Loving Thy Neighbour: Out of Great Silence?


Foto07I’ve just returned from seeing Into Great Silence – a documentary by Philip Gröning about the Grande Chartreuse monastery, one of the most aescetic in the world.

I am a huge documentary fan, and this is a truly wonderful film. The mix of HD digital and Super 8 footage, the all-natural light, with no crew allowed, and no commentary and no soundtrack… It really immerses you in the life of the monks, just as Gröning did himself, having been granted permission to film 16 years after his first request.

It is a long film – and one always has to forgive documentary makers for this given that they really only get one shot at it. Another film will not be made here for perhaps another 50 years, so it deserves our long attention.

The length also forces one to reflect on the subject. You wait, longing for some sound, some speech, some contact. But none comes. No explanation. Little information. Bells ring at constant intervals, and prayers are read in the dark. The Lux Perpetua flickers on. I came out wondering how anyone could possibly live like that, the film, beautiful though it is, frustrating and confounding…

On emerging, the sounds around took on a new crispness. Though silence is central to their lives, it is vocal only: sounds dominate the film really, and one appreciates this when leaving. But as I travelled home, I found myself in profound disagreement with the monks too. They have travelled ‘into great silence’, but I fear that in doing so they may have travelled far from God’s intentions.

Jesus spent time in the desert, but only to prepare for time ministering to ‘the other’. Periods of retreat are surely good, but a whole life enclosed in a cell? I’m not convinced. (If their lives are somehow to service other people’s retreats the film makes no mention of this) The other thing that strikes you about the film is the total lack of any female presence. I can only think that the separation of the sexes is somehow designed to suppress sexuality, and again I think this is something Christianity has got very wrong. The film aches with beauty: these men who have given so much up to pursue God… but in a way it is the archetype of the heroic man, rather than the destruction of the ego in the service of the other.

So I’m not tempted to join them. Rather, I’m really enjoying reading John Main’s ‘The Monastery without Walls‘ – a book trying to bring the spirit of the monastic into normal life, where silence can be sought, but found only temporally before we return to the great noise that is the city we serve. Highly recommended.


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3 responses to “Loving Thy Neighbour: Out of Great Silence?”

  1. Some intersting thoughts on monastic life. I think i would feel the same disagreement as you. Tomorrow a friend and I are helping to teach a class on piety and practice and one of our resolves or convictions is that monsatic life and mission should flow together. That the purgative, illuminative, and unitive movements of classic mysticism should see the missio dei as the central nature of the Trinity and thus send us outward as we unite with God in both realtionship and purpose. I think the reemergence of monasticism in contemporary culture may in some way cater to the temptation of esacapism and personal bliss without missional responsability…if that’s the case, i think there is someting missing.
    thanks for the post and your book looks interesting.
    grace and peace,

  2. Does everyone have to do everything? Is it not possible that these monks are serving others by showing a specific form of life, pointing out by their practice various ways to remove some well-known distractions from everyday life? I can imagine them replying, with surprise, “of course we don’t expect you to live as we do unless you’re called to” Why would you think that in taking up their rule and mode of life they are implicitly saying this is the way everyone should live?

  3. You’re right, Peter – not everyone has to do everything, and there is nothing in their rule to suggest that everyone ought to do as they do.
    However, I think two things still trouble me. Firstly the issue of a whole life in the cloister. The time spent ‘apart’ ought to be in preparation for time spent serving ‘the other’. I just don’t think it’s right for people to disappear into contemplation without matching it with mission.
    Secondly, who’s paying for this life they lead? I think this raises serious issues. If it is, for example, a local community, or a wider fund, what are people paying for? Someone to pray on their behalf?
    By ‘love your neighbour’ I think could we surmise Jesus probably intended us to serve them, and not cost them a packet?