Into Great Silence

Last night, I had the pleasure of watching a remarkable film: Into Great Silence. I’m not going to offer a full review of it, because Steven Greydanus’ review captures my opinion perfectly. I have never experienced anything remotely like it, and I want to muse a little bit about a couple of elements that particularly struck me.

First, the silence was not deafening, but accentuated every sound, both in the film and in the theater around me. I noticed the munching of popcorn by the guy beside me, and the opening of the theater door by folks who left in the middle, probably because the lack of auditory stimulation was driving their poor, addled, postmodern minds mad. In the film, the sounds of the chopping of vegetables, rain running off a roof, footsteps in a stone hallway, all were amplified. Having no score and scarcely any words, everything else became more noticeable–and not just sounds, but the whole tableau painted by the director’s camera lens: the spectacular scenery, the little details in the monastery, the turning of the seasons.

The change in perspective led me to wonder just how much we’re missing in our culture dominated by sensory overload. We miss the visual beauty of nature because we’re surrounded by our own creations; our ambient light, even, drowns out the wonders of the heavens. We can’t hear the world around us for the background noise; we retreat into music of our own choosing in our iPods as a way of escaping the cacophony around us, but at the same time we may miss the whisper of God. The old quip, “See no evil, hear no evil,” has a flipside: “See no good, hear no good.” Into Great Silence opens with a quote from 1 Kings 18 that we all ought to take to heart:

And he said, “Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.

The one interview conducted in the film, of an elderly, blind monk, was the profoundest moment of all. Here was a man utterly at peace, with God, with himself, with his brothers. There was a gentle good humor about him; a total lack of fear. He expressed by his words and bearing the Christian fact that death has lost its sting, and that we should no longer fear it. The world has lost sight of God, he said, and his example shows us one way to recover it.

It occurred to me that the Carthusian life can only make sense to the secular world as a retreat from it–a refuge from its demands and wiles. But, if you consider instead the idea that prayer is efficacious, their vocation becomes something totally different. By immersing themselves in silence and prayer, they contribute countless graces to the world around them. The world cannot understand why someone would choose to spend his life alone, but the Carthusian monk is never alone; he has the company of God all his days.

Go see Into Great Silence. It may not make you want to drop everything and join the Carthusians; I certainly don’t have that vocation. But, it will give you a new appreciation for what we miss in our pointlessly busy existence.

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