Into Great Silence

May, 2007, Documentary

This 2005 documentary by German director Phillip Groning had a lengthy gestation; in order to begin filming his study Carthusian monks, Groning contacted the abbot of La Grande Chartreuse, the first and principal monastery of the order, (founded a millennium before his call) which is located in the French Alps. The priest considered Groning’s request and told the director it was “too early” to grant such permission. 16 years later, Groning was told he could bring his film crew to the stunning mountain retreat which has been the home of this order of reclusive Catholic priests and brothers since it was first established in the eleventh century by St. Bruno, former rector of the cathedral at Reims. 

Chartreuse is the name of a valley near modern day Grenoble and the steep hillside upon which the cavernous monastery resides enjoys a timeless grandeur which reflects The Catholic Church’s affection for monumental structures honoring the divine and the tranquility which so many religious of the Middle Ages sought in monastic life. 

Groning and his talented crew unobtrusively present ordinary daily activities in this gargantuan house of prayer, following the monks from their individual cells to the chapel, the gardens and fields outside, (where the crops and farm animals that sustain these men are harvested) and even to nearby snowy hillsides which provide a brief opportunity for sledding in the winter months during the once-a-week outings permitted by the community’s rules.

Digital cameras record the monks at prayer and academic study with soft, impressionistic images worthy of Degas while conventional film stock is employed to cover haircuts, the chanting of centuries’ old prayers and incensed processions through the monastery on special feast days…a collection of daily activities which will strike even the most ardent contemporary Catholic as both timeless and oddly out of touch with the modern world… precisely what these deeply reflective followers of an ancient order intend.

The coenobitic life has a long and complex history; Hindu hermits in the 6th century B.C. morphed into communal groups under the influence of the Jainist movement, hundreds of years later. From its beginnings, Buddhism encouraged both sedentary, communal monks as well as those committed to individually roaming from place to place. Judaism produced the Essenes during the second and first centuries B.C., while Christian utilization of  monastic discipline emerged in the late 3rd and early 4th centuries A.D, following the Hindu example of hermits living separately in individual huts but taking their meals together and worshiping in common. Monasticism swelled through the Dark Ages; the rules developed by St. Benedict in the founding of the order which bears his name were used by more than 1000 communities by the time St. Bruno returned to the 4th century Christian roots of this institution and founded the Carthusians at Chartreuse in a facility whose combination of individual cells and communal worship facilities has facilities for only 35 monks. 

Today’s monasteries often provide a respite from the hassle and pace of modern life for “lay” people who “retreat” to them for short stays in order to reflect on the direction in which their lives are headed, or simply to enjoy, however briefly, the serenity and quiet Groning’s film so effectively captures. I think much of this appeal is an interest in the quaint rather than a sincere desire to plumb the depths of a personal  spiritual journey; the call to an entire life of organized contemplation prompts only a fraction of those who once chose this life in centuries past, when religion institutions played a far larger role in the world’s affairs. 

There may be a more legitimate reason for the decline in contemporary monasticism, at least in Catholicism; over 40 years ago, The Second Vatican Council laid out a new paradigm for the church’s faithful, one which pays far more attention to engaging the world than retreating from it. The teaching which emerged from those historic deliberations on Catholicism’s role in the world urges those who take their faith seriously to respond to the needs of others - -  a commitment that has a value equal to if not greater than simply praying for them. 

Whatever merits monastic practice currently posses, it will have no more ardent and beautiful presentation than this visually stunning film which dares to take enough screen-time tell to give audiences a glimpse into the lives of those still willing to make a commitment to it. 

The verdict? An elegant film testimony to those who choose to live a life of prayer, one worthy of Thomas Merton’s reflections on this path to the divine.      

Jake's Takes comments powered by Disqus