Like many others, I used the holiday break to "catch up" on things – reading, writing, paperwork, de-cluttering. I also caught up on a few videos that I've been wanting to watch.
One left me stunned by its beauty.
It was not an American film.
It had no soundtrack.
It had no artificial lighting.
There was very little dialogue.
It was filled with…silence.
In fact, that was its title: "Into Great Silence." And it may have been one of the most beautiful, riveting spiritual films I have ever seen. Its subject was the Grande Chartreuse, nestled in the French Alps, and considered one of the world's most ascetic monasteries.
As the video casing details,
"In 1984, German filmmaker Philip Groning wrote to the Carthusian order for permission to make a documentary about them. They said they would get back to him. Sixteen years later, they were ready.
"Groning, sans crew or artificial lighting, lived in the monks' quarters for six months – filming their daily prayers, tasks, rituals and rare outdoor excursions. This transcendent, closely observed film seeks to embody a monastery, rather than simply depict one – it has no score, no voiceover and no archival footage. What remains is stunningly elemental: time, space and light. One of the most mesmerizing and poetic chronicles of spirituality ever created…[it] dissolves the border between screen and audience with a total immersion into the hush of monastic life. More meditation than documentary, it's a rare, transformative experience…."
I couldn't agree more.
In his catalogue of wisdom and sayings from the Desert Fathers of the fourth century, Thomas Merton tells of a certain brother who went to Abbot Moses in Scete, and asked him for a good word. The elder said to him, "Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything."
We don't often speak of silence, much less solitude. Yet as I wrote in Serious Times, the power of silence and solitude has been recognized throughout the history of spiritual formation. It is the purposeful separation of ourselves from the world in order to place ourselves with God. The great advantage of the evil one is his ability to assault our senses with the material world in which we live as if to drown out the distant chords from eternity's symphony. One can only surmise that it was for this reason that Lewis' Screwtape announces to his nephew Wormwood that one of hell's goals is to "make the whole universe a noise in the end." Only in silence can we move past the deafening roar of the world and hear the music of God.
Here it is important to remember the difference between spiritual quietness, and the mere absence of sound that creates silence. "Silence is the absence of sound and quiet the stilling of sound," writes Frederick Buechner. "Quiet chooses to be silent. It holds its breath to listen." The Rule of St. Benedict speaks of cultivating silence in our lives, with an entire chapter devoted to its pursuit. "Unless I am silent I shall not hear God," Esther de Waal writes in her reflections on Benedict's Rule, "and until I hear him I shall not come to know him."
So if you can, watch the film.
And then take a cue from its title,
…and enter into the silence.
James Emery White
"Into Great Silence," directed by Philip Groning, available for instant viewing or video purchase through Amazon.
James Emery White, Serious Times (InterVarsity Press).
Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert, Sayings from the Desert Fathers of the Fourth Century.
C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters.
Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark: An ABC Theologized.
Esther de Waal, Seeking God.