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Silence and the slowed-down life

Into Great SilencePhilip Groening spent six months living with Carthusian monks in France in order to make a film about their lives. The film, ‘Into Great Silence’, is an extraordinary chronicle of extraordinary men. Pat Coyle went to see it – twice!


In 1987 film-maker Phillip Groening asked the Carthusian monks of the Grande Chartreuse Abbey in France if he could make a film about their lives. The monk’s regime there is generally regarded as the most tough and ascetic among contemplative religious orders. They told him it was too soon and to come back in ten years! Sixteen years later they contacted him and said they were ready but he would have to live with them according to their rule over a period of time. Also, they told him that he alone would have to be cameraman and soundman. ‘Into Great Silence’ is the documentary film he eventually created from his time with the Carthusians in the beautiful setting of the French Alps. Pat Coyle went to see it –twice!

It was a text from Piaras Jackson SJ on my mobile that alerted me to the fact that it was a marathon of a film I’d undertaken to review for RTE’s religious programme ‘Spirit Moves’. ‘Enjoy your three hours silence!’ was all it said and I groaned inwardly. I was supposed to be meeting a friend for an Indian meal afterwards; I was going to have such a rush to meet her in time. Resentment rising and lights darkening I sat down for the long haul and for what turned out to be an experience I won’t easily forget. Into Great Silence is a very unconventional documentary .There are practically no interviews. Instead we get lingering close up shots of the individual monks, old and young, deep, honest, silent and sometimes shy faces often looking directly at the camera.. There is no music except for the repeated chime of the bell that calls them to prayer and their own liturgical chanting. Sometimes the shots of say a monk at prayer or a cow in the meadow looks more like a Vermeer or Monet painting, other shots of food and everyday utensils look like still-life. Many of the scenes are long and lingering. The once snow-laden trees swish and sway in the summer breeze and we watch them, and watch them, and watch them… There is no story-line as such. Instead we, like the director, follow the lives of the monks through days and nights of work, prayer and sometimes play as one season melts into another. And just as their lives are tough, and repetitive, filled with prayer, and silence, so too is the film. The content and form both make this a counter-cultural work.While it has the makings of a cinematographic disaster it has a quietly powerful presence that draws the viewer in. It was hailed in France where it stirred up great debate. Here in Ireland the Irish Film Institute had planned to put it into its smaller theatre but the demand was such that they moved it to the larger one which was almost full at every showing.I noticed very few people leave and there was a palpable silence as the lights went up. It was clear that at least some people there were deeply moved by what they had just seen. I certainly was. But I’m not completely sure I can articulate adequately why. Was it watching the older monk, feet deep in snow clearing out the seed beds where he would plant the vegetables in spring that they would eat in summer? The camera patiently follows him as he heaves shovelfuls of snow; his frail frame belies an inner strength as he lifts the load, his face and nose reddened with broken veins – then a tiny smile. Or was it seeing the monks’ simple act of sawing wood for their small stoves, the only source of heat in their individual rooms in which they eat, read and pray in solitude until Sunday, their only day of ‘talk and walk’ in the alpine hill?. Maybe it was watching the gnarled hands of a multi-skilled monk who shaves his fellow monks heads (even hair is a luxury) and cuts the material that he’ll sew to make their own rough robes. Perhaps it was viewing the gentle application of ointment by one young monk onto wrinkled parchment – like skin of an older brother. Or maybe it was seeing how their lives are inscribed by the rhythm of prayer which take precedence over everything, even work and sleep, a routine as predictable as day and night. Or was it something deeper, more ineffable? I have equated ‘prayer’ with the formal act of worship they engage in so often each day. But in a very real sense and way beyond the cliché, the monks are praying all the time in everything they do. Watching this film I felt myself to be in the presence of people who sanctify the ordinary and sacramentalise the profane. The planting of seeds is a preparation for Eucharist, the rubbing-on of ointment is a loving anointing, and locks of shaved hair fall on the floor as pieces of surrendered ego. Against the back drop of shifting seasons, shining stars, majestic mountains and melting snow, the Word becomes flesh as they live out the Benedictine litany that they chant in their darkened chapel: ‘And you, sun and moon, O bless the Lord / And you stars of the heav’ns, O bless the Lord / And you showers and rain, frost and snow, fountains and springs, O bless the Lord’. The monks live what they pray, and watching that film I felt part of that prayer. As the director Phillip Groening wished would happen, I felt myself ‘in’ the monastery, where no visitors are allowed. I didn’t feel like a visitor, though. Rather, I felt part of a wider community of people who have been so touched by God that they can live this kind of life that is so much at odds with the aims and values of the culture I experience. And I felt that I, like them, could find the transcendent God in my cooking and cleaning, in my work and in my leisure, in the countless tasks of drudgery and delight that make up my everyday life. Unlike them though, I could happily head off after the film for a good chat and a lovely chicken korma with my dear friend. And that I did – back to the real world… the Holy world, which I could experience if I weren’t in such a rush.