Movie director and actor Quentin Tarantino plays the role of a barman in the film Death Proof and declares: "Chartreuse, the only liqueur so good they named a colour after it." That image sends my mind off on a series of tangents as I walk through swirling early morning mists and visualise the exquisite shade of yellow tinged with green that typifies the Chartreuse elixir and liqueur. It's been faithfully concocted by monks of the Carthusian Order since the 1600s using a secret recipe that includes 130 different medicinal and aromatic plants and flowers.
What is it like living in silence and confinement in a same-sex gathering of devotees? Is there time for play? I picture a riotous party with mad, drunken monks downing goblets of Chartreuse and becoming increasingly rowdy. As I walk through lush green forests alongside the rapids of a fast-flowing river fed by snow-melt, those mental images are replaced by scenes of great reverence as the monks go about their timeless rituals, living as they have since Saint Bruno founded the famous monastery in the heart of the Chartreuse Mountains in 1084.
In a landscape of such exquisite natural splendour, topped by the 2,026-metre Grand Som peak, it is easy to imagine how those early Carthusian brothers and fathers would have been inspired by the magnificence of the natural world and chosen to enter into the contemplative world of the ‘Great Silence’. The final approach to the monastery takes me ever upward between an avenue of ancient trees and fills me with that same sense of awe and wonder I’ve known in other Cathedrals of Nature, and especially in the company of Africa’s iconic baobab trees, or among the towering Californian redwoods that are the tallest trees on Earth.
By the time I reach the high-walled collection of buildings that is the Monastere de la Grande Chartreuse I happily endorse the sign inviting ‘Silence’ and have lost all feelings of resentment that the monastery is not open to visitors. How could it be otherwise when its devoted inhabitants have committed to a continuous quest for unity with the divine, the path to ordination as a simple monk taking seven long years? I feel a great peace come over me and decide to hike above the monastery, savouring the mystique of the morning as the cold, damp mists roll in and out, providing tantalising glimpses of the mountains that are a backdrop for this historic site.
How can my photographs possibly capture the magic of the moment? I snap away anyway and then sit on some stone steps, giving silent thanks for all the gifts in my life, including a blessing at the start of my walk two years ago from Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, who I'd interviewed decades earlier as a news reporter. "Walk gently on Mother Earth, she is the only one we have," he invites. "Thank you Geoff for reminding us to be reverent and caring for the environment. God go with you." He's a beacon of love and light and I think of him warmly as this diminutive figure crammed full of joy, laughing often and easily, as do many great men and women who are at peace with themselves. Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama come to mind as examples of others where a smile or laugh seems only a moment away.
Walking back down the avenue of trees I wrongly imagine the main event of the day is over, although I still visit the Grande Chartreuse Museum that portrays the 900-year history and daily routines of the monks, and those nuns who follow similar paths in Carthusian monasteries for women.
A motto is: "The world turns, the world changes, but the cross remains firm."
Using an audio device with the language of your choice, you are taken on a fascinating journey through time and a life of quiet devotion, much of it in silence and in solitude. I feel increasingly drawn to this simple way of life in harmony with nature and have to keep reminding myself how much I love the presence of women. Could I live without them? Why would I want to? When I step into a hermitage, tastefully and simply furnished in wood by the monks themselves, I immediately think: “Wow. I could live in this peaceful space with its views out into wild nature and I would love more penetrating insights into my inner nature that would come from eight hours a day of meditation.” Would I really?
Novices can sign up for between three and 12 months to see if this life of devotion is for them. What a way to learn French, I muse, or would it be if I was mostly in silence? And would they allow me my MacBook so I could keep writing, and my Kindle so that I could read other than from the Carthusian religious texts? I guess it’s a given that my smart phone would have to go! The simple vegetarian diet would suit me fine, although I’d want to continue walking early every morning and I’m not sure if that would be possible, although a weekly walk of several hours in nature is encouraged.
Before leaving I surprise myself by lighting a candle and remember the quotation from Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals and the environment: “All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle.” I start walking again and picture each of us as a tiny light pushing back the shadows, each filled with infinite potential and possibilities.