By Susan Becker, RDC
In 1988, the German film maker, Philip Gröning, approached the abbot of a Carthusian monastery in the Alps with an idea for a film. His goal? To capture the essence of the life of these monks, considered the most austere group in the Catholic Church. Sixteen years later, he was granted access and produced the 164-minute film entitled “Into Great Silence.”
What is striking about the film is the utter simplicity of it. Nothing is scripted. The storyboard is daily life as it unfolds. There are no props, no special lighting, no staging. The sounds are the ambience of the place. The flap of sandals on the stone floor. Running water. The scrape of a potato peeler. A cough. Outside of communal prayer, the spoken word is heard once a week for a few hours or in response to the film director’s questions about the “why” of the men’s choice of this life.
The result was so stunning that it grabbed the attention of the critics and ordinary viewers around the globe. One reviewer seemed to sum up the film’s fascination: “This film creates silence. Not just absence of noise, but inner stillness” (decentfilms.com/reviews/intogreatsilence). It invites the viewer into the quiet present of life with no cell phones, traffic noise, iPods, or casual conversations.
I think the appeal of the film has to do with a universal yearning for what it holds out to us. We all have our own version of what it is that we seek in stillness: peace, quiet, creativity, God, Self, emptiness, connection with the earth, Ultimate Reality, Nirvana, Enlightenment.
Practices that once lived somewhere in the margins and were the territory of spiritual and religious seekers (or in the opinion of some, the truly weird!) have found a home in the main stream. Google “Meditation Westchester, NY” and you get 380,000 sites; “Yoga Westchester, NY”, over 1 million. Topics that were once relegated to spiritual journals now show up regularly in the popular press. In a New York Times piece, The Joy of Quiet, Pico Iyer notes that genuine solitude can take us to the kind of happiness that doesn’t depend on what happens. It can bring us to joy. (NYT Dec. 29, 2011)
The updated version of Timothy Leary’s 1967 “turn on, tune in, drop out," might be “turn off, tune out, drop off line.” Unfortunately this doesn’t simply appear in my day. Only when I am able to carve out a time of intentional silence do I realize how toxic the noise in my life can get. This silence is where I have the best chance of discovering who I am and what I desire; of who God is for me and what God’s deepest desires are for my life.
This silence is not the silence of escape; when it becomes that, we’ve probably waited too long. It’s not the silence of predictability or necessarily comfort. On the contrary, being still takes courage. Finally, it’s not something I can feast on for a week and then walk away from for a year. Like a nourishing meal, this silence needs to become an essential component of my daily life, so that when I skip it, I’ll feel the hunger. Then I’ll attend to it, take delight in it, and recognize it for the gift that it is.
A reflection on Psalm 46:10 might say it all.
Be still and know that I am God
Be still and know that I am.
Be still and know.