In the words of Beyonce, “If I were a boy, I’d want to be a Monk…”
Ok, so those weren’t her exact words, they were mine. And not that I really do want to be a boy, or that I’m unhappy being a girl, but if I had to be a boy, I think I’d be happy as a Carthusian monk.
Have you watched Into Great Silence? (I think I’ve written about it before, and I would look into it except that, in Cordon Bleu parlance, is known as “une distraction” and as I’ve got rice on the stove, and also because I’ve burned too many pots and pans lately, and since almost anything else is more exciting than watching rice bubble away, the smallest, unshiny-est squirrel could distract me just long enough for yet another pot to bubble dry so I’ll leave it with this very long parenthetical aside and keep the research for others to do.)
So, Into great silence. I don’t want to mislead you by calling it a movie or a documentary. It is rather a visual meditation using the life of the monks of the Grande Chartreuse in the French Alps.
As a work of art Into great silence is stunning, with the backdrop of the mountains and forests and fog and the beautiful structure of the monastery itself. The director used no supplementary lighting, lending a gentle look to each scene, making the aged stones and white robes beautiful and compelling in their simplicity.
The director, Philip Groening, waited 16 years for a reply from the monks after asking if he could film them. I wonder if the wait influenced his approach to the final film, because it is a quiet, unhurried glimpse at life within those walls. The viewer, to properly appreciate it, must be as unhurried and patient to begin to appreciate this brief experience of monastic life.
Groening lived and filmed in the Charter House for 10 months. I’d so like to see the footage that didn’t make it into the final cut! As it is, I find myself wanting to direct the camera to show me what is behind that corner, what goes on upstairs, what does the garden look like in the summer, how exactly do they make the Chartreuse liqueur, what are the meals like on feast days, does the Abbot meet with other Abbots of the order, what is the training like for the novices? (There are novitiates to the order while this was filmed. We see the monks process the young men to their new cells… and then leave. What is it like to suddenly be on your own like that?) oh, and so much more! I loved seeing how they cared for the oldest monk, watching them getting hair cuts, seeing them skiing down the slopes in their shoes and hearing them laugh, listening in on a conversation during one of their communal times… and especially hearing them chant the offices.
I know a life like theirs is a distinct and very rare vocation. Without that definite call from God, a person would either whither into a dry husk of a person, or become bitter and angry. Neither outcome are healthy for the individual or the community, which is why right discernment is so important. Still, I can’t help but think that I’d love to have a little cell of my own (they are small but not actually tiny, spread over two floors. One level has their work space and wood shop (they cut and stack their own wood), and the other has their simple bed, a prayer nook, a simple work table for studying and reading, a little table for meals, and a wood stove. There is a little hutch that opens to the corridor outside, through which their box containing the daily meal is passed. Each cell opens on to a walled, individual garden, and each monk tends his own, so he has his own patch of the outdoors within his own walls.)
Not every monastery has the French Alps in its backyard with the moody drifts of fog and the gentle cling-clang of cowbells as its soundtrack. Not every monastery has such long-standing, reassuring, and glorious architecture. Those are all elements that draw me to this particular group of this particular order. As for being a monk rather than a nun, well, I’m not keen on the idea of living with only women! I’m sorry, but there it is.
I think I might pull this out and watch it again this Friday. It’s time to go into great silence.