Yesterday I went to Edinburgh to the see film Die Grosse Stille (Into Great Silence). Having been inside both the Grande Chartreuse and Parkminster, I was interested in seeing Philip Gröning’s extended meditation on the Carthusian Life. I was also curious about how he could hold an audience’s attention for nearly three hours with hardly a word being spoken. This audience included an assortment of arty-types (-the film was shown as part of the Edinburgh Film Festival), some German-speakers (-it was advertised by the Goethe Institute), and several excited Catholics (-they were thrilled to be seeing inside the Grande Chartreuse).
One of the things for which the Carthusians are famous (apart from the liqueur) is their ability to discourage visitors. The only sign at the entrance to the Grande Chartreuse says On ne visite pas le Monastère. When the film was coming to Edinburgh, I told other members of our (Passionist) community the story of the film director who, wanting to make a movie about the Carthusians, wrote to the Grande Chartreuse and received a reply saying that they were not ready yet and that maybe in ten or fifteen years time, he could come and make his documentary; I then told them how, sixteen years later, he received a letter saying “We’re ready; come and make the film”. Each person I told had the same reaction: they waited for the punch-line, as they thought this was just another in the long line of jokes about “silent monasteries” – so much so that I had great difficulty convincing some of them that the story is actually true.
As for the film itself, the two and three-quarter hours passes without seeming long (in stark contrast to the great 21st century bore, The Da Vinci Code). There was a strong sense of being outside of everyday time; the days and nights followed each other with the rhythm of the liturgy; the bell announced for us, as it does for the monks, the movement from one moment to the next. The repetition of written texts and what followed them gave some sense of the relentlessness (and maybe also the monotony) of the invitation to follow Christ (even if the part about “following” was missing from the English version of the biblical text).
The extent to which Philip Gröning was permitted to film everyday life was perhaps surprising, but then, contemplatives tend to be much more relaxed and uninhibited than those religious who have to present themselves to the outside world every day and who are, consequently, probably more used to performing. The monks allowed themselves to be filmed in the most natural and uncompliacted of ways.
Although the spoken word was kept to a minimum, this was certainly not a “silent movie”. Sound was such a powerful element of the film: the wind rustling the leaves, drips of water falling off a dish, a shovel striking the crisp snow. It became clear that those who speak less are able to hear more, to listen to more. And of course, monks are very noisy people: feet stepping, doors closing, books being opened – everything was done with a thud; I was reminded of the Abbott of Fontgombault pounding his way across the choir as he sprinkled the monks with Holy Water after Compline to mark the beginning of their Great Silence.
So what were these Carthusians like? What did they communicate? They reminded me of the words of Dom Bruno, who was novice master in Parkminster, who said to me of his charges: “I like the wild ones; they stand a better chance of staying.” These men of the Grande Chartreuse were all individuals; the portrait shots conveyed something the different characters or temperaments, and so too did the interiors of their cells: on the wall of one “oratory” alcove, there were about five pictures, including an icon and a picture of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux; on another there was simply a small, dark crucifix against a bare wooden wall. These were not mindless fanatics, robbed of all uniqueness, but simple men living profound lives (and doing so without losing their sense of fun).
At the end of the film, everyone left the cinema in silence; when we reached the outside, one of my companions turned to me and said, “Can we talk now?” What better way to express this film’s success? On the way home, we discussed what the impact of such an extraordinary film, including the words spoken at the end, could be on an unbeliever or someone who has not yet found the way to God. No doubt the Carthusians will find out.