From time to time, the monastery in Serra San Bruno has hosted noteworthy guests. However, the rumor that one of the pilots who dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima sought spiritual refuge within its walls is just that. Apparently, the discrepancy can be traced back to a false media report. The American military man who took the habit in the Calabrian monastery for a few years was actually a veteran of the Korean War.
As to be expected, the most famous guests have been religious figures – various popes and saints. More recently these notables have included Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. The monastery also accommodates the less saintly in its museum on the grounds. In this way, the rowdier of visitors won’t interfere with the strict rules of the order – silence, prayer, meditation and penitence.
THE CHARTERHOUSE OF SERRA SAN BRUNO
The Certosa di Serra San Bruno is a well-known tourist destination in Calabria. Founded by Saint Bruno (c. 1030 – 1101) of Cologne, Germany, it is the second community of his Carthusian Order. The first abbey was established in 1084 in the Chartreuse Mountains near Grenoble, France. It was called the Grande Chartreuse, and the English term “Charterhouse” stems from this French word. Interestingly, the color chartreuse also owes its designation to these monks and their greenish liqueur. They’ve been making their Chartreuse, a sweet herb liqueur, since 1737.
The Certosa or Charterhouse in Calabria was founded in 1091. The monastery is located in a particularly rainy zone of the Serre Mountains in the Province of Vibo Valentia, and the morning I visited was one of those days. The misty atmosphere added a mystique to the solid stone walls that surround the interior quadrilateral structures. The nearby town of Serra San Bruno, now with a population of almost 7,000, traces its origins back to the building of the monastery, housing workers and artisans employed by the Carthusians.
The exhibit presents the history of the order, of which just twenty-two charterhouses survive from the height of 195 before the Reformation. Today, there are sixteen Carthusian monasteries for monks and six for nuns. For those interested in this particular vocation, the Order has a website with a 27-page brochure in six languages entitled, “The Joy of Being a Carthusian Monk.”
To give the visitor a feel for the religious service, the museum has set up a small room with the reproduction of a handful of choir stalls. The piped-in vocal chanting was a tad more effective than I would have thought. There is also a room with a good film about the charterhouse.
The design of Carthusian monasteries allows for each brother (or sister) to have his private living quarters off long corridors that flank a central courtyard. This hermitage or cell is viewed as a holy place, as it is where the monk devotes himself to silence and solitude, as well as where he speaks with the Lord.
An exhibition cell was on display and I found it to be rather roomy. According to the information provided, the space was meant to be large enough for someone to live comfortably. Time is spent reading, writing, reciting psalms, praying, meditating contemplating and working. These endeavors are intended to prepare the heart to fully receive God.
Physically, the cell has a wooden bedchamber with a devotional or praying area attached. There’s a writing desk as well as a table to take meals that are served through a swiveled opening.
In addition to the cloistered monks, the charterhouse has brothers who do manual work outside their cells. However, even for them, it is a contemplative life with the keywords being solitude, silence and the spirituality of the desert. Interesting, the idea of a desert in the midst of a damp forest.
REPAST IN THE WOODS
The wooded park surrounding the charterhouse is quite peaceful and makes for a lovely walk. A sanctuary with the Chiesa di Santa Maria nel Bosco (St. Mary in the Woods Church), the pond of atonement and St. Bruno’s tomb is just a few paces down the road. The saint died at the charterhouse and his bones are laid to rest in this small mausoleum.
As hunger invariably calls, particularly on excursions in Italy, there just happens to be an agriturismo next to the sanctuary. Luckily, the monks don’t count amongst the patrons, so there’s more than bread and water on the menu. The restaurant Ritrovo Santa Maria is an unpretentious locale that focuses on local products, in particular mushrooms gathered from the area, cheese, salami and cold cuts. In fact, a large plastic basket full of freshly picked mushrooms greeted me at the entranceway. I didn’t go wrong starting out with an appetizer plate of these delectable local specialties. Then I managed to find room for a pasta dish with mushrooms and a plate of grilled lamb. Apparently, just the thought of giving up meat and fasting on Fridays made me hungry.
Read more about this fascinating, southern Italian region in Calabria: The Other Italy, my nonfiction book that explores daily life, culture, history, the arts, food, society and tourism of Calabria, Italy. Available in paperback and electronic formats.
Subscribe to My Italian Blog below and get posts for free directly to your inbox.