Early morning January 2, 1965, I woke up in a guest room in a stone cottage just outside the stone walls of Grand Chartreuse monastery, located in the Chartreuse Mountains outside of Grenoble in southeastern France.
Growing up in Brainerd, my best friend during my years at Saint Francis School was Bob Johnson, nicknamed “Dude,” a great baseball catcher in our various sand lot activities, and he always had girlfriends around him. Several years later, after his ordination into priesthood, Bob became a monk in the Carthusian Order, dedicated to a life in religious contemplation, emphasized by solitude and silence in the Grand Chartreuse monastery.
I had arrived unannounced the night before. The bus driver stopped on a narrow winding mountain road on a dark winter night. He opened the passenger door and announced two words: “Grand Chartreuse” while pointing his finger toward the darkness outside. I awkwardly stepped out, and the bus quickly scurried away. My right hand held an athletic bag with my clothes including my Navy uniform. I was on leave from the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal, which was six months into a 10-month Mediterranean cruise, now anchored off the coast of Cannes, France, for a 16 day port of call stay.
Now left alone in what seemed to be total darkness, I tried to gaze into that blackness toward the spot the bus driver’s finger pointed. Is a road there? Very slowly stepping toward this spot, I could ever so faintly see rough stone mountainsides now, as my eyes adjusted to the traces of light afforded by fugitive patches of night sky peeping around the steep mountain slopes and the canopy of trees. I thought I could glimpse between two massive stone embankments into a dark void, and a few feet in front of me was level ground leading to a road.
Never in my life had I experienced such a total deprivation of sight and sound, I had only my footsteps to deliver me from this ordeal of my uncertainty. Every fiber of me seemed tuned into seeking. I kept walking, not knowing where I really was, how far I had to go. I lost my sense of time. I was just walking in darkness. Was I really lost?
Finally, I heard a bell ring in the distance. I now knew my hopes would eventually be answered. I didn’t know how much time or what distance I had travelled on this narrow road that I could barely see. Walking farther, my eyes saw what seemed to be a lighted window. Coming closer, I saw a large doorway. I grabbed a large iron ring and vigorously swung it against the metal plate on the door. Welcomed by nuns into their convent adjacent to the monastery, I enjoyed hearty warm soup and a cup of mulled wine. In a guest room covered with heavy blankets in a comfortable bed, I fell into deep sleep.
In the morning, one of the Carthusian brothers escorted me through the gate in a stone wall into the large stone and heavy timber chapter house where one of the head monks greeted me warmly. He told me Dom Louis Marie Robert Johnson would be able to spend much of the day with me, except for particular times when the monks gathered for communal prayer. A short time later, my boyhood friend came into the room. I immediately noticed his short beard, head shaved except for a short ring of hair, wearing a white ankle length cassock, with a black cape. We hugged and then Dom Louis immediately invited me into a large 13th century medieval chapel for morning prayers.
Later, we met in Dom Louis’ sparsely furnished cell. Here is where he spent most of his time, alone, devoting each day to prayer and meditation, in solitude that is the basis of the Carthusian Order. His meals were brought to a tray built into the door with a sliding closure.
He enthusiastically told me about the ordinary of his day and his times of elevation into the realms of meditation. Fifteen minutes into our conversation his voice became hoarse, which he explained was due to the monastery’s life of silence – with no talking. I offered the words ‘transcendental’ and ‘mysticism’ to relate my understanding but Dom Louis implied that the phrase ‘presence of the divine’ was more appropriate. I told him of my recent college studies that led my off-academic intellectualism into studying Christian mystics such as Saint John of the Cross and Bernard McGinn. The more we talked, both of us seemed to sense we were in an ineffable and unique communion. Dom Louis smiled and commented, with a bit of irony, the similitude of my night walk in the mountain darkness immersing me in a similar realm of solitude and silence, distilling everything physically around me and undistracted from my consciousness, involving my whole being. It drew every filament of my consciousness toward comprehending an elusive but ultimately attainable goal.
What I also sensed was that the monastery environment was an extremely different place that I had ever been. A supreme calm and peace permeated everything. Dom Louis’s statement “presence of the divine” took on a certain meaning.
The next day I traveled by train from Grenoble, passing through sunny Marseilles to the seaport of Cannes. That night I rode one of the Forrestal’s motor launches back to the ship anchored out in the harbor. I grabbed the aluminum railing of the very steep stairway, temporarily attached alongside the hull and began to climb up to board the aircraft carrier, as I had done so many times before. This time, clinking metallic sounds of my footsteps on the aluminum stairway seemed to tell me this was a totally new mysterious experience.