About two weeks ago I finally watched my copy of “Into Great Silence”, a documentary about monks in the Grande Chartreuse monastery, up in the French Alps. (The monastery was founded in 1084!)
Here is a quote from film maker Philip Groening about the regimen of silence in the monastery:
“The monks have avowed almost total silence, interrupted only by what one of them called ‘the terror of the bell’. ‘Once you accept the fact that when the bell rings – you just don’t think about it – you just get up and go and do whatever that bell requires you to do, then, every moment that you have is a pretty permanently present moment,’ he says. ‘You don’t have to sort of plan, like ‘What do I do in two years? Where do I want my career to be in 15 years?’ And the absence of language makes something – the moment itself becomes very, very strong.’”
As Wikipedia points out, “The film has neither commentary nor sound effects added, consisting only of images and sounds of the rhythm of monastic life.” In an interview, Groening was asked: “Why did you decide against any voice-over commentaries?”
His reply was:
“You cannot use language to describe a world that revolves so far beyond the realm of language. The monks endeavor to deepen their understanding of things. I can only hope that the viewer also experiences something like this. But this obviously cannot function if I immediately offer explanations to everything that he (sic) sees. It was also clear to me that this was also going to be a film about seeing things and listening to things precisely. … Through the editing, the viewer is left to make out for himself (sic) what he sees and hears, when it is light, when it is dark. . . .
It is a quiet film, but not a silent film. The soundtrack is really exciting. You start to hear things differently in the monastery. And to see things differently. Through the silence, objects become your counterpart, such as the buttons for the tailor, for example.” (interview with director, Philip Groning)
Watching the film is mesmerizing and difficult. Part way in I got very fidgety, missing the norms of films: sound effects, and a voice-over narrator. But then I got used to it and began to wonder at such a life. What would it be like to live this way, to immerse oneself in silence, in meditation, in reading, in thinking? There are many portrait shots of the monks interspersed throughout the film. These portraits are soothing – gentle, motionless faces, no talking, just these men looking at the camera.
The only sounds in the film are the bells and the singing. The monks gather in the chapel, drawn together by the ringing of a bell. The bells define their day and their night. (This link provides a better sense of the role of bells in a monastery .) IN the chapel, the monks sing Gregorian chant, from music books that look incredibly old. The notes are those square notes (neumes?) of the early days of musical notation, and they sing, still, in monophony. (You can buy the recordings of their singing at iTunes, of course, where you can buy most things.) Or you can listen to some of it here.
Matthew Arnold, one the great Victorian poets, wrote his poem, “Stanzas from Grande Chartreuse” while staying at this very monastery. In the poem he addresses the struggle between religion and science, faith and logic, a struggle that continues today. (See here for a longer interpretation of the poem.)
This clip on YouTube will give you a sense of the movie, the life, and the singing (near the end of the clip)