By CAROLE BRESLIN
In the mountains of Vermont you can visit the home — now a resort — of the famous Von Trapp family in Waitsfield, Vt. If you travel south from there, and meander about 100 miles through the mountains, you will see the Carthusian Monastery of the Transfiguration near Lake Madeleine in Equinox, Vt.
This is the only Carthusian monastery in the United States. The Carthusians have held so closely to the vision of their founder, St. Bruno, that they have had no need of reform, unlike many other orders, such as the Carmelites. The austerity and quiet lifestyle of the Carthusians back in the 12th century had such a profound effect on St. Anthelm that it changed him remarkably for the rest of his life.
St. Anthelm was born of noble parents in a palace, the castle of Chignin, just outside of the city of Chambéry in northeastern France, near the German border. In 1107, the year of his birth, most European cultures held to the Catholic faith, even if not strictly holding to the teachings of the Church.
St. Anthelm, possessing above average intelligence, studied and became a priest. At this time, the Church had roads to highly recognized, and thus frequently sought-after, positions. These prestigious offices attracted some men, who may have been well intentioned, to aspire to them. The priests who sought to be bishops or leaders in the Church did not seem to be aware that such simony and worldly pursuits were contradictory to a life of holiness and austerity.
St. Anthelm sincerely sought to fulfill the requirements of his position. He practiced justice, generosity, and industriousness, although in a worldly way. Things were about to change, however.
Since some of his relatives had joined the Carthusians, he would frequently visit them. Thus, St. Anthelm learned that there was much more to a vocation than carrying out the administrative functions of the priesthood and the administering of the sacraments. The community witnessed to him that quiet prayer, isolation from the world, and hard work were to be treasured more than the trappings of the offices of higher recognition.
Hence, in 1137, St. Anthelm took the habit of the Carthusians. His superiors, before the completion of his novitiate, sent Anthelm to the Grande Chartreuse, located in the French Alps near Italy. This monastery was built high in the Alps in a nearly inaccessible valley. Because of this, it suffered collapse when it was inundated by an avalanche.
St. Anthelm’s administrative skills came to use in rebuilding the monastery and reestablishing its prosperity. He then built a wall around the grounds to prevent a similar fate. In addition, he constructed an aqueduct to supply water to the buildings.
His administrative gifts did not prevent him from tending to the establishment of the spiritual life as well. He worked to ensure that the original rule was not altered and that the members of the monastery followed them closely.
Furthermore, he oversaw the gathering of the many Carthusian houses around Europe into closer communion. He summoned the first general chapter meeting of the Carthusians during which the Grande Chartreuse was established as being the motherhouse for the order. Although he may not have been formally elected to the position, because of his organizational skills and reputation for holiness, he became the first minister general.
Under his leadership, many men came to join the order. Some of the recruits even came from his own family: his father, a brother, and the Count of Nivernais, who became a lay brother to the order. With the help of Blessed John the Spaniard, a community of women was begun and their constitution established.
Undoubtedly, Anthelm led the group of monks with fairness, effectiveness, and holiness. His skills as both a spiritual guide and a manager were evident in his accomplishments. Nevertheless, he preferred the life of quiet contemplation rather than the day-to-day overseeing of the running of the grounds.
After 12 years of serving in that capacity, he stepped down in 1152. The reprieve was short-lived. When the prior of the house in Portes had to resign because of old age, he requested that Anthelm take over his role.
When he arrived he noticed that the monastery had been doing very well indeed. The coffers were full, the harvest had been plentiful, and the chapel had beautiful gold ornaments. For an order that had taken poverty as part of its rule, St. Anthelm thought, such possessions were not right, especially since the people of the surrounding area lived in such poverty.
So Anthelm oversaw the distribution of food to the poor and needy. He also sold some of the Church’s possessions in order to give alms to them as well. All this he did within two years before he returned to the Grand Chartreuse.
Once again his contemplative pursuits were interrupted when the Schism of 1159 forced him to take the stage. He entered the conflict in support of Pope Alexander III against the claims of the antipope Victor IV. By garnering the support of various religious orders throughout Spain, France, and England, he eventually orchestrated the settlement of the real Pope, Alexander III.
Perhaps because of this, and much to the dismay of Anthelm, the Pope named him as bishop of Belley. He was consecrated to that office on September 8, 1163. The previous bishop had done little to ensure the moral living of the priests. Anthelm therefore found the diocese in disarray. Immediately upon his arrival he began the work of restoring celibacy, obedience, and holiness in his see as well as establishing the authority of the bishop over Church matters.
When Count Humbert arrested a priest, Anthelm intervened. When the Pope reversed the ruling of Anthelm, who had excommunicated the impenitent count, Anthelm resigned his post and left for Portes. Over time he was reconciled to Rome and served as an ambassador to end the conflict between King Henry II of England and Thomas à Becket. Although he worked diligently, he was unsuccessful in his mission.
In his final years, he found most satisfaction in his visits to Chartreuse, to a cloistered community of women in Bons, and to a leper colony. His active life, not curtailed by age or infirmity, continued until he was struck with fever after tending to the poor.
Before Anthelm’s death, Count Humbert came to his bedside begging his forgiveness. On June 26, 1178 at the age of 72, Anthelm passed away. The place of his burial became a pilgrim site at which many miracles were wrought. His feast day is June 26.
Dear St. Anthelm, who did so much to reform the clergy in your diocese, look down upon your fellow priests today and see their need. Intercede for them, we pray, that they may resist temptation and seek the holiness that can alone protect them from the evils of our times. Amen.
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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)