“Into the Great Silence” – UPDATED

A few weeks ago, I posted Carthusians Abounding, linking you to Nancy Klein Maguire’s excellent new book, An Infinity of Little Hours and the trailer for the documentary Into the Great Silence.

I don’t think it’s any accident that two wholly unconnected people, a writer/researcher and a filmmaker have devoted years of their lives to scoping out and presenting to us (at THIS time in history) such vivid – and yes, tantalizing – pieces about the Carthusians, an order of monastics who live particularly austere and quiet lives.

Remarkably, Into the Great Silence, a documentary which contains no dialogue, no music except for the Gregorian Chant (in Latin, no less) of the monks, has become a huge surprise hit in post-Christian Europe. Here, David Warren considers why that might be (H/T Richard).

The order has no difficulty in attracting novices, most of whom leave or are sent away. Those who outlast the novitiate, stay an average of 65 years. This first “charterhouse” (the English name for a Carthusian monastery), in the mountains of the French alps between Grenoble and Chambéry, has been in existence for a thousand years, has survived eight great fires and burial in an avalanche, revolutions and wars; yet the view from inside is that, should it cease, then it will cease, according to God’s will.

What most interested me, and the person who brought the film to my attention, was a single remark of the filmmaker, about what he had learned from making his documentary. He told the BBC, “When I left the monastery, I was thinking about what exactly had I lived through and it was realizing that I had had the privilege of living with a community of people who live practically without any fears.”

And again: “We tend to say that our society is driven by consumerism or greed but it’s not true. Greed, consumerism, wanting to have a new Porsche, for example, is a disguise of pure fear. It’s a near panicking society and that was difficult to accept.”

This is why the film plays to packed houses. It speaks to people about what they are.

While filming this, the filmmaker Philip Groening necessarily lived in a cell, observing the rules of the monastery and participateing in the unskilled labor of the house. You can tell that in his answer, for he sounds just like a monk. I’ve “hung around” monastics enough to hear an utterly monastic voice in his remarks, full of compassion for our mortal and moral situation in our day-to-day living, a living done very much “inside” of time rather than outside of it.

I have no idea when or if this film will make it to the US. I hope it does. I think we need it. I think we need flims like this one, books like this one, to help us re-discover our spiritual equilibrium, because things certainly seem out of balance, right now.

Writes David Warren:

I think Mr Groening has astutely diagnosed not merely what is wrong today, with post-Christian Europe and by extension all the West, but why we are due for a terrible tribulation. One that began to unfold in the events of 9/11, and now begins to take a shape in the ludicrous battle over Danish cartoons. Emerging from a fog, our fears resolve into something we can look at.

We cling to things that cannot last, out of our curious panic; to things like Porsches, and the nanny state. We ignore, in this panic, anything that isn’t hard to the touch — the verities of God, nature, and our nature. Yet in so doing we select what is transient, over what is eternal.

Indeed. We do it at our peril.

UPDATE: Slightly off topic, but I have just read a line from Rod Dreher’s new book Crunchy Cons that touches on the same issue: “the point of life is not to become a more satisfied shopper”. Dreher is a conservative who is into organic gardening, against suburban sprawl and malls, and otherwise seems to embrace some of the more “counter-cultural” movements of the 1960’s. While I doubt I agree with him 100%, I think the point he is trying to make about capitalism and commercialism were the same points John Paul the Great was trying to make, although he was largely misunderstood.

Remember the refrain of the old Joanie Mitchell/CSN song “Woodstock,”

We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

I yield to no one in my desire to NEVER revisit 1960’s hippiedom. But there is something to be said for turning off the televisions and plowing a field, for NOT owning 20 pairs of shoes or five coats, for NOT going shopping because you’re bored, for focusing less upon what you want, and more on what you need.

I remember once, working in my sister’s office, and being asked by one woman, “don’t you OWN another pair of shoes?”

I was wearing perfectly respectable-looking, not overworn, black shoes with a two-inch heel. As I did every day. I couldn’t understand her question. WHY would I need another pair of shoes; black goes with almost everything! Until she had asked me the question, I hadn’t thought about it. I asked her if the shoes offended her. She said, no, but she thougth it was “weird” that I would wear the same shoe, day after day. I, on the other hand, couldn’t begin to imagine owning another pair of black shoes; I had a pair!

It was only after that conversation that I noticed how many pairs of shoes each woman in the office seemed to own. I admired their fashion sense, and the way they co-ordinated their shoes to their handbags (I have one purse, black, and one beaded bag for the rare occasion when I get dressed-up) but I never felt the need to buy more. In my closet are a pair of sneakers, a pair of walking shoes, one pair of sort of beige-y dress shoes. One pair of black “plain” shoes and one pair of fancy. One pair of sandals I’ve worn for years. One pair of snow boots. My closet seems very full to me – it almost seems like excess. I don’t need more. But then, I’ve always had sort of “monastic” sensibilities. In a way, whether Dreher realizes it or not, his sensibilities seem to be rather monastic as well. He’d be a good Benedictine! :-) And this isn’t completely off-topic – both he and the Carthusians are, in essence, trying to look beyond the noise and excess of the secular world, into eternity.

I’ve added Crunchy Cons to The Bookshelf, along with Fr. James Martin’s soon-to-be-released book, My Life With the Saints!

Browse Our Archives