Quiet, please!
Quiet, please!

Quiet, Please!

The silent village of Karthaus

Founded by Bruno of Cologne in 1084, the Carthusian Order has its origins in the Chartreuse Mountains near Grenoble In France. In its heyday, the Carthusian order extended to 272 monasteries worldwide, including one in South Tyrol. Which, by the way, is another good reason to visit the Schnalstal Valley.

Flanked by steep mountains on either side, the Schnalstal Valley has largely remained wild. Given its remoteness, one can imagine how inaccessible this area must have been at the time the monastery of Allerengelberg was founded in 1326. It was here, in what is today Karthaus/Certosa, that these monks found the seclusion they were looking for. Living in isolation, the pious Carthusians sought communion with God only through silence, solitude and prayer. While other religious orders were active in their communities, caring for the sick and infirm, or educating children, the Carthusian monks lived out of the world – quite literally.

After the 20-minute drive to Karthaus, I stopped the car to take another look at my cell phone. The signal strength indicator oscillated between one and two bars, before I decided that weak cell phone reception mightn’t be such a bad thing after all. A bus idled at the lonely Karthaus station; its engine running. Nobody got off, and no one was getting on. Passing through a gateway I found myself in the village square. Not a soul in sight. The quietude that descended over so many Alpine villages at the height of the pandemic might be comparable with the silence that reigned over Allerengelberg hundreds of years ago. Before I knew it I suddenly found myself in the middle of the monastery complex in Karthaus. Passing a cluster of statues in the village square representing a line of tenebrous monks – I noticed one staring straight at me. In his hands, a scroll bore the harsh admonishment: Memento mori (remember you’re going to die!). A gentle breeze blew across the square as if in silent testimony.
Edging further into the cloister, I felt as if I’d stepped out of a time-machine. It isn’t hard to imagine the white-robed friars pacing up and down under these arches centuries ago. Their spartan regime demanded absolute silence. Speech was only permitted at mass and during prayer time. A few words of comfort when confronted with death. Though the monks formed a community, they lived isolated lives in small cottages known as “cells”. Each friar was completely absorbed in prayer, study, and a craft. Meals were spartan, devoid of meat, and consumed in isolation. As I peered through one of the small windows, I realised that food was pushed into the cells through a window known as a ‘push-hole’. These push-holes were designed in such a way that the plate of food had to be passed around a corner, in order to avoid any eye contact between the friars.
The cells where the monks once prayed and contemplated their existence are now living quarters. On some steps, I saw a parcel bearing the logo of a famous e-commerce company … a decorative wreath hung on another door. Looking through the arched window on my left, I peered into the inner courtyard that was once the cemetery. Now that the grass has been left to grow, the plants in the flower-beds provide clues as to which herbs were used in the monastery for medicinal purposes. Pondering all this, I was struck by all the ancient knowledge the monks had accumulated. It reminded me of my grandmother, who knew how to identify herbs and wild grasses. When I asked her how she was able to remember them all, she nodded condescendingly, as if to say: look at what’s become of humanity!
On my way back to the square, I noticed a few children wandering around an unkempt corner of the cloister in search of a cat. A boy came running after them, waving a stick, which he brandished like a rifle. Squinting through one eye, he took aim at a random object, his stick quavering like a compass needle. A woman leant out of the window shouting something. Then silence.
In the end, it was their secluded lives that proved to be their undoing. Even as the Carthusians led a secluded existence behind massive walls, the peasant farmers had to pay tithes to the monastery, receiving nothing in return. Resentment gradually brewed, and meanwhile the social and political climate was changing, not only in the Schnalstal Valley, but throughout Europe. No sooner had he ascended to the Imperial Throne in 1780, Joseph II began initiating far-reaching reforms. Under his form of enlightened rule, monasteries that didn’t serve society were forced to close and had their property confiscated. The fate of Allerengelberg was also sealed in this manner. The monks were given five months to leave; their property was sold and reassigned to wealthy families, as well as local peasants and craftsmen.

Most Christian monasteries and monastic orders are today in a deep state of crisis. Whereas in the past, many young men waited patiently to enter the religious orders, this is no longer the case. Several monasteries have shut down completely, bringing Europe’s centuries-long spiritual tradition to an end. In an increasingly cacophonous world, the absolute silence so ardently sought by the monks is becoming ever harder to find. Besides the original “Grande Chartreuse” monastery in the French Alps near Grenoble, nowadays just 20 fully-functioning Carthusian monasteries remain.
After Allerengelberg was shut down, the village expanded into today’s Karthaus. The monks’ living quarters and other buildings were converted into dwellings and stables. The erstwhile church nave is now part of a tavern. In this revered place, where earthly pleasures were once eschewed, people are learning to savour life.
Yet the monastery still holds its secrets. What’s the meaning of the mysterious stone wall relief in the former monastery kitchen, depicting a snake and an egg? And where did the friars go after they abandoned their monastery? The identity of the recently discovered skeleton buried with precious buttons and earthy possessions remains unknown. Some things still remain sealed in silence.
The monastery of Allerengelberg
Don’t we underestimate the effects of the noises surrounding us in our daily lives? We take for granted the sound of traffic in the morning, phones ringing and chatter of colleagues at work, computer keyboards tapping, mobile phones vibrating, background music in the shops, the noise made by the dishwasher in the evening. How stressful is all this? Very.
Our brains are programmed to continuously analyse and identify external information in order to pre-empt potential threats. We stay alert even when serenaded by relaxing background music, and our blood pressure remains slightly elevated, with cortisol levels prone to rise. Research into the effects of noise is still in its infancy, but studies so far conducted already confirm the need for silence. Only when there’s silence are certain parts of the brain activated. In the absence of external stimuli, our sensors are inwardly directed: arranging, processing and archiving existing data. Illustrating the common dictum: “a flash of inspiration”, something may occur to us when we aren’t consciously looking for it. Absence of ambient noise helps relax the muscles, allowing more cells to grow in the hippocampus. The brain is kept focused and creative, promoting clear thinking.
But how would the Carthusians have reacted to these new findings? They’d probably have stayed silent!