A slightly edited version of the following article was published in The Tablet, 23rd September, 2006.
Unlikely as it may seem, the hidden life of the Carthusians has been brought to the big screen. But don’t go to the cinema expecting a history lesson, or a fly-on-the-wall documentary about life in a monastery. With hardly any talking, and no commentary, there is little sense, even, of the monks’ daily timetable. Whenever it seems as if a scene is beginning to tell a story, it is abruptly cut. This is a film that aims to ‘become a monastery, rather than depict one.’ According to director Philip Gröning, supplying the viewer with information – which can easily be found on the internet anyway – would distort and detract from our experience of being present to the actuality of the monastery itself. After all, people go to these places, not to learn about monasticism, but to learn something about themselves.
Like a painting, Gröning’s film lacks any straightforward linear narrative structure. Instead the viewer is invited to gaze deeply into another world, and experience it on its own terms. Flickering flames, a monk kneeling in the dark, snow falling – the seemingly random sequence of dream-like, almost abstract, painterly images with which the film opens signal that this is a film about inner space. Shot using two different formats, the interplay between time and eternity is represented visually by the juxtaposition between the grainy disintegrating texture of Super 8, and the static perfection of high-definition digital video. Two hours and forty minutes later, it ends where it began, with the same sequence reversed. Thus framed, the intervening period becomes the limitless expanse of the timeless present moment. But this cyclical movement also points to the eternity stretching out before us. As we leave the cinema, mobiles ringing, to return to our busy lives, the monks of La Grande Chartreuse will continue to repeat the same round of prayer and silence again, and again, and again; rendering the passage of time, with which we tend to be so preoccupied, largely irrelevant.
In the same way that simple food tastes delicious when you’re hungry, one of the consequences of being in a monastery, cut off from all the stimulation and distraction that normally fills our time and mind, is that sensory perceptions can became greatly intensified. Colours seem more vivid, clouds more beautiful, insects more fascinating. By letting his camera linger on a patch of grass, raindrops splashing into a puddle, or dust floating in the air, Gröning reminds us that if we stop for long enough to look at things properly, we really can see ‘a world in a grain of sand, and heaven in a wild flower.’ Monastic life is about being present to God, and in as much as it is possible, this is a film that brings the viewer into the intimacy of God’s presence. A young monk in his cell; eating, reading, praying. Another talking to the cats. A novice being measured up for his new habit. The brethren having their heads shaved. In these very human scenes, the apparently mundane is revealed as the truly profound. Yet, at the same time, watching this film is not always easy: its slow uneventful pace forces us to be still as the present gradually unfolds, shorn of the imaginary worlds of memory and fantasy that we habitually project onto reality. Anyone who has tried to meditate will be familiar with the difficulty of keeping the mind from wandering. But this is where it gets interesting, because just as the monastic life it portrays isn’t all peace and tranquillity, so in the act of watching the film, the viewer experiences something of the endurance required of the monk. Captions from spiritual texts, frequently repeated, emphasise both the fact that written, not spoken, words comprise the bulk of the monks’ – and the viewer’s – encounter with language, and also that the monks will read the same words over and over again.
When Gröning first had the idea for the film in 1984, permission was refused by the order on the grounds that it was ‘too early.’ He told me that in any case back then it would have been impossible to make the film under the specified conditions – alone and without using additional lighting or sound – because the digital video technology that made it possible for him to shoot in almost total darkness simply didn’t exist twenty years ago. Indeed, so serendipitous was the timing that only a few months before filming was due to commence, a new multi-track recording device came on the market, enabling him to record a live soundtrack without the assistance of additional crew or the need to recreate sound effects in the studio. In fact, the soundtrack is in many ways one of the most striking features of the film, which, far from being silent, is actually surprisingly noisy. Take away the familiar but artificial structures of scripted dialogue and orchestrated music, or the mental-linguistic projections that come between us and our experience of the world, and what you are left with is not nothing, but reality as it is, in its fullness. And unlike our neat, predictable, one-dimensional fabrications, the sound of real-life is random and multi-layered. The pages of a book being turned. Birds singing outside. The cracking of logs burning in the stove. A fly buzzing round the room. We become aware of all these distinct and particular sounds, by comparison with which the constant drone of everyday life, in which nothing can be distinguished from anything else, is, in a sense, the most deafening silence. People often say they find silence disturbing – we commonly talk about an ‘awkward silence.’ In stillness and silence, with our illusions of selfhood laid bare, we realise our own emptiness and the frightening truth that in spite of the worlds we create, we still have no control over time. But don’t let the fear of time’s vacuum prevent you from going to see this film, because surrendering to the timelessness of the real is also liberating. This is the secret of the monk’s inner calm, strength, and joy, and perhaps also the secret of the film’s success. The Carthusians maintain that the spirit of God, or Truth if you prefer that word, dwelling in the silence of our innermost being, represents the deepest reality of what we are. If that is so, then we all have an intuitive awareness of the divine, whether we chose to acknowledge it or not. Into Great Silence quietly affirms that connection.
I have written about my time with the Carthusians in Tantalus and the Pelican: Exploring Monastic Spirituality Today, Bloomsbury, 2009.
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