October 19, 2017

IM Film Review: Into Great Silence

carthusians

It is a pity that the world has lost all sense of God.

• Carthusian Monk, “Into Great Silence”

Into Great Silence is not a film one watches, it is an experience into which one enters. It is an immersion in the contemplative life.

It is seasons passing, the sound of snow falling, the buzzing of flies. It is daily prayer, alone in one’s cell: sitting, kneeling, bowing, with books opened and closed, in complete silence or murmuring softly. It is eating alone, lifting homemade soup to one’s lips with a wooden spoon, breaking homemade bread with ones’ fingers. It is feeling the actual passing of time, like watching a slow moving train. It is the red glow of a single candle and the groans of creaking wood as hooded men kneel and rise and take their seats in the surrounding darkness. It is mesmerizing chant deep into the night.

It is also the rhythm of daily work. Measuring, sawing, and chopping of firewood. Chopping of celery, brilliant green against the bare stone kitchen counter and walls, scooped into a pot for soup. It is wheeling the food cart through the arched corridors, a key creaking open the access port of each cell, a silent messenger leaving bread and drink and salad before rumbling on. It is the buzz of the clippers in the barber shop, clumps of hair falling to the floor, a soft brush sweeping away stray leavings from the shorn monk’s head. Cats must be fed, seeds planted and gardens tended. Water lines checked out in the woods. Herds moved to new pastures, their cowbells mimicking the call to prayer. Most of this work is done by solitary workmen. Most is accomplished in complete silence.

Sundays are different. The community gathers and there is a meal together, during which the rules of the Carthusian Order are read and reinforced. Then, the monks take a long hike of approximately four hours known as “the spaciement” for refreshment and exercise amid the beauties of nature. Here they may talk and get to know one another. On one such walk in winter, the film portrays them giddily sliding in the snow down a magnificent Alpine mountainside. It is a rare moment of hilarity and laughter.

Throughout “Into Great Silence,” the filmmaker, Philip Gröning, composes portrait shots of the monks. Each stands still, looking directly into the camera. Some are more comfortable with this than others. We look into their eyes. We see the hints of smiles. We trace the lines on their faces. They are like us. But they are unlike us. We do not know their names. Their personal stories are a mystery. We know nothing of their motivations, their feelings, their opinions. There is no plot to their lives, it seems, no drama. Just the passing of days, the subtle balance of solitude and community, and most of all, the silence. The only monk who speaks tells how he came to accept blindness as God’s gift for the good of his soul.

With all this spareness, the film is remarkably sensuous. I doubt I have ever heard the snow fall as I did against the backdrop of silence. A thunderstorm never sounded more like a symphony. Footsteps rarely pique my interest as they did in this film. The Alpine setting is stunning enough; Gröning’s cinematography makes each detail live, from the ecstasy of spring crocuses to modern art impressions in puddles. Soup appeared a feast.

You will not find anything fashionable, not even a concern for being different.

• Carthusian Order website

La Grande Chartreuse is the mother house for the Carthusian Order of contemplative Catholic monks, the sons and daughters of St. Bruno (founded in 1084). They are known as the Catholic Church’s most ascetic religious order. Each monk (or nun in the women’s order) lives in a “hermitage,” or cell, and spends most of each day in solitary prayer or work. The community also meets three times a day for corporate prayer and worship: morning mass, late afternoon vespers, Matins and Lauds in the middle of the night. On Sundays, they partake of a meal together and then enjoy a hike in which they may talk freely. Monks are only allowed to see their families on two days of each year, and otherwise have little or no contact with the outside world.

In 1984, filmmaker Gröning contacted La Grande Chartreuse and requested permission to film at the monastery. He was told they were not ready and that he should wait perhaps 10-13 years. It was not until 16 years later that they told him the time was right. After five more years of filming and editing, “Into Great Silence” was released. During the making of the film, Gröning went into the monastery himself, and filmed with natural light, becoming part of the monks’ daily life and ritual.

The quote that appears repeatedly throughout the film is from Jeremiah 20:7 —“Oh Lord, you have seduced me, and I have been seduced.” “Into Great Silence” is a seductive experience, breaking down the viewer’s reluctance, creating a sense of longing in the spirit. As I watched, my mind kept raising objections. This is too hard. Who could do this for a lifetime? I would go crazy! And I’m sure I would.

One must have a specific calling to do this kind of work, for work it is. The Carthusians see themselves as the “heart” of the church and its mission in the world. As our hearts beat steadily, quietly, hidden deep within our chests, so these monks, hidden away in the French Alps, maintain a rhythmic pulse of solitude and community, prayer and work, day after day after day, pumping oxygenated (Spirit-filled) life invisibly throughout the world.

Who can tell what we owe them?

Thanks to Philip Gröning, we can at least begin to appreciate them and be comforted by their silent, lifegiving ministry.

More: You may watch the trailer for “Into Great Silence” here.

Comments

  1. I am interested to get your take on the role of monasticism in the 21 st Century, either as an option for individual Christians or as a role model for church communities. The only reaction within the description of the film in your review was “this is too hard,” and “comforting” and the (well-said) comment that their rhythm of life “pump[s] oxygenated life…invisibly through the world.”

    I own this film, and have experienced it several times, and sometimes feel a bit of frustration when I encounter the sense of community presented in the film, and the lack of emphasis on community in the larger Christian world. Much is usually focused on the vision and marketing strategy of a single person (pastor) and the vast expanse of their reach and domain in a particular area. One notices in the Great Silence film that NOBODY stands out, and yet the community has such an organic, Spirit-filled flow to its daily life.

    Is it imperative for the Church to listen to the silence of these monks?

    • I do think it can be a witness in our world today. It is not a model for the many, but for the few. See my comments at the end of the post about their role as the “heart” of the church. Perhaps this is their role in the Body of Christ.

      Other monastic societies are more connected to the outside world and not as rigorous as the Carthusians. They may model other aspects, such as community. They also may welcome participation from those on the outside. Kathleen Norris’s experience with the Benedictines speaks to this. Jeff’s recent retreat at a Midwestern monastery also shows that such societies may offer a valuable service by providing places and resources for solitude, prayer, and spiritual direction so that those of us who are fully involved “in the world” may find oases in the wilderness.

      • by providing places and resources for solitude, prayer, and spiritual direction so that those of us who are fully involved “in the world” may find oases in the wilderness.

        Several of the best retreat possibilites (certainly not the only) in the KC area are Catholic run, and they are wonderful. “Oasis” is the perfect descrptor. There is as much, or as little , spiritual direction from the staff as is requested. I think they do the body of Christ a great service, and look forward to further times of quiet and refreshment in the future.

        Great post.
        Greg R

        • The Assumption Abbey located in Ava, Missouri, has been a real blessing to me and many of my friends in ministry. Remote, quiet, simple. It has proven to be an oasis to me on many occasions. At times I envy the monks who live there.

          • thanks for the reference….I’ll check out that abbey also..

            Greg R

          • Jonathan Blake says:

            I actually looked up Assumption Abbey this past week in hopes of finding a monastery in Missouri to possibly visit. I’ll take your recommendation.

        • Assumption Abbey is just a great place to get away and alone. It isn’t elaborate, just very plain and simple. The surrounding woods and creek are a refreshing walk. Meals are very simple and modest but adequate. The lady who used to direct operations there, Bridgette, was such a sweet person – Scottish, I believe. Anyway, she no longer works there due to health issues.
          As a side note, on the last day of our stay at the Abbey, we usually drive just a few miles down the road to RockBridge Trout & Game. They serve great meals there and if you like, you can fish for trout. Beautiful scenery.

        • The Sisters of St. Scholastica run Hesychia House, a retreat in central Arkansas. The focus is on resting apart from the world. Each person has a small simple hermitage (cabin). I twice spent a week in almost total silence and solitude, and it was a life-changing experience.

          • That sounds fantastic. I’ll have to check that one out.

            Thanks.

          • The sisters serve a small supper each night followed by a small worship service and you are welcome to come or not. Other than that, quiet. No radio, no tv, no nothing. It is in a rural area with walking trails and cow pastures, has a pretty good library of faith books and the sisters will give you spiritual direction if you ask.

            I was content and happy, peace-flavored jello when my wife picked me up. It is hard work to try and mediate or pray with a focus on God, not me, for a solid hour but I would discipline myself to do it.

          • @Jacob: super-kudos to your wife for giving you the opportunity to become peace flavored Jello….. that’s a very good wife.

  2. I haven’t seen this movie, but I have studied the monastic life extensively. At the end of the day all I can say is that without the Spirit there is no life and no point to depriving yourself of culture (the world) or even immersing yourself in culture. The world is surely a distraction, but it has no more power over us than we allow. Culture (the world) isn’t the problem, the absence of Christ in our lives is the problem and I do believe in withdrawing from the world, it’s just that you must have Someone to withdraw to. Withdrawal and ritual in and of themselves mean nothing. Submitting to human (monastic) authority has no bearing on our Spiritual growth whatsoever, if one is not first submitted humbly to Christ.
    I remember studying the desert fathers and the peculiar instance of the man who lived on top of a pillar for years, I could only ask what was the point of that, except to gain righteousness points with your fellow monks? Once again if it is not Jesus’ idea it is pointless and without merit. It is just a spiritual one-upsmanship.

    • The Carthusians speak of solitude like this: “The primary application of our vocation is to give ourselves to the silence and solitude of the cell. It is holy ground, the area where God and his servant hold frequent conversations, as between friends. There, the soul often unites itself to the Word of God, bride to the groom, the earth to the sky, man to the divine.”

      They speak of two kinds of solitude: separation from the world, and “inner solitude”—“The cloister and cell only assure an external solitude. It is only the first step whose goal is to encourage interior solitude, or purity of heart: to keep one’s soul away from any and all things not of God or which do not lead to God. It is at this level that the Carthusian meets the sudden impulses of his thought and the changes of his feelings. As long as the monk discusses with his “self”, his sensibilities, his worthless thoughts, unreal desires, he is not centered on God. It is here that he experiences his weakness and the power of the Spirit which he learns bit by bit “…the habit of the tranquil listening of the heart which allows God to enter by all path and access.”

      It seems to me that they are aware of your concerns.

    • Christiane says:

      In all your ‘studies’, did you ever ask to visit a monastery?
      And to stay there for a while? You can do this, you know. Maybe you didn’t know.

      This is an important question.

      There is in Christianity that cannot be contacted by simply reading or hearing. It must be lived deeply over time for it’s effect to be absorbed. For some, the background of silence is what is needed for the full impact of the Words of Christ to be experienced. These are the men and women that God ‘calls’ into the quiet. They understand what you may not know.

      In the Gospel of St. Mark we find this: ‘And He saith unto them, Come ye yourselves apart into a desert place, and rest a while.’

      The ‘deep silence’ may not be for everyone, no.

      But there is a part of everyone that needs, at times, to ‘come away, and rest for a while’ because the world’s demands have drowned out the ‘quiet still Voice’ of the Lord.

      A monastery?
      Or the quiet of camping in the woods ‘by the still waters’ ?
      Silent sailing at night out in the deep under the stars?
      Or a steaming cup of coffee at four-thirty in the morning, before the household awakes, with a candle lit for prayer, instead of the electric lights?

      We all have our mini- versions of the cloister, if we think about it . . . . 🙂

  3. Bill S. says:

    I really love this movie, and have watched it several times. I first saw it at a pre-screening before it was released publicly, and believe or not, about half the audience (maybe 100 people) walked out within the first half hour. It seems to be either your thing or not your thing at all.

    • My experience seeing it in the theatre was the opposite of yours, Bill.

      I saw it in a European city, with a packed audience. Everyone viewed in rapt attention, no one left and you could have heard a pin drop in the theatre. No one made a sound — no loud chomping of popcorn, no rattling of candy wrappers.

      It is indeed a magnificent piece of art. Each frame of the film could be a painting. I am so grateful for the faithfulness and devotion to God that leads men and women to withdraw and devote their lives to praying for the rest of us.

  4. dkmonroe says:

    Thank you for this – I never knew it existed. I will check it out ASAP.

    I find monasticism fascinating and I think that the rejection of it by Protestantism in general was one of the great and enduring tragedies of the Reformation.

    • I agree with your fascination and your statement about Protestant rejection of monasticism. To be fair, any organization has its good and bad and Protestants I think rightly rejected what was wrong in monasticism—but Catholics themselves had a history of creating new orders of monks that were reform attempts for (or reactions against) existing orders that were experiencing problems. Anyhow, I can honestly say (as a Protestant!) that many of the best devotional writings I’ve ever read have come from monks and nuns and I’m thankful for their contribution to Christianity.

  5. Dan Crawford says:

    Usually, movies induce a deep sleep in me after 30 minutes or so, but “Into Great Silence” riveted me for its entirety. A stunning piece of work.

  6. David Cornwell says:

    Personally I have few doubts about the validity of what the monastic life means to the world. These people are called to a special kind of living that runs in direct opposite of everything we are use to. They are called to prayer, silence, listening, discerning, and living in a different way. Yes, they are still just people and not perfect.

    My doubts left me several years ago when I went on short retreat with a friend to Saint Gregory’s Abbey, a monastery within the Episcopal Church, located in Michigan. I came away changed, amazed, subdued, and forever unable to speak about part of the experience. Enough said then.

  7. I’ll have to look for this film. La Grande Chartreuse is located just outside my wife’s hometown (Grenoble). The range where it is located is also known as the Chartreuse, and is spectacularly beautiful. In fact we had our wedding dinner at a resort area up there, where, after a short climb, you reach a peak where you can look down and see the monastery. From there it has an amazing air of mystery. What on earth can life be like for these people?

    BTW, the order is also responsible for Chartreuse liqueur. It has been produced by the monks for, what? a couple of centuries. It is made from a secret recipe of herbs, which they collect from the mountainside. This gives it that pale green color that is also known as Chartreuse.

  8. David Clark says:

    Thank you for the recommendation. I’ll be watching it this evening.

  9. A truly great film. Really an amazing experience!

  10. David Cornwell says:

    I have not seen the film but have now put it on top of my Netflix queue.

  11. I bought this movie on the strength of Seven Graydanus’ review at decentfilms.com ( http://decentfilms.com/reviews/intogreatsilence.html ). I did a viewing with a bunch of twenty-something friends at my house and thought the reaction was as interesting as the movie. It only took about twenty minutes for the silence to feel oppressive to just about everybody. Some people then progressed into outright hostility (and we had a good discussion about monasticism in general for a while). After we settled back into viewing people started to leave – I think this was a hard movie for most to endure for its full length.

    Post-watching we talked again – this time about the impact of busyness and distraction so that being contemplative for a few hours or focused for a few hours feels hopelessly beyond our reach… It made for a stimulating conversation and experience for everyone!

  12. is this “our best life now!” that Osteen been telling us about??? 🙂
    you mean we can live lives devoted to Christ & not become a celebrity or famous!!
    from the clips that I have seen on Youtube I can see that it may be a hard movie to watch thru, but is everything benefical easy???
    this should be a movie to humble & follow into prayer – going to Amazon now to buy the DVD.
    peace

    • Briank,

      I didn’t find it hard to watch. (And I rarely watch movies). It did take a while to get into the rhythm of it, but once I did I didn’t want it to end.

      One of my favorite parts was where each monk stood facing the camera, communicating who they were, but without words.

      • Anna A:

        Yes, those “living portraits” were incredibly fascinating and profound.

  13. You CANNOT stay at the Carthusian monasteries for retreats. They are truly off-limits to all but monks or applicant monks.

    By the way, one of the mottos of the order (perhaps this is apocryphal) is “Never reformed, because never deformed.”

  14. This film is amazing. I checked it out from the library but will have to buy a copy. I can see myself watching it many times to help instill a silence and solitude I need in my spiritual life. It is 2.5 hours long, with maybe 5-10m of spoken words. It really needs to be that long, because it takes that full first hour to even get into the deep mood of silence. Then I finally started absorbing some of the real effects of the monastic disciplines.

    Anyway, I suggest it very highly. And be sure to check out the 2nd disc if you get the DVD set. It has a full evening prayer from the monastery.