Although the Desert of Chartreuse
satisfied the spiritual needs of Bruno and his six companions – isolation, silence, solitude – the small community of monks had physical needs that could not be ignored.
Initially, a large area of the dense forest surrounding their tiny settlement was cleared and the space was used to grow crops and to graze a small herd of cattle that supplied the monks with milk, butter and cheese.
There were iron mines throughout the Chartreuse mountains
so the monks built their own foundry, drawing upon the energy offered by the raging mountain streams and using charcoal they made from the many trees in the forest.
The artistry of the monks can be seen today in the many iron hinges, doors, locks and other artifacts bearing the Chartreuse hallmark (the orb and the cross) on buildings in the nearby towns and villages.
In addition to the iron-making during the 12th century
and following centuries, the rapid expansion of sailing fleets created a need for tall, straight trees to be made into ship’s masts.
The mountain forest was filled with tall, straight trees and the monks could harvest these for funds needed to maintain La Grande Chartreuse, the order’s mother-house, and other Chartreuse monasteries springing up throughout the world.
Both iron making and ships’ mast harvesting came to a halt when King Louis XV of France ordered a drastic reduction in the number of trees that could be cut down for industrial activities.
With trees for charcoal limited, the Chartreuse blast furnaces were closed down and, without the iron, the “Martinets”, where raw iron was tranformed into objects, were also closed.
By the final days of the 18th Century, the monks were in dire economic straits :
the iron making business was defunct, the trees in the mountains stood tall and straight but could not be harvested,
and the anti-cleric attitude of the French Revolution compelled the Chartreuse Monks to leave their beloved Desert of Chartreuse and flee to Spain.
They took with them a manuscrip
which, although it had been given to the Chartreuse Fathers in Paris in 1605, had not been understood until early in the 18th Century. This “Elixir of Long Life” was treasured as a curative by the inhabitants of the towns and villages near the monastery. The market for the Elixir and the companion green and yellow liqueurs based on the formula for the Elixir was very small – but growing.
The 19th Century, the fame of the Elixir and the liqueurs grew from that small base in the Dauphiné, around La Grande Chartreuse, to a worldwide commercial success.
In spite of difficult times during the past 900 years, the Chartreuse monks have been able to provide for their own physical needs through their own work, and have done this while sustaining their vocation of prayer and praise.
They have accomplished this while being faithful to their desire for silence and solitude.