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!