This Lent, For All of Us, ‘Into Great Silence’

15 years on, this documentary has never been more relevant

(photo: YouTube screenshot)

During this period of confinement and lockdown, when we cannot go out, we have no choice but to go inward or go nowhere at all.

There is a film that can help us with this — namely, Into Great Silence. 

Released in 2005 to rave reviews and achieving unexpected box office takings, the film documents a year in the Carthusian monastery of the Grande Chartreuse in France.

The film’s director, Philip Gröning, had asked the monks if he could come and film their life. Sixteen years later he got his reply: come.

And so he did. Gröning left home with only basic camera equipment, but with it he managed to capture something quite remarkable: nothing less than life on the “inside,” lived in its simplicity and stillness.

Ultimately, the film is an intimate portrait of a unique monastic community. Beautifully shot at a remarkable location, the silence of the monastery seems to heighten the images upon the screen, contrasted with sun-filled days, snow-covered mountains or infinite skies, all of which surround the monastery location.

Founded by St. Bruno in 1084, the Carthusian order has its own Rule, called the Statutes, which combine eremitical and cenobitic monasticism. We follow on screen as the monks pray alone in their cells, when they sing the Divine Office, and when they carry out their lectio divina and meditate upon the Holy Scriptures. We also see each monk alone as they carry out their allotted tasks: tending his own small hermitage garden, chopping wood for his stove, cooking or delivering food to the brethren through a hatch in their cell door, feeding the abbey cats, planting seeds and tending the monastery land.

These monks live in almost continual silence and solitude, each in his little hermitage, coming together only in the monastery church to sing the Divine Office several times a day and night. They take their meals alone in their cells except for Sundays when the monks eat together in silence accompanied by a reading. Once a week after lunch on a Sunday they have communal recreation, such as a community walk into the countryside, when they are allowed to converse with each other.

The Carthusian monk owns nothing. Nevertheless, each cell has a narrow bed, a prie-dieu and a wooden chair and desk, a Bible, some paper and a writing implement.

The monks’ lifestyle needs few belongings. Theirs is a simple life of a never-ending call to prayer and contemplation, with the praying of the Divine Office throughout the day and the night central to that. Their life is shaped and fueled by this rhythm; their lives becoming a constant prayer.

What is clear from the film is how much each monk loves his life. And, more mysteriously still, how each monk has been and is being transformed by it. A number (but not all) of the community allows the camera to rest for several minutes on their faces in silent repose. Each monk says nothing of his life and its meaning directly to the camera. Instead much is communicated by the purity of gaze rarely seen in cinema.

The film is over two and a half hours long and has its own pace. During the opening sequence “nothing happens,” the screen is almost completely dark, and then we realize that we are in the cell of a monk in the early hours of the morning and have been praying with him. This is the film’s secret: it is not a “film” at all, not in any recognizable sense; what it is instead is a meditation. Through this documentary the audience not only goes beyond the walls of the monastery but also — somehow — enters into the monk’s hidden life of contemplation.

If anyone doubts the role of cinema in the New Evangelization then this documentary is a case study to examine. On the night it opened in London I was turned away from the cinema on account of it being sold out. There was and still is a hunger for authenticity, and this film is nothing if not authentic. Perhaps, then, the film’s popularity is not so surprising after all, for in these days of dubious on-screen “spiritualties,” here, in all its beauty, is the real thing.

In this period of enforced solitude, it is a time to go deeper. It is a time to listen rather than talk, to hear and see in ways we have not yet allowed ourselves to do. In imitation of the witness of the monks of the Grande Chartreuse, we must see this as a time set aside to pray and to contemplate, finally, a time to draw closer to the only thing that really matters.

Into Great Silence is a means by which we can glimpse a path less traveled, yet one already taken, and by those we can trust. If nothing else, in these dark days, the joy on the faces of the monks who appear in the film may well be enough to help us persevere in our own inward journey at this time, and remind us that we are never alone whilst so journeying.

Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray testifies Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee at the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

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