Essay / Misc.

A Great Silence

Perhaps you have heard about the movie/documentary that was recently in limited release in the United States entitled Die Große Stille, translated into English as Into Great Silence. The movie by German filmmaker Phillip Gröning was “in the works” for about twenty-one years before its European release in 2005.

In 1984 Gröning asked the notoriously ascetic and deeply private Carthusian monks of the Grand Chartreuse in the French Alps if he could film them simply being monastic. Their response, “perhaps we will be ready in ten years.” In fact, it took them sixteen years to be ready but in 2000 they invited Gröning to live with them and gave him access to most aspects of their monastic life with the condition that he add no sound other than what he recorded. The result is a beautiful film nearly three hours long with remarkable images of monks young and old about their daily tasks — praying, reading, eating, working and praying again. Yet more striking is the amount of silence during the film. There are sounds, such as the monks chanting prayers and the Scriptures in Latin, the sound of creaking wood as the monks rise and sit for prayers, the sound of wind, rain and melting snow and the nearly ubiquitous ringing of the bells either calling the monks together for prayer or telling them that it is time to pause from their busy work and pray where they are at. But the most pervasive “sound” is silence, hence the name of the film.

The “great silence” is that period of time mentioned in Chapter 42 of the Rule of Benedict, “Monks should diligently cultivate silence at all times… and on leaving Compline, no one will be permitted to speak further.” What I was unprepared for when I went to see the film was that I too was going to enter into the silence of the Carthusians. Movie theaters are usually loud places with booming sounds from high quality speaker systems, the sound of people eating popcorn and drinking and, on occasion, the sound of a small child brought to the movies. But seeing Into Great Silence was the longest period of time in my recent memory where I sat in silence for nearly three hours. It was beautiful! Apart from the humming of the projector and an occasional cough, the theater was, like the Grand Chartreuse, a very quiet space. In fact, the silence was deafening for about the first fifteen minutes. Of course, we live in a very busy as well as a noisy world. Apart from sleep silence is something that many of us rarely experience much less appreciate or willingly seek. Into Great Silence has shown me that silence is good and something I should seek to cultivate and welcome. For as 1 Kings 19 reminds us, God does not always reveal himself in wind, earthquakes or fire but sometimes he chooses to reveal himself in a gentle whisper — in a great silence.

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