Thursday, December 6, 2007
The Preacher’s Corner
A blasted cell phone breaks ‘Into Great Silence’
Last Saturday morning I did something truly new and different—which is saying something for a fairly conventional person like me who has reached the age when one seldom does anything new.
“What could it be?” you ask. Well, I went with my friend and fellow Presbyterian B.C. Crawford of Ashland to see the acclaimed film “Into Great Silence,” which documents the life of the monks at the Grande Chartreuse monastery deep in the postcard-perfect French Alps!
If that sounds a bit odd for 9 o’clock on a Saturday morning, consider that the largest viewing room of the Malco Paradisium on Poplar in Memphis was filled to the very last seat. We went for the Saturday matinee because the previous Wednesday evening screening was entirely booked. Apparently there are a lot of people curious enough about the inner life of an ascetic monastery to go and sit through a two-hour film on the subject.
In 1984, German filmmaker Philip Gröning 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 finally permitted the filming. One can imagine that in a highly disciplined setting, where vows of silence are part of the regimen, the presence of a film-maker would be disruptive. So Gröning went to the Grande Chartreuse, sans crew or artificial lighting and lived in the monks’ quarters for six months — filming their daily prayers, tasks, rituals and rare outdoor excursions.
Each monk lives in a tiny room with a bunk bed, closet, prayer bench, and table for study. Although the monastery has electricity, one only saw it used at the night-time prayers in the chapel when the brothers would switch on tiny lamps to illuminate the service books so they could see the words for the haunting Gregorian chant.
This highly evocative film seeks to embody a monastery, rather than simply depict one, so there is no narration, no background music—only the incidental sounds of a community at work and prayer in a rural Alpine setting where silence is key to the spiritual discipline that is being sought. For this reason watching the film is a highly unusual and somewhat demanding experience.
Most people cannot handle silence. “Church growth” experts tell us that traditional religious services move too slowly. The rising generation is accustomed to (what seems to us who are older) the frenetic activity of MTV. That is why mega-churches that still use hymns, now use mostly medleys of familiar hymns. More than one verse of any song is “boring” and there is said to be little time or desire to learn anything new.
The screenings were a joint project of St. Peter’s Catholic Church on Adams and Grace-St. Luke’s Episcopal Church on Peabody, two very traditional churches in a certain sense, but which seek to engage people with life’s great questions in thoughtful, creative ways.
I noticed the audience was almost entirely older people. They seemed well-educated, curious. Many people, even Protestants, I would suppose, have contemplated (if for just a brief moment) at some time in their lives what it might be like to enter a monastery or convent. Perhaps many there for the screening were seeking to follow up on the thought vicariously — as if by watching others at their holy vocation, we could participate with them — from a safe distance. Hopefully some of that spirituality would rub off.
I did think it was ironic that instead of renting the DVD and watching in solitude at home, all of us chose to come to a theater and be in a group of 500 to consider what it might be like to live a hermit’s life in a religious order! Such commitments are highly seductive. So I guess everybody felt there was “safety in numbers.” I did note there were no teenagers present who might actually have the real possibility of struggling with a decision to enter such a calling and lifetime commitment. And indeed, most of the monks were older. Two novices were accepted as postulants. They were young black men, quite different in appearance than the kindly old Frenchmen who welcomed them into their ranks. It was clear that if the Carthusian order is to continue, it will do so with a different membership than has been traditional heretofore.
Although there was silence and self-denial, I did not think the monks seemed lonely. They pursued solitary tasks, but there must be a sense of comfort and community in the knowledge that others are engaged in similar duties close by. A sense of serenity prevailed, but also of security. One of the monks was blind. Another was elderly and could not leave his bed. The rest took care of them. Their deaths would not go unnoticed. I laughed that when the monks took their weekly recreation and talked about whatever they wished, their conversations seemed as banal as those carried on by those of us who chatter as freely and as often as we wish!
The advance publicity and introductory presentation both stressed how different this experience would be. Parents were advised that small children would not enjoy it and, because of the intense quiet in the film, viewers were requested not to bring popcorn or slurpy drinks into the theater. One would not be able to hear the birds singing through the monastery’s open windows if our neighbors were crunching their snacks, we were told. And, of course, we were earnestly advised to turn off cell-phones and pagers!
Everyone cooperated beautifully right up until the end. I have seldom seen any church congregation so attentive or engaged. But as the film reached its silent and dramatic climax, wouldn’t you know it, some blasted cell phone began to ring, and ring, and RING, AND RING! And it struck me how intensely hard it is for modern, secular Americans to enter even for a very brief, tentative time into the most basic, practical focus and discipline that a committed religious life calls forth.
Most of us are dilettantes, as far as religion goes. The churches I know seek to outdo each other in condemning the sins of other people. But we ask little of ourselves either by way of commitment or self-denial. I say this of myself. It is easy to condemn sins to which we are not tempted. But it is very hard to bridle the temptations and behaviors which we have convinced ourselves are simply ours by right and due.
The great temptation of a film like “Into Great Silence” is the thought it may foster, that we can let others be faithful on our behalf, simply by thinking well of them and blessing what they do. But the monks have something to show us. They said not a word about anyone else. Judging no one else, they simply practiced graciousness as they stringently disciplined their own lives.
When Lyndon Johnson died, an elderly black man who worked on the LBJ ranch was distraught. A family member tried to comfort him, saying, “You know that he loved you.” And the elderly man replied, “You don’t have to tell me that. He showed me that he loved me.” I think religion that counts is the kind that accomplishes that.
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