N ietzsche once trenchantly quipped that “…our modern noisy, time-consuming industriousness, proud of itself, stupidly proud, educates and prepares people more than anything else does, precisely for unbelief.”The truth in that statement is perhaps never more on display than during the Christmas season. Slogans urging us to “keep Christ in Christmas,” or “recall the reason for the season,” sound about as hollow as the Christmas jingles that reverberate in our ears every time we enter a store. Those in search of an antidote might consider watching the newly released DVD Into Great Silence, Philip Groening’s movingly observed study of the daily lives of Carthusian monks at La Grande Chartreuse, founded in the French Alps in 1084.
A prize winner at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, the film has received universal acclaim for its minimalist style, its cinematography and especially its attentiveness to the spiritual dimension of existence to which the Carthusian life aspires. Given that contemporary entertainment fosters an attention deficit in all of us and that the film makes no effort to provide even the scaffolding of a plot, this is not, initially at least, an easy film to watch. But as it unfolds, the virtue of taking one’s time becomes evident. The virtue is most profoundly captured in one of the texts interspersed through the film: “Behold the silence that allows the Lord to speak a word in us: That He is.”
Aided by the remote, lush, mountainous setting of the monastery the cinematography is indeed stunning. The camera, which works exclusively with natural light here, often alternates between broad, sweeping shots of the monastery amid the mountains and tight shots of flowers and trees beginning to bloom. It also captures in distant shots the majestic beauty of the monks’ chapel. But these men have not left society to luxuriate in beauty; they harbor no romantic illusions about nature. Their lives, which alternate between prayer and manual work (ora et labora), are not easy lives. (The Carthusians are known as the most rigorous of the Catholic monastic orders, whose motto is “never reformed because never deformed.”) Yet, the accent here is not on guilt or anguish; these are peaceful, joyful lives, as the occasional shots of their faces intimate.
The liturgical life of the monks complements the rhythm of nature; they rise early in darkness, and move slowly but with determination to the chapel, where the only light is cast upon the pages of books of chant, written in solemnly inscribed Latin. In this austere setting, small sounds become noticeable — the sound of trickling water as snow melts or the occasional cough as the monks kneel in silent prayer. The most dramatic sound is that of the church bells ringing in the chapel and resounding through the halls of the monastery.
Those who approach the film with an open, inquiring spirit will find themselves putting certain contemporary assumptions into question. Some may find the monks’ devotion to ritual off-putting. But the notion that we can live without ritual because we are now free to do what we want is an illusion, a dogma of the modern age. We are creatures of habit and our lives fall into patterns of one sort or another. The question is not whether we shall have rituals, but which ones? And to what ends? How do our rituals shape us and how we see nature, ourselves, and God?
Even more importantly, the film prompts us to wonder about silence in our “noisy, time-consuming” world, about different types of silence (empty or full, anxious or grateful), and about why we seem so afraid of silence and flee it, even in our churches. Indeed, we might be led to formulate a question never asked in our churches, where we seek to deploy the most advanced technology and the best practices guide for effective ministry. What is the quality of our silence? Do we even allow for it? What is its duration, depth, and reverence?
In this sense, it is clear that the monastic life, apparently so distant from our world, has as its goal not abandonment of the world, but a deeper way of identifying with it and of testifying to the deepest longings of the human heart. As Thomas Merton, perhaps the most famous American monk, whose best-selling autobiography, Seven Story Mountain, will be 60 years old in a few months, put it,
This is what it means to seek God perfectly: to withdraw from illusion and pleasure, from worldly anxieties and desires, from the works that God does not want, from a glory that is only human display; to entertain silence in my heart and listen for the voice of God; to love all men as myself… (New Seeds of Contemplation).
In the hunger for silence is the hunger for a simple, sane way of living, and — beneath that — a hunger for God. In the only interview in the entire film, a blind monk comments: “Why be afraid of death? It is the fate of each man. The closer you get to God, the happier you are. In God, there is no past. God sees our lives and since he is infinite good, he seeks our well being.” Without any hint of bitterness, he thanks God his blindness and then, without any hint of vindictiveness, laments that “the world has lost its sense of God.”
No film can revive the world’s sense of God, but this gorgeous and deeply counter-cultural film may inspire in patient viewers a hunger for silence and an appreciation of lives devoted to it. Of course, the lives depicted here are devoted to a great silence, a silence that is, paradoxically, the very presence of God.
– Thomas Hibbs is distinguished professor of ethics and culture at Baylor University and author of the forthcoming book, Arts of Darkness.