The huge box office success of The Passion of the Christ caught just about everyone—especially secular film cognoscenti—by surprise. Now, in a strange twist, secular critics have atoned for their lapse by turning Into Great Silence, a near three-hour long documentary about the Grand Chartreuse community of semi-eremitical Carthusians, an order of Catholic monks founded in the French Alps in the 12th Century, into this year’s least-likely critical favorite. The film, which has no plot and almost no dialogue, has won awards from the top festivals, drawn rave reviews from the secular press, and sold out art house theaters wherever it’s previewed. The director, Philip Groning, is a lapsed Catholic—read his story here —but his stunning film nevertheless reveals a tender eye, a reverence for the monastic life and a complete willingness to “let it be.”
Quite different, I remember, was the eye cast on the monastic life by my own family when, many years ago, I announced to them that I myself was entering the monastery. “You’re mentally ill!” shrieked the mater. “Are you homosexual?” asked the frater, quite rhetorically, as he went on to declare that all nuns were lesbians and priests capons. A later visit to me in the monastery didn’t seem to help matters. The bewilderment and despair contorting the features of my mother’s face are forever etched in my mind. “It’s a cult!” she cried chokingly, weakly imitating the “bowing and scraping” we were doing in the chapel as we chanted the Divine Office.
‘It’s a cult!’ my mother cried chokingly, weakly imitating the ‘bowing and scraping’ we were doing as we chanted the Divine Office.
Had she any knowledge of the most common monastic Office in the West—the Benedictines (even the Carthusians are liturgically indebted to the Benedictines)—she might have known that the bow-scrape thing was part of a “doxology”, a reverent reference to the Persons of the Holy Trinity in words and gesture, in this case in a bow from the waist. This is very ancient and basic Christian monastic stuff. In his film, Groning shares only one instance of it but I’m sure, in the darkness of the church during services at Chartreuse, there is quite a lot of doxological bobbing up and down, Carthusian-style.
Promoters and defenders of traditional Christian monastic life in the West seem to be thin on the ground these days. The life is either completely unknown or, if known, is made the object of criticism and suspicion if not outright rejection, sometimes even by its own members. As a person formed by Christian monastic life, who gained a foundation for living and found her Joy (which, by the way, is not something but Someone) from within the monastic tradition, I am disinclined to denigrate the life. Although it has not been the panacea for my ills nor kept me perpetually in the state of the angels (but whose fault is that?) it certainly has been and continues to be for me the conduit of salvation. Therefore I can only revere it and the thousands of fellow strugglers who similarly cleave to it as the bark of their deliverance, bearing them across the turbulent seas of the spiritual life toward final safe harbor.
To be a detractor of the monastic life is easy. One can effortlessly chart a long list of weaknesses and defects from the top down, beginning with the life in general, moving on to one’s particular Order and then on again to one’s own community (or, if one is a hermit, to one’s cooking pot.) The list could trail out the door of the Chapter Room, through the cloister, out past the porter’s lodge and into the road, depending on how bent one is on this project. I exaggerate, of course, but only to make a point: the monastic life is not exempt from sin and failure. How is this possible, we might ask, of a life known in the ancient Church, and still today among the Orthodox, as “angelic”? Because it is a life lived not by angels but by men.
I was reminded of this the night I saw Into Great Silence at the Film Forum in down Manhattan. The audience was treated to a post-show Q&A with an exclaustrated Carthusian who has been outside the Charterhouse for more than a decade. It is a life he has abandoned yet still he is officially, canonically a Carthusian and freely makes public pronouncements as such. To this life, he explained, there is an “underbelly.” Egads! Should there have been a symphonic trumpet blast, a crash of symbols and the thunder of kettle drums at this utterance? Is this a revelation by which we are all to be astonished? We are not astonished. Instead we are already informed by common sense that, even though monasteries may be, more than any place on the planet, the ante-chamber to paradise and even though they are places where men, if they live the life right, end up suspended between heaven and earth, it is men who are thus suspended, not angels.
Groning eyed them with his camera the way the Lord God eyes them, with compassionate love...
Groning was clearly aware of this while making Into Great Silence. He found and filmed a monastery of men of all sorts, lovable, unlovable, stable, unstable, strong, weak, spiritually minded, carnal minded, each man perhaps being each of these things at one time or another in his life. I would like to say Groning eyed them with his camera the way the Lord God eyes them, with compassionate love, but his filmmaker’s gaze was, perhaps appropriately, a tad cooler and more dispassionate.
Were the Lord himself our camera, were we seeing with the divine eye, we would easily penetrate the veil separating seen from unseen. We would easily be able to hold in reverence the mystery of the human person in each of these men even if we were to know (or think we know) them intimately in all their weakness. We would leave their culpability to the mercy of God and look at them, as Jesus does, with love.
As visitors to this place via Groning’s camera we see, in part, the physical life and being of these men as it has been captured on film. To their interior life, however, we are not privy beyond whatever speculations we are willing to make. A general estimation of their spiritual itinerary, as practitioners of a recognizable pattern of life, might be as follows:
The neophyte arrives at the monastery with limited self-knowledge and therefore little or no awareness that he brings with him myriad layers of stuff that are not even actually him; he stays and learns to live the life; gradually a distillation begins and the layers of ego, of the “false self” start to peel away like the layers of an onion; with more and more of this (years and years and years of it) the kernel of the person, the true person eventually emerges and begins to flourish; this flowering and flourishing may continue for decades or it may last only briefly, being a signal for departure: the veil has become so thin that it tears and the monk falls through it to the other side….
Groning seems to have an insight: it’s all about the ear.
The monastic itinerary, in precis, is “divinization.” The life, if well lived, divinizes the one living it, transforming him or her into “Other Christs”, cleaning out the blockages so that the “inner man”—the mind, the heart, the will—becomes a clear pipe through which the Holy Spirit sings and murmurs unhindered. This slow transformation can be invisible to the casual observer despite or perhaps even because of its great profundity and, again, it happens only if the life is lived well. What, you may ask, is the life “lived well”? Groning seems to have an insight into this: it’s all about the ear.
Into Great Silence begins and ends with the same dramatic image, a side view of the right ear of a monk kneeling at prayer. The profile of the face and a hand to the chin are visible but they seem to be only a setting for the ear. In between these shots, the camera’s predilection for the ear presents us with eight or ten more shots, usually from behind and slightly above but with the monk’s ear central or dominant in the frame as he studies or reads, as he eats at his window or stands with the bell rope waiting to ring, as he carefully cuts fabric for a habit, as he sits silently in prayer, as he bends over the rocks of a small dam he’s fortifying in a stream in the woods, as he sits by the door of his cell garden taking his soup.
When I saw this opening image of the ear and the shots that followed I thought—Groning really gets the Rule of Benedict. In the Prologue to the Rule there is the famous (at least to the monastically inclined) reference to the aurem cordis, the ear of the heart. This “heart-ear” is the monastic organ par excellence. Groning may not know this particular phrase or image but it is clear he understands the critical need in the monk’s life for deep—even existentially deep—listening. He also understands the ineluctable bond between this listening and silence.
God’s presence is not limited to the monastery. Now, where you are, if you seek him, you will find him.
In the Charterhouse or in any monastic dwelling where silence is understood it is cherished, guarded and nourished. For ordinary life in the world, having no access to media might seem retrograde and strange but within a monastic context it’s entirely logical. The material simplicity and silence within the confines of the monastic cloister are precisely meant to and do make it easier for the monk to intensify this listening.
Groning strikes the minds and hearts of his audience multiple times with the message of this need for silence by repeatedly citing a passage from the Book of Kings in which the Prophet Elijah awaits the Lord. Strong winds rend the mountains, there is an earthquake and then a fire but it is only after this, in a “still small voice,” that Elijah detects the presence of the Lord.
In silence we become aware of the workings of our mind and heart. Our radar for truth and integrity gradually become tuned so that, more and more easily, we begin to detect false notes in ourselves. We are able, gently, to reject what is of the ego (fear, jealousy, despair, false hope, feelings of inadequacy or superiority, etc.), allowing the true notes to play, the music of the Holy Spirit which is a joy and peace of heart that nothing outside ourselves can disturb. It is then that the real “doxology” begins. The dropping to the floor or bowing while praising the Persons in the Holy Trinity becomes only an intermittent physical expression of what is now a constant condition, a way of being in which one has become praise and gratitude to God for all things.
Understanding, then, that to “live the life well” is to listen deeply and long with the ear of your heart and so gradually to be transformed by what you hear, you might finally say “Yeah, and… so what?” If this is your response, then I think I can safely tell you that you have no need to worry—you don’t have a monastic vocation.
If you are relieved to know this but at the same time feel strangely disquieted, again I say, worry not. In the words of Roumanian priest-poet, Virgil Georghiu, in his Memoires, “…what is important is less the environment in which one lives than the manner in which one lives there. Adam was lost in Paradise and Lot saved in Sodom.” So, if you are not monastery-bound, stay where you are, take a look at the life in which God has placed you and perhaps begin to tweak it here and there, making the odd choice now and again in favor of strengthening your friendship with God. His presence is not limited to the monastery. Now, where you are, if you seek him, you will find him.
My first recommendation, to kick-start things in this direction, is to run off and see Into Great Silence, at least once. There, for about $10 a pop, you can be transported for two or three hours out of the clamor of your thoughts and the noise of this world and into the warm depths of your own heart where Love eagerly, patiently awaits you.