November 17, 2010

"Into Great Silence", and living "...with nature in the present..."

On the darkened screen is a scant indication of a man praying; the forms barely emerge from the quiet dark. Beautifully composed, the image remains on screen for what seems like minutes

and then the camera moves back to reveal more of the monk, and then back again to show the austerity of his cell. Slow, quiet, barely illuminated.

In 2002 the German filmmaker Philip Groning received permission to film at the Grande Chartreuse Carthusian monastery in the French Alps; he spent six months there, without a crew, using only natural light. He begins the film in winter, goes through the seasons until winter returns, giving us a sense of the flow of the monks' lives through time.

The camera follows the monks in their daily round, in their cells, as they live in silence, except for times of prayer and one delightful day in the week when they walk out into the landscape.

It is a landscape of grandeur and awe. Groning's eye captures remarkable beauty. Every shot of this glacially slow, very long film, is well considered. I enjoyed going back through the movie and looking at many of the frames as stills.

Interspersed throughout the movie are several portraits of monks; in their quiet gaze into the camera, each lasting a long time, we seem to get a sense of each character.

Some of my favorite moments of the film were those focusing closely on small objects: a font, some fruit, a few leaves, water dripping; light streams, illuminates, has an active presence in the landscape and interior spaces. We are asked to look closely, to pay attention, to see the world as full of aesthetic pleasures.

But what interested me most intellectually about Into Great Silence was sparked by the sole interview of the film, shown near its end, with an old blind monk. It made me aware of the similarity of different faiths, different approaches to spirituality. I find it impossible to believe, as the monk does, that everything that happens is for the good of one's soul, which Voltaire satirized in Candide, as "the best of all possible worlds". But other words of this old monk were very evocative. He spoke of the idea of the present: "The past, the present, these are human. In God there is no past, solely the present prevails". I have been doing some yoga and meditation (using this dvd) to calm my sometimes annoyingly anxious mind, and being in the present moment is essential.

Also from the monk: "The closer one brings oneself to God, the happier one is". I had not expected to hear about happiness from a hermit monk. This too tied into a Buddhist prayer:
May all beings find love and peace within themselves.
May all beings find peace with each other.
May all beings be happy.
And from a third faith tradition, the nonconformist 19th century minister and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his essay "Self Reliance"
These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God today. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence. ....But man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future. He cannot be happy and strong until he too lives with nature in the present, above time.


  1. How interesting to see your photos from the movie. Did you pause to photo? It is a beautiful film and you made a lovely telling of it here.

  2. thanks Maggie. I used some free software I downloaded from the web, VLC media player; it allows for screen captures from the computer, which look a lot better than trying to photograph the tv screen.

  3. Looks like a beautiful film but — glacially slow? We've watched a couple of those lately where it pretty much seemed like real time rather than reel time. I have to say I find Emerson the most appealing. We both have too much Catholicism in our backgrounds to be comfortable with any organized religion anymore.

  4. yes, Linda, I have to say that the movie was very slow, but I'm sure that was part of the point of it. I don't consider myself religious at all, but the little spiritual moments move me deeply.

  5. I love that movie so, so much. I didn't find it slow because I wanted to stay there forever, and was sorry when it was over.

  6. Susan, I'm glad you loved the film, though I'm sure it's not to everyone's taste. Its slowness gave a sense of timelessness to it, as the monks live in each present moment.
    Something interesting I read in a review was that the filmmaker shot some film in the distillery (the famous liqueur comes from that monastery) but didn't use the footage because it was very noisy in there, with lots of machinery.

  7. I know, not for everyone! I usually know I'm going to like a movie when the reviews say "beautiful, but no plot..." or something like that. I think I like life to be like that. I just want days to look at things. Nothing unusual has to happen, except for things like the moon coming up or a glimpse of something wild. This makes me a contemplative, I think, like the Carthusians.

  8. I agree with Susan. I've viewed the film about three times, sometimes not in one sitting, but to help ground myself in the moment when I need a tangible reminder to do so.

  9. Not only do I like the movie for what it represents. These monks keep my head wondering why do we, as a society, rush every day on everything we do. Thus, it appears as if this rushing hours keeps us from getting closer to God.
    I am a costarican man who is proud to say, that the monk who was captured on Altoon's pics, praying, is from Costa Rica. He is about my age and we both have the same background...and so, it makes me wonder...why...

    1. Paolo, did you get to know that monk?
      I'm considering becoming a carthusian woman.
      Thank you and thanks ti Altoon. :) <3
      May Jesus guards you.

  10. Thank you for your comment, Paolo. The contemplative life the monks live do make us wonder about ourselves, as you say. Greetings to you in Costa Rica.