Sunday, June 10, 2007

Visualizing the Heart of Contemplative Monastic Life

Philip Groning's Film

Into Great Silence

Feast for the Eyes


Balm for the Soul

An experience can be 'made' in the waiting or destroyed by inflated anticipation. In speaking of the film Into Great Silence, the period of long expectation, hearing the reactions of others and reading reviews did nothing to lessen enjoyment of the experience and the impact of its images. I am not qualified to comment on the technical achievements of the film nor do I wish to spoil the experience of seeing it by offering too many specifics concerning details and images that remain with me so powerfully. However, I do want to share my reaction and give my hearty recommendation.

Our community of contemplative nuns does not, in any way, live the austere style of hermit life within community for which the Carthusians are known. Theirs is a most ascetic life, which is lived within the monastic collective, but with each day spent almost exclusively within the confines of one's cell (a small 'apartment' of rooms with a garden) devoted to prayer, meditation, work, study and rest. The monastery of the Grande Chartreuse is a huge medieval appearing complex perched on a mountainside in eastern France. Because we interpret and live our rules of enclosure in a different manner, five of us were able to go to a local cinema to see the film on the big screen. This is not typical for us at all. We approached this film as a source of spiritual enrichment, as a mediation on the values that lie at the heart of the life embraced by Christian contemplative monks and nuns all over world and their counterparts in every major religious tradition.

That is exactly what the gifted and patient Philip Groning provided for those who see his film. It was an experience, I believe, very much enhanced by viewing it on a large screen which paid fitting homage to spectacular panoramas of mountains and sky. Sitting in the dark silence of the theater provided the ambiance of setting and tone conducive to entering into such a contemplative meditation. It is testimony to the magnetism of the film that its extreme length, a necessary feature communicating the call to perseverance for a lifetime, is quickly forgotten as one is completely drawn into the pace, the visuals and the portent of the documentary. And, oddly enough in our age of extreme bombardment by sound of every kind, the silence is soon appreciated as gift - less interference with the message.

The message at hand is the mystery that lies at the heart of such a life - total, utter, exclusive surrender to the presence of God. If this film were one's only source of solid information about the Carthusian way of life, the viewer would remain quite ignorant. The film does not indicate how many times a day they pray together or alone; how the house is run; how assignments are made; who can come and who can go; whether or not they attend Mass every day; how they elect their abbot. Although the film visually carries the viewer from one winter through the year to the next winter, it gives no account of the events of the Liturgical Year. The only rituals observed are the Communion part of a Mass and a procession with adoration of the Blessed Sacrament for the Feast of Corpus Christi. It may be that Groning saw these as merely externals which do not speak of the nature of the contemplative imperative within the individual. It was this matter of the heart, this mystery that his images communicated. In this he succeeds totally. Visualized in image, repetition, composition, occasional sound and brief interspersed quotes from scripture and spiritual works is the heart of the matter - utter devotion to a life of being present to God, simplicity in all things, and surrender to God's will in loving charity. How one 'does' this is not the point. The Carthusians do it this way. We Redemptoristines do it another way. The Carmelites and the Trappists in still other ways, each to their own charismatic insight, emphasizing solitude here, or silence there, or, for some, community life as the locus for individual transformation. But, in the heart, lie the same values, the same interior movement, the same desire for God, the same effort, although differently expressed, to become 'walled about by God.'

I found the movie to be a visual feast for the eyes; sometimes one Renaissance or Dutch master's rendering of a scene after the other; sometimes an elongated impressionist image moving and changing shape before the eyes; a newly washed tin plate leaning against a stone wall dripping rinse water one slow drop at a time or the play of raindrops on the surface of a pool of water creating a multitude of endless and unique rippled patterns.

Enough words! After all, there a few words in the film. I will close with one of the quotations periodically appearing across the screen in the film.

You shall seek me and because you seek me with all your heart, I will let myself be found.

1 comment:

Barbara said...

A very contemplative and intelligent review. It makes me want to see the film over again. Thank you for these reflections that will make my second viewing all the richer.