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Monks, Time and the Great Silence

Monks, Time and the Great Silence

There are some times when I really feel like becoming a monk. Not in the Maria von Trapp, “running from your fears” sense, which I think is sadly a leading perception as to why anyone would devote themselves to such a cloistered, isolated life. No, I occasionally feel the urge to join a monastery because it just seems like such a desirable existence—one that is so contrary to what our culture values, and yet so in line, I think, with what a full life of Christ-following is all about.

My recreational monk-fascination was enhanced greatly a few weeks ago when I viewed the astonishing new documentary, Into Great Silence, which examines life inside the Grande Chartreuse monastery in the picturesque French Alps, one of the most beautiful and reclusive communities of the Carthusian Order.

What is so amazing about this film, from German director Philip Gröning, is that rather than looking at this mysterious community from the outside—examining, commenting or manipulating ideas to make a point about the monastic life—it becomes the monastic life. The film is almost three hours long, deliberately (almost painfully) slow, repetitive and largely devoid of any human speaking (indeed, but for some birds chirping, thunder clapping and liturgy singing, the film is more or less silent). All of this goes completely against Hollywood convention and probably also against our human nature; but as the film so eloquently expresses, this is sort of the point.

The film, like life as a monk, is about finding joy and peace in self-denial. Punctuating the gorgeously laborious imagery of life in the monastery are inter-titles which repeat scriptures and traditional teachings such as, “Unless a man gives up all he has, he cannot be my disciple,” and the more upbeat “O Lord, you have seduced me, and I was seduced.” These meditations appear at random moments, each about four times, throughout the film, serving to remind the viewer that this seemingly absurd way of life is founded on sacred precedents and nothing less than the holy words of Christ Himself: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23, TNIV).

But as much as the film is about self-denial and asceticism, it is also a profoundly moving study of time. It makes us feel time in the way that we rarely feel it in the hyper-regimented chaos of our modern lives. We witness the cyclical time of nature—drifting patiently from delicate snowflakes in winter to the cautious arrival of spring, then summer, autumn and back to winter again. We feel time in the way the camera observes a monk at prayer: alone, silent, reverent, in communion with the Eternal. We feel it also in the silent witness to the mundane, mostly solitary chores which occupy the “free time” of the monks: chopping vegetables for a stew, shoveling snow, sewing robes, cutting wood, mending the broken body of a fellow monk. There is no structure or storyline to the film’s path. The camera simply takes in images, occurrences and presences in a way that foregrounds time and meditation.

Gröning believes the film’s value is that it “somehow gives back to the viewer his or her own presence, his or her own time … This is a big privilege. Usually our time is being taken away from us in all kinds of directions.” Indeed. What I find so alluring about this film—and, I suppose, about the monastic life in general—is that it brings us out of the onslaught of time and into a way of life that mimics eternity, insofar as any lived experience on this planet can approach the eternal.

Many Christians (and, obviously, non-Christians) would argue that “retreat” into a life of prayer, worship and contemplation is a “wasted life.” There is a sense that while many Christians respect monks and nuns, they still view the “calling” as a romanticized novelty and relic, rather than an active and relevant way of life in the 21st century. After all, what good does praying and living in isolation do for the kingdom? Isn’t it about reaching out to the world? Evangelism, missionary work, social justice work, homeless ministries, entertainment ministries, church building, church planting, church growing, etc? Yes, these are all important, but we’ve so elevated usefulness, results and progress in the way we live our lives that we forget that our God is a god of infinite abundance.

We are so bound by utility that it is almost impossible to relinquish control and just rest in God’s abundance. Everything we do must be for a reason. When I tell people I’m in graduate school for critical studies in film and media, the first question is always: “Oh, so what will you do with that?” I usually pull out some stock response, knowing that what I really want to say (“well, I just want to learn more, and more deeply”) is almost unfathomable to a world driven by utility. In our jam-packed days, when information is pouring in from our phones, computers, Blackberries, iPods, iPhones, and those Jetsons-esque Bluetooth earpieces (don’t you love those?), to sit still—unmediated, unaware of what’s next or what should be—is equated with “lost” time. But the truth is that when we live like this, all time is ultimately “lost” time. When every moment is just something on the way to something else, we can never feel time for what it is. Everything is gone before we know how or why or what it is—before we have a chance to experience the experience of life.

Time is like a prison, in many ways, but one that is not impenetrable. There are moments in life when transcendence is possible; when the notion of a life outside of time is almost fathomable; when God’s eternal presence is somehow felt. But moments of transcending time come only when we slow down and experience it, and that is ultimately what the monks are doing.

Into Great Silence features only one “interview,” but it is a deeply moving interview with a blind, dying, elderly monk who beautifully captures why life in God is so utterly revelatory: "In God there is no past. Solely the present prevails. And when God sees us He always sees our entire life. And because He is an infinitely good being, He eternally seeks our well-being. Therefore there is no cause for worry."

I do not think a film like this should rouse us all to run off to the nearest abbey or monastery and pursue the monastic life. It may look devastatingly appealing to those of us weary of this on-the-go, utilitarian, clock-crushing frenzy of a world—but it is by no means an easy life and should not be undertaken as an “escape.” Still, the experience of Into Great Silence is a deeply convicting one, and worshipful and beautiful. To be a monk for three hours in a movie theater may not be your idea of fun, but it is certainly time well spent.

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