The NRO Reviews Film on the Monastic Life
Thomas Hibbs describes this DVD on the monastic life which won a prize at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival. Hibbs says praises it for reacquainting us with the world of silence:
Slogans urging us to “keep Christ in Christmas,” or “recall the reason for the season,” sound about as hollow as the Christmas jingles that reverberate in our ears every time we enter a store. Those in search of an antidote might consider watching the newly released DVD Into Great Silence, Philip Groening’s movingly observed study of the daily lives of Carthusian monks at La Grande Chartreuse, founded in the French Alps in 1084.
What do we find in the quiet? While laid low by the flu last week I had the opportunity to reacquaint myself with the Christ story, and rediscover it -- as it were -- almost after I had forgotten it from familiarity. I have often wondered what went through the minds of becalmed sailors in the age when wind, not motors, drove vessels forward; of what happens in those silences. We certainly have a record of what happened to Ignatius of Loyola during the nine months he spent recovering from a cannonball that smashed his leg. And thinking on it, I've come to conclude that while quiet is sometimes a useful circumstance, it is by no means a sufficient condition for the process of retaking one's life. It is what comes in the quiet and not the quiet itself that's important.
Despite the accolades of the Sundance Festival, physical silence is nothing in and of itself. Silence is often regarded as inhuman. For example, Amnesty International calls solitary confinement at Guantanamo Bay a human rights violation. Those who are familiar with the various monastic and hermetical traditions must ask themselves, what makes of silence either a punishment or a place of discovery?
I've not sure that either the circumstance of having to listen to Christmas jingles at a crowded mall nor the process of being alone in a cell in Guantanamo are absolute determinants of human freedom. The circumstances are important to be sure, but it is the "something else" that makes the difference. Thomas Merton may have put it best:
Let me keep silence in this world, except in so far as God wills and in the way He wills it. Let me at least disappear into the writing I do. It should mean nothing special to me, nor harm my recollection. The work could be a prayer: its results should not concern me.
What did Merton mean by that? Unfortunately the only way to find out is to go in after him, through the portal of the world's laughter or the door of silence.