I apologise this personal review of Into Great Silence has taken longer to get to than expected.
My wife has injured her knee and has been on crutches for over two weeks plus both my daughters have been struggling with the flu .. all at the same time. This has elevated me from simply being the bread-winner, to being Chief Cook and Bottle Washer with a special appointment as the head of Dad’s Taxi Service too!
Having said that, I wanted to wait until I had a three hour window of time in which I could sit down and view the movie without interruption; the way it was intended. With all that’s just been mentioned, creating that window took three weeks from the day I received the DVD from Amazon UK .. but it was well worth the wait.
Oddly, I was a little nervous about watching a film that has been so highly praised in every review I could find on the Net. Frankly, I didn’t want to be disappointed. Secondly, I was nervous about watching a film that ran nearly three hours in duration without a word of narration or a note of musical score to "fill the gaps". I was likewise a little nervous about how watching the film might affect me overall. I know that may be an odd statement, but there is such a sense of awe when approaching this film; at least for those, like myself, who are coming to understand and appreciate the value of silence, solitude, rhythm and intentional prayer in everyday life.
This nervousness also seems to partly stem from anticipating peering into what few have ever seen, namely the life and practices of the Carthusian Monastic Order. In a sense, having the opportunity to observe these monks living their lives the way they do, is kind of like hitting the mother-load for those who are searching for ways to incorporate monastic wisdom and practices into a real-world non-cloistered setting.
This movie/documentary is shot in such a way as you feel like you are literally standing right there alongside the monks, peering directly over their shoulders, as they pray in their cells, or as they have their hair cut, or as they take their weekly recreational walk (one of the few times each week when they are free to speak), or as they pray the Liturgy of the Hours in church.
As you watch the monks in deep mental prayer, engaging in Lectio Divina (divine reading), working the gardens and grounds, or eating their lunch in the warmth of the winter sun .. all without a word .. you feel as though your presence as a viewer is almost intrusive, if not voyeuristic. Should I really be here? Should I really be seeing this? And yet, the sense of welcome and peace that comes from what feels like literally entering the monk’s world, albeit for a short time (just short of three hours) and through a camera lens, is palpable.
Jo, my wife, was so moved by the sense of quiet and peace that the film conveys, it actually took her four attempts to watch it because she kept falling into a deep and peaceful sleep! Not at all because she was bored, but because this film carries the peace of the rhythms of the Grande Chartreux upon it, in the same way as the anointing of the Holy Spirit still seems to rest upon old recordings of Kathryn Khulman or A.A. Allen.
It is clear that these men live an austere life; one that many of us would run scared from attempting. But it is likewise clear that these men are committed to finding God for themselves and to praying for us, the church universal, seven times a day, seven days a week, every day of every year until they die. That is the heartbeat of their lives. And it’s truly for life that they make their commitment. They have a total of five years, firstly as a postulant, then as a novice, to decide whether the life of a Carthusian monk is for them. Once that decision is made and the monastic community accepts them as permanent members, they are truly committed for life. They will not know life, as you and I live it, ever again.
Now, as a Protestant, I admit that I struggle somewhat with the idea of any man or woman disengaging from society to such a degree that the great commission of Jesus Christ will never be carried out by them. It appears that is the case for every Carthusian monk .. or is it? I ask this because, while they may not be busy preaching the good news to every tribe and tongue, they are certainly in the business of making true disciples out of the postulants and novices that have responded to a call from God to devote their lives to Jesus. Isn’t the making of disciples a part of the great commission too? I guess it’s all in how you choose to view it.
Regardless, this is truly a remarkable film. Under strict instructions from the Prior of the Monastery, limited to using only natural light and whatever sound the microphone mounted on the camera recorded, Phillip Groening has devised and patiently pieced together a cinematic record of a life few of us will ever experience, with all the skill of a master craftsman or artisan. Who would have thought it was possible to hear a snow flake hit a window sill? But with no other noise invading the space, the sounds of God’s creation are free to be heard. With no other light in the church but the flicker of a single candle during the Night Vigils, you are free to focus on God alone.
I am deeply grateful that Phillip Groening was willing to surrender one full year of his life living in the Grande Chartreux so that we could experience something that each of us secretly longs for. No matter what you say, like me, I know you’re really looking for your world to slow down .. for silence … solitude …. rhythm ….. peace …….. God.
Let the experience of Into Great Silence stir your heart so deeply, that nothing short of the intentional re-ordering of your life to facilitate the pursuit of Him, may be the goal that will satisfy you.
This is my earnest prayer for you.
A Monk in Cell
Philip Groening at the Sundance Film Festival