Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Into Great Silence

This is not a review of Philip Gröning’s work: to ‘review’ such a film would be as presumptuous as a book review of the Old Testament. But I will share with you here what I saw and felt in this film in order that you might wish to see and feel it also.

The Monastery of the Grande Chartreuse is considered to be one of the most ascetic monasteries in the world. In 1984, I asked them for permission to film on location. It was said that it was too early. Maybe in 10, 13 years. 16 years later I received a call from the Chartreuse. They were now ready.  – Philip Gröning

‘Into Great Silence’ is a fly on the wall’s view of monastic life in the Grande Chartreuse. It is a film like nothing you have ever seen before because what it sets out to do is make visible and palpable the invisible and the impalpable. And in this it succeeds like no other film you will ever see. How do you tell the story of a life devoted to the invisible Spirit, spent largely in silent communion with God, in menial tasks performed gratefully with a pure heart?

The Lord passed by. Then a great wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord,
But He was not in the wind.
After that there was an earthquake,
But the Lord was not in the earthquake.
After that came a fire,
But the Lord was not in the fire.
After the fire came a gentle whisper.  – Kings 19, 11-13

This is the first of several quotations from the Bible that occur like milestones or guiding stars along the journey of the film. And we are immediately seized by the power and poetry of those words. This feeling stays with us as their meaning is given form in the daily life of the monks. 

One of the earliest scenes shows a monk preparing vegetables in the kitchen. 30 seconds of watching a monk cutting the leaves off celery. One might begin to think to oneself that the director is setting the scene, preparing us for the action to come. But, with great courage, Gröning continues to show us the monk cutting the celery. There is no action to come. This is the action. The smallest of tasks are given their due place in life. It is borne in on us that all our daily tasks are noble and a meditation if performed in the right spirit. We need to slow down and pay attention to our lives.

In my opinion there is absolutely no doubt Gröning was divinely inspired and guided throughout the making of this film. Can you imagine that all the monks’ prayers - the whole monastery’s most earnest prayers - for a happy outcome to their film project would go unanswered? Think about it. Even I feel the breath of an angel over my shoulder as I write about it.

Gröning slows us down in every successive scene and makes more and more obvious the complete disconnection between our frenzied superficial world and this timeless, peaceful world of the Spirit. At first we may feel uncomfortable. Those afraid to be alone, afraid of the void, afraid to think, or afraid to be away from their cell phones for more than 5 minutes, may feel very uncomfortable. But after a while we begin to think that this quiet life is the real life and that other frenzied life is uncomfortable.

Interspersed with the scenes of daily tasks and prayer and silent communion with God are scenes of nature, time lapses of the stars at night, camera angles of the play of shadows on the wooden floor boards, dust specks floating in the light. Scenes that ordinarily might go unnoticed are now presented to us in their own right to make us look at the visible beauty of the world and how it suggests the invisible beauty of the Spirit that created it.

Anyone who does not give up all he has cannot be my disciple.

We try to imagine what it must be to give up all we have and become a monk, a disciple. We fail. These words are old but for these monks they are new and imperative. We look on with a kind of awe. Gröning has no qualms presenting us with several series of 30-second full-face shots of the monks. Humility, kindness, simplicity, forgiveness: all manner of virtues are to be read on their faces as they look us benevolently right in the eye. One might even say God looks us right in the eye.

The ‘aha’ moments are many in this film, although they are no doubt somewhat different for each individual. I found the following quotation particularly poignant. It perhaps sums up the whole meaning of Christianity and the spiritual imperative in its two lines:

Behold I am become human. If you should not want to join me in becoming God, you would do me wrong.

‘Join me in becoming God’: that is what the monks wish to do with all their heart. And their journey, revealed to us by the inspired hand of Gröning, is very poignant and uplifting. Poignant because a life devoted to the Spirit is what we are born to and what we would desire above all things if we only knew it, but we don’t know it. Uplifting because these monks, although only men like us, have been able to choose this path and to follow where it leads.

You shall seek me and you shall find me. Because you seek me with all your heart, I will let myself be found.

I hope I have encouraged you to see this important film. I am sure it will change the way you look on your own life - perhaps at first in small, imperceptible ways - as it has changed the way I look on mine.
I will leave you with the following clip that shows many of the aspects I have discussed and has an excerpt of the beautiful Night Office at the end. (Unfortunately the presentation of the opening quotation has been modified but do not mind it: the rest is worth it).

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Discover The Tale of Genji, the 11th Century classic of Japan (click image)

Discover The Tale of Genji, the 11th Century classic of Japan (click image)
Kiyomizudera Temple has a large veranda looking out over Kyoto and beyond