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After the French Revolution when the state seized church property, the monks left and the building fell into disrepair. It was sold to a private buyer who dismantled it and sold off the material which was used in local buildings. The Charterhouse was bought back by the state in 1870 and restored by renowned architect Clovis Normand, born in nearby Hesdin and a pupil of Violet le Duc, recreator of Notre Dame Paris. Normand also designed St Hugh’s Charterhouse in Parkminster, England which is twinned with La Chartreuse de Neuville. Life in La Chartreuse The two communities of La Chartreuse de Neuville consisted of 24 Fathers and 24 Brothers who grew vegetables and fruit and supported the Fathers. They were all vegetarian. Each father lived alone in an apartment called a cell, though it was quite substantial. They lived in silence and without company. Their food was passed through a guichet, a cupboard in the wall with two doors. A Brother would open the outer door, put the food in the cupboard and close the door. Then the Father would open his door to take the food. It was the same with any supplies including firewood. The Fathers were forbidden from doing work other than spiritual, except for cutting firewood. Each apartment was exactly the same, on two levels and with a small enclosed garden where they could grow flowers if they wished. The ground floor level was considered the material world – connected to the world of man. There was a short corridor known as a promenoir where a Father could walk for exercise. Upstairs they entered the Ava Maria room and left behind the world of the non-spiritual. Here they would pray for hours on end. They also had a wood cutting area, a bedroom and prayer area, a table and chair.
They were allowed to do spiritual things, reading, writing, painting and sculpting but nothing they produced ever had their signature. They had no personal possessions, no ego and no vanity. There were no distractions and their roles were viewed as collective. They prayed. A lot. The Fathers were felt to experience a spiritual consciousness by withdrawing from the world which enabled them to pray for mankind. I expected to feel claustrophobic and shut in when I stood in the apartment of a Father. But instead, it felt surprisingly open, tranquil and calm. In the small garden I could feel the rays of the sun and hear the birds. Other than that it was silent as it had been for centuries. Colourful patterns fell across the cloisters from the stained glass windows. There are several cloisters, arched and columned and glorious. The Fathers met five times a day for prayer in the Great Chapel and on Sunday afternoons when they dined together – always in silence. On Mondays they were allowed to take a walk outside the Charterhouse and speak if necessary and once a week they would gather in the Chapter Room and speak – but only if they had something relevant to say. The French saying “l’avoir l’avoir a chapitre” – having a voice in the chapter, which means to have influence, originated from this. They were allowed to meet up with their family for just two hours a year. No part of the Charterhouse was accessible to the public but religious visitors were allowed. And every Charterhouse followed the same rules and routines.
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