12 August 2012

Into Great Silence

The film Into Great Silence is a long film documentary about the lives of the Carthusian monks at the Grande Chartreuse Charterhouse in Southeast France. The Carthusian order, founded in the 11th century by St. Bruno of Cologne, is a community of hermits who in the mid-1990s gave to the film’s director unparalleled access for six months to their daily life in the charterhouse. The film, two and three quarter hours long, actually contains no more than a dozen sentences of dialogue: once during the induction of a novitiate into the order; and towards the film’s end a short statement from an elder monk concerning his fearlessness of death. Of course, always there is the occasional sound of the men at prayer, and the regular sounding of the bell calling the monks to these offices.
But mostly what is heard in the film is the silence in which these men live. The clearest sound is that of their footsteps as they move through the charterhouse, or the sound of their activity in maintaining their lives: chopping food or wood, the turning of pages of their books and their kneeling in prayer in their cells or in the sanctuaries. The men do not usually leave the cells in which they individually and solitarily reside, and on most days they engage wholly in study and prayer. Food is delivered to them and passed through a small revolving compartment; once a week, on Sundays, the men eat a communal meal in silence and once a week they take a walk on which they are allowed to speak to one another. Twice a year there is a community-wide day of recreation: in the film, the monks are seen in only their shoes sliding down a sharp incline in the mountain snow. In their simple joy they reminded me then of children at play, and in breaking the silence here one heard laughter in those who followed the ‘skiers’ move uncertainly and unbalanced down the slope. Once a year family members visit, and there is one scene in the film in which those family members (I think) are visible on that visitor’s day.
I have my images of the contemplative life, but I never imagined the perspective on it offered in this film and of these monks. These men do nothing but study, pray and write every day of their lives. They may tend their own gardens outside their cells and walled off from that of others, and they may do some manual tradeone sees a monk repairing the sole of his shoe; but for the most part they live a completely solitary existenceexcept in companionship always with their God. They do no missionary work and they do not interact with the public.
As the title suggests, the silence into which these men enter and the silence in which they choose to live is great as it is absolute, and the life that each man choosesof prayer and studyconsumes their whole existence. I considered how much of my life is taken up with concern and worry about the future: what must be next done. I am too much focused on what happens next. But I recognized that for these monks there is a great peace to their life: they do not have to hurry to do anything in order to get somewhere else. They need not worry about anything except the present: they have nowhere to go and nothing to do except study and pray in the quiet solitude of their cell. Everything about their lives is organized to allow this to occur smoothly and completely. And so the monks move slowly and easefully throughout the charterhouse: they have nowhere else to be. Indeed, their behavior offers another meaning to Estragon’s complaint, “nothing to be done.” For the monks, outside of study and prayer, that is exactly the point! During the screening of the film I found my breathing and pulse slowed and my mind achieved a relative calm. The regularity of the lives within the charterhouse occurred completely without incident or drama except that which took place in their spirituality. In a series of remarkable shots, the filmmaker offered portraits of each of the monks: for almost 30 seconds the camera looks at the face of the man and the man looks at the face of the camera and I could see in that gaze the peace that passeth understanding in which I think each of these men lived. I knew I could never enter such a life, but it was beautiful to watch the dedication and passion of these men to their Ideal. 


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