient Desert Fathers: a life devoted to prayer, solitude, conversion and poverty. The fervour and fidelity of the very first community to the hermitic orientation will soon have a real influence: from 1115, several communities asked to join the way of life established by Saint Bruno. It was to their entreaties, and to those of Bishop Saint Hugh of Grenoble, that Guigo, the fifth prior of Chartreuse, wrote the first rule of the Carthusians, the Coutumes de Chartreuse (Customs of Chartreuse). This work, completed in 1127, remains the foundation of Carthusian legislation. In 1140 the first General Chapter met, under the leadership of St. Anthelm, who would unite all the houses in charity and ensure the preservation of Carthusian observance over the ages.
At the same time, around 1145, the nuns of Prébayon, in Provence, in the south of France, living under a local rule, attracted by this new way of life, asked for their affiliation with the Carthusians. They were welcomed into the Order by St. Anthelm, the seventh prior of Chartreuse, thus giving birth to the women’s branch of the Order. Since then, the nuns have formed a unique Order with the Carthusian monks, under the direction of the same Minister General, the Prior of the Great Chartreuse.
This choice to move to greater solitude was supported and guided by Blessed John of Spain, monk and prior of Montrieux, who gave the nuns of Prébayon a copy of the Customs of Chartreuse. Sent to Savoy to found the charterhouse of Reposoir, for several years he copied, for the nuns, the liturgical books in use at the Chartreuse. Finally, he contributed to the ratification of the nuns’ affiliation with the Order, probably during the Second General Chapter in 1155, in which he participated as prior of the charterhouse of Restoir. His role was therefore decisive in the acquisition by the nuns, the tradition initiated by Saint Bruno.
However, the assimilation of all the characteristics of the charterhouse by the Carthusian nuns took place in stages, over the centuries. The nuns of Prébayon lived a cenobitic life according to the customs prevailing at that time, in a place that was certainly remote and lonely, but where there is no evidence that there was the construction of hermitages. They lived according to a monastic rule that without specific evidence was a tradition akin to that of Saint Cæsarius of Arles. To which they brought the tradition of virginal consecration. That they slept in dormitories, ate their meals and worked together is attested to long after their affiliation with the Carthusian Order by a charter of the General Chapter of 1320 which prescribes in particular that “each bed alone”. This transition from cenobitism to hermitism has gone through phases of adaptation concerning religious status, strengthening of the enclosure and guarding of solitude.
For several centuries, the Carthusian nuns had a greater share of common life than for the monks. Successive constitutions would gradually reinforce the same principles of solitude and poverty. This decisive inflection flourished in the 17th century and with Dom Innocent Le Masson’s interest in the nuns of his Order, of which he was the first Prior General to address his own statutes to the Statutes of the Order as well as a number of decisions of the General Chapter. Thus, the Antiqua Statuta of 1271, which contained only 10 brief paragraphs about nuns, was passed, to the Statutes of the Charter nuns from the Statutes of the Order and a few ordinances of the General Chapters, written by Dom Le Masson, in order to unify the practices of the Order, including the women’s branch.
The Carthusian nuns have experienced in their history the same hardships as the monks. In 1794, because of the French Revolution, all women’s charterhouses were closed; but in 1816, under difficult circumstances, the few nuns who had survived revived the women’s branch of the Order, which remains without interruption to the present day.
2. Recent Developments
It was thought at the time that the woman’s temperament was not capable of withstanding all the rigors of the monks’ solitude. In the renewal sparked by the Second Vatican Council, around 1970, following urgent requests from the nuns to be able to lead the Carthusian life in its fullness, there was an evolution towards a more solitary life, so that today the life of the nuns is identical to that of the monks. Since 1973 they also have their own General Chapter, celebrated at the Great Chartreuse every two years, as well as their own complete Statutes, they remain in organic and spiritual union with the monks.
The women’s branch of the Carthusian Order now has four houses in Europe: two in France (in the Massif Central and Provence), one in Italy, one in Spain and one in Korea. Following in the footsteps of the first Carthusians, remaining in the school of the Holy Spirit and allowing themselves to be formed by experience, the nuns want to remain faithful to the charism of their Father Saint Bruno, following Christ.
3. Several important figures
Many nuns have sanctified themselves silently in their charterhouses, but three exceptional women have left a name in the spiritual and hagiographic history of the Carthusian Order, which we will briefly mention:
Saint Roseline of Villeneuve
Daughter of Giraud of Villeneuve, lord of the Arcs, Roseline was born in 1262 at the Castle of the town Les Arcs-sur-Argens, in Provence, France. From her childhood, Roseline was noted for her charity and her great love of the poor. As a teenager she and her brother made a pilgrimage to the Abbey on the Island of Lérins, where her meeting with Father Abbot confirmed her religious vocation. Some time later, she renounced the pomp of the world to devote herself to God as a nun in the Carthusian Order. Roseline began her life as a nun at the charterhouse of Saint-André-de-Ramières, in the diocese of Gap (Vaucluse), home where the very first community of Carthusian nuns, that of Prébayon, had transferred at the beginning of the 13th century; she then finished her novitiate at the charterhouse de Bertaud, in the same region. Five years after her religious profession, at the request of her aging aunt Jeanne of Villeneuve, the first prioress of the charterhouse of Celle-Roubaud, near the Arcs-sur-Argens, Roseline joined her there around 1285 to live her life as a contemplative nun. Her life would be holy and full, very embodied in her time. She succeeded her aunt in the monastery’s government around 1300, and restored the priory until her resignation in 1325. She had an influence both inside and outside her monastery, with an important influence on the lay lords and ecclesiastical dignitaries and thus on the local events of her time. She drew God’s blessings around her and her monastery and was credited with certain miracles, including agricultural crops in the region, healings of the blind, and the release of her brother the knight Helioon, who was taken prisoner during the Crusades.
She died on January 17, 1329, at the age of almost 67. Exhumed five years after her death, her body was found intact and her eyes as bright and brilliant as if she were alive. Remaining until our days in the state of incorruptibility, her remains have experienced some translations; she is now revered in a shrine in a chapel in her village of Les Arcs in Provence, along with the reliquary containing her eyes. Her uncorrupted body is kept at the monastery of the Great Chartreuse. Her uninterrupted popular veneration is still in force in the diocese of Toulon-Fréjus. She is the first canonized holy Carthusian nun, a model of perfection of the Carthusian virtues of humility, purity, spirit of prayer and charity.
Blessed Beatrix of Ornacieux
Béatrix was born around 1260 in Ornacieux, to a noble family. She joined the charterhouse of Parménie (Isère), which she saw from her family castle, at the age of 13. She shone with virtues, a life of prayer and a burning love for the Passion of Christ, which led her to lead a particularly mortified life. Visions, ecstasy and supernatural communications, as well as internal and external trials were common in her life. Later she became the prioress of her community. In 1300 she was sent to found the charterhouse of Eymeux (Drôme) where she lived until her death in 1303. Her mortal remains were brought back to Parmenia around 1309, where her tomb enjoyed a popular cult over the centuries, recognized by Pope Pius IX, who beatified her in 1869. She is credited with various miracles during her life, which has left traces of a holiness centred on Eucharistic contemplation, a tender devotion to the Virgin Mary and a mystique of extraordinary phenomena, in the tradition of the veneration of the Cross that will mark Western spirituality from the 13th to the 15th centuries. Her life was written shortly after her death by the Carthusian Margaret of Oingt.
Margaret of Oingt
Margaret’s date of birth is not known, but it is located around 1240. She belonged to the noble Lyon family of Oingt. The daughter of Lord Guichard, she had two brothers and three sisters, two of whom, like her, would become nuns. She entered the charterhouse of Poleteins, in the Dombes, answering a divine call, and not as it often happened at the time, to obey the father’s will. In 1288 she was the prioress of her community, and remained so until her death, which occurred on 11 February 1310. After her death she was revered as a blessed, but her veneration was interrupted during the French Revolution, when all the charterhouses were closed and the Carthusian nun dispersed. This interruption prevented her postulation to beatification at the end of the 19th century.
Margaret left some spiritual writings, of notable value not only because of their content, but also from the literary point of view, being one of the few testimonies of the Franco-Provençal language used in Lyon in the 13th century. A cultured woman who wrote in Latin and the vernacular, she was the first Lyon author to use her native language to write her own thought. Her works include Meditations, written in Latin, The Mirror, The life of Saint Beatrix, virgin of Ornacieux, and several Letters. Her goal was not to publish, but to fix in writing the thoughts aroused by God in her heart, so as not to forget them and to be able to meditate on them again with the help of grace, as she herself explains, or to build up her sisters, at the request of her confessor.
The centre of her spirituality is the person of Jesus, from a bridal perspective. With exquisite and very feminine sensitivity, Margaret calls Christ “Mother” because the sufferings of His Passion are like the pains of birth that beget us in the life of grace. Christ is also contemplated in his resurrected glory, as the luminous mirror of divine glory. Kneaded with humility, her thought is expressed in a language nourished by Scripture, as well as the liturgy and some great spiritual figures of her century. They are important for all those interested in mysticism: Pope Benedict XVI dedicated his general audience of November 3, 2010 to her, presenting her as a “holy and wise woman, who knows how to express with a certain humour a spiritual sensitivity,” and quoting her writings extensively, which proves their originality and quality.
One could also cite:
Sister Anne Griffon (†1641) of the charterhouse of Gosnay (Pas-de-Calais), who was favoured by great mystical gifts. And Mother Albertine de Briois, prioress of the charterhouse of Gosnay who died a martyr in Arras during the French Revolution, on June 27, 1794.
After the restoration of the nun’s Carthusian life in 1816 and to the present day, 18 nuns were awarded the title of “laudabiliter vixit” after their death, the last of them being Sister Maria Veronica Caldirola, professed of the charterhouse of the Holy Hearts, who died at 100 years old in 2015 after living 78 years in the Order. Without being a quasi-canonization, this title is granted by the General Chapter, unanimously by its participants, for religious who have particularly noted themselves by their virtues and their influence.
4. The houses throughout the ages
|Poleteins||Celle de la bienheureuse Marie||Ain, France||1245?-1605|
|La Celle-Roubaud||Var, France||1260-1420|
|Belmonte di Busca||Turin, Italy||1274?-1285?|
|Salettes||Salle ou Cour-Notre-Dame||Isère, France||1299-1792|
|Val de Susa||Susa, Italy||1323-1338|
|Mont-Sainte-Marie (Gosnay)||Sainte-Marie||Pas-de-Calais, France||1329-1792|
|Bruges||Sainte-Anne-au-Désert (Sint-Anna-ter-Woestyne)||Flandre Occidentale, Belgium||1348-1796|
|Murviedo ?||Saint-Esprit||Valence, Spain||1389?-1610?|
|Les Écouges (Le Revesti)||Notre-Dame-des-Surveillants (Excubiarum)||Provence, France||1391-1418|
|La Bastide-Saint-Pierre||Saints-Cœurs-de-Jésus-et-Marie||Tarn-et-Garonne, France||1854-1903|
|Le Gard||Notre-Dame-du-Gard||Somme, France||1871-1906|
|San Francesco||Saint-Antoine-de-Padoue||Turin, Italy||1904-1994|
|Benifaçà||Notre-Dame||Castellón de la Plana, Spain||1967-|
|Vedana||Saint-Marc||Belluno, Italy||1977-1994; 1998-2013|