I have wanted to watch this film since I first heard about it a year or two ago. Recently I bought the DVD and have awaited an appropriate time for its viewing. That time came when I was alone in the house this morning, a time when the neighborhood is quiet.
Into Great Silence is a film of the daily life of the Carthusian monks in the Grande Chartreuse monastery. The filmmaker, Philip Gröning of Zeitgeist Films, requested permission to do the filming and was told to wait; fifteen years later they contacted him to tell him now was the time. Their conditions were ones he had already laid on himself: only he would do the filming, there would be no extra lighting, the rules and routine would continue uninterrupted. He lived in the monastery for six months, and the result is 162 minutes of some of the most powerful film I’ve ever seen.
Warnings: You cannot watch this film in bits and pieces if you wish to understand and benefit from it. You cannot watch it while conversing with a companion or surfing the web or reading or chatting on Google or talking/texting on the phone. It’s not a popcorn-and-coke sort of film. You should not watch it if you are inclined to be cynical and judgmental about others’ chosen ways of life, or if you are inclined to mock austerity and ritual. (It would help, if you are unaware, to learn a little about the purposes of monastic life before watching it.) And if you cannot bear silence – it might behoove you to try, and to work up to watching it in its entirety, so that you can come to understand the beauty and the value of silence and contemplation.
The Grande Chartreuse is considered the most austere of all monasteries today. The monks live by a rule of silence, broken only by prayers, chants, bells, readings at meals, certain rituals such as the welcoming of novices to the order, and on their weekly day for walking outdoors in informal companionship, where they talk however they wish with one another. The days are strictly regimented, following the traditional hours of worship, with work and study delineated between the times of private and public prayer. When two or more are together during the day, fixing a meal or giving and receiving haircuts or chopping wood, they do not speak, but give and accept service with a silent and companionable grace.
I was afraid that even I, who desire and value silence, solitude, and contemplation, would not be able to watch it through quietly – but before the end of the first half-hour my mind had come almost to complete rest within the beauty before me. The smallest sounds became a symphony of life – chopping celery, a spoon lifting soup from a bowl, rain dropping into a pool, footsteps echoing in a cloistered walk, a chair scraping across the floor, a page turning, a pen scratching across paper. Important sounds, the sounds of life being lived, sounds we never hear for our incessant music and television and talk, talk, talk. And when they do converse freely, as on their weekly walks, the conversation is seasoned with salt – serious doctrinal debates salted with grace and jokes and enjoyment of fellowship, a sledding competition which leads to admiration of skill and fun-filled laughter for its lack – and surely all of it all the more a joy because not constantly indulged, and all the more gracious because who wants to waste precious limited time together on foolish talk or unworthy conflict.
And time and space to see, as well. Instead of barely noticing our environment, silence opens us to the time and inclination to see the shape of a leaf, a drop of water falling from an icicle, the pattern of sun on wood flooring, the peace in a brother’s eyes. Inscape, Hopkins would tell us, Christ poured out into His creation and especially “lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not His / To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”
Just the faces of the monks moved me to tears more than once. Gröning occasionally focuses on just one face for an intense few seconds; peace is what we see in each one, and while most are solemn at this scrutiny, most also begin to offer a hint of a smile that suggests a great joy sparkling beneath the quiet exterior. The elderly blind brother who gave the only interview recorded in the film spoke with such deep love of the Savior, such trust and confidence, such acceptance of all that comes as intended to bless our lives; what joy silence and contemplation and thoughtful relationship with God and others has brought to him.
On the case for the DVD is written “This transcendent, closely observed film seeks to embody a monastery, rather than simply depict one – it has no score, no voiceover [. . .]. What remains is stunningly elemental: time, space and light. [. . .] More meditation than documentary, it’s a rare, transformative experience [. . .].” I can only say “amen,” with the hope and prayer that some of that experience will stay with me as I keep trying to learn how to love my Lord more truly.