- Preface Silence, Hope, and Fortitude
On the top of my list of films I wish to view at some point is Into Great Silence, the 2005 documentary film about the Grande Chartreuse, the head monastery of the Carthusian order. Philip Gröning, the filmmaker, had asked permission to film the Carthusians in action in 1984. The order requested time to think about it and replied promptly . . . sixteen years later. Using only natural light, Gröning spent approximately six months filming over the course of 2002 and 2003. The long editing process resulted in a 162-minute film that is meant to allow the viewer to get a sense of the life of a Carthusian monastery. It has no spoken commentary and only some biblical texts used as intertitles.
Despite its lack of car chases, sex scenes, and gross-out jokes, the film scores 88% fresh from the critics and 80% from audience reviews on the Rotten Tomatoes review-aggregation site.1 Pretty good, but it is also unsurprising to read comments on the website from viewers such as Walter M., who says that the film seems "interminable" and observes that, "At epic length, it stretches the material to the breaking point, so most of it just seems random and [End Page 5] redundant. (Some of the quotes definitely are.)" The old Adam in me would love to sniff at Walter M. about how if he were to learn anything about the patterns of liturgy and monastic life, the thing would have been more comprehensible and less interminable. But though the flesh is willing, my spirit says the reason I still haven't watched this "transcendental piece of filmmaking" (Steven Rea, Philadelphia Inquirer)—though I have gone to the trouble of special-ordering the DVD from my library system multiple times and guiltily looked at its case before returning it—is that I fear I would myself find it interminable and, in the words of "Super Reviewer" Sarah P., "really boring."
I fear that I do not have enough silence in me to watch Into Great Silence. Among the things that got me in trouble throughout childhood was a penchant for talking when I was not supposed to be talking. It's not that I could not be exteriorly silent at all. Reading or watching a movie or play were times when I did not talk, but then the sounds and the actions were coming through me. If I were not concentrating on some other words or sounds, my tendency was to make them myself. I don't think I knew that about myself (even if it had been told me numerous times by adults and even peers) until the summer between my junior and senior years in high school. On a program called SWIM (Summer Workshop in Ministry) for high school students sponsored by my denomination, I spent six weeks at a church in Kennewick, Washington. Three other students from California and I helped out with summer vacation Bible school, junior and senior high youth groups, and practicing various forms of evangelistic outreach at the mall and other public places. We even served as counselors at an evangelistic crusade done by Luis Palau, an Argentinian evangelist who moved to Portland, Oregon, in his twenties and is often considered the successor to Billy Graham. (When Jorge Bergoglio was elected pope, I found out that he was friends with Palau.)
I had no problems with all of this exterior activity, but what was very difficult for me was that much of the spiritual training in prayer [End Page 6] done by our leader, the religious education director at the church, and those whom he brought in, involved more silence than I was accustomed to. At one point, one of the guest instructors gave the teens an assignment to read some passages of scripture and then finish our tasks of the morning in complete silence.
My comfort-level with this assignment lasted somewhere between a half an hour and an hour. By the time the three hours were up and we were supposed to gather back and talk about the silence we had attempted, I simply wanted to...