One afternoon last week, I walked into a dark theatre in Lexington-and then spent the next three hours in another world. Into Great Silence is an award-winning documentary about the Carthusian order monks at the Grande Chartreuse monastery in the French Alps. Sixteen years after his first request, film maker Philip Groening was allowed to live with the order, without a crew or artificial lighting. He simply followed their lives over a period of months, from winter to spring and into summer. Through his lens, he watched their daily rituals, prayers and tasks.
The Grand Chartreuse is reputed to be the most ascetic monastery in the world. All of the monks take a vow of silence, in a commitment to a life of prayer before God. It is also a life of simplicity, reflecting a Bible verse that occasionally comes on the screen as a refrain: “Anyone who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.” Each lives in an individual room, or cell, with sparse furnishings – a bed, a prayer bench, a table and chair, and a window with a ledge. All meals, except Sunday noon, are eaten alone in their cell. Each also takes his part in completing the tasks required for maintaining the monastery– caring for cattle and crops, cleaning, cutting firewood, clearing water lines, and more.
Obviously, the most telling characteristic of the movie is the silence. It is a full 20 minutes before the first human voice is heard. There is no background music. The only sounds are the bells that call the monks to prayer, the chants in their worship, the work of the day-rolling carts, cattle bells, a hoe in a vegetable plot, and nature sounds like rain and breezes.
It’s so quiet. I don’t think a person in the theatre even coughed for the duration of the movie.
Along with the quiet comes a slow and steady pace to life. The monks never seem in a hurry. They move very deliberately-whether turning a page of the Bible, shoveling snow, or eating a meal. Groening leans into that, with some shots lingering long on a bowl of fruit or a simmering cup of tea or rain on a slate roof. It’s like watching a still life painting.
And it is always quiet.
The pace of the film echoes the rhythms of this life. The monks’ days are marked by the divine hours of prayer. They kneel and pray as soon as they get out of bed. They go about their work until the bells ring (about every three hours). They stop in their spot-kitchen, stable, chapel, office-kneel, and pray until another set of bells signals the end of that prayer time. As evening falls, they worship by the light of three-foot taper candles they bring into the chapel. They are allowed to talk on their Sunday afternoon walks, so they can get a “taste of the joy of family life.” (My favorite scene was the monks sliding down a snowy mountainside on their backsides-in their robes! Their laughter echoed in the hills.)
And mostly, the quiet remained.
At first, the silence is arresting. There’s more silence than there are sounds. You notice that. Then, it is disturbing. You are aware that things are quiet-and of how rare that is. We live in such a noisy world-surrounded by a soundtrack of radio, our I-Pods, cell phones, television and more. And then finally, the silence settles into you at a deep, almost visceral, level. And it is alluring. Another phrase used as a refrain was “The Lord has seduced me, and I am seduced.”
Near the conclusion of the movie, there is a single conversation with a very old monk. He is dying. And with a wry smile, he says, “It is a pity that the world has lost a sense of God. For if you have no sense of God, there really is nothing left to live for.”
Of course, that leads to an unspoken question. How do you get a sense of God without withdrawing to a monastery? How do you get a sense of God while fully engaged in the world? In the carpool? In your cubicle? On a sales call or when taking care of your aging parents? The film maker responds to the question as this Scripture comes on the screen in French, German and English:
Then God said, “Go out, and stand on the mountain before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.
(1 Kings 19:11-12)
Into Great Silence is a reminder of another world. It is a world I suspect we may need to visit often in order to hear God and know His voice. Turn off the soundtrack-and bask in silence for an hour, a day – or even a few minutes.
Maybe great silence begins with small silences.