Into Great Silence

Guest ColumnistCommunity News

by Kelly Soifer

I subscribe to The New Yorker magazine. As a former English major, I luxuriate in its long, usually well-written and creative articles whose observations on the world are quite astute. While I may not line up with the viewpoints of some of its authors at times, I enjoy seeing life articulately expressed from another perspective.

In an issue this past April, I was intrigued by a brief review of a movie titled Into Great Silence that probably only showed in art house theaters in the largest cities. As the review states, large numbers of New Yorkers were taken by

the runaway success of a nearly three-hour documentary, by the German filmmaker Philip Gröning, about Carthusian monks, titled Into Great Silence. Gröning spent five months at the Grande Chartreuse, a monastery in the French Alps. Because Carthusians obey a rule against speaking (apart from chants, meetings with superiors, a few hours of casual conversation every Monday, and emergencies), interviews were out of the question. Most of the film consists of wordless shots of monks being monks — watering their gardens, preparing meals, praying in solitude, praying in groups. Originally scheduled for a two-week run, the film has been extended indefinitely.

I visit New York at least once a year because I adore my niece and nephew, ages 7 and 9 respectively, and my brother and his family live twenty minutes outside of the city. I cannot see them enough. During these annual visits I take at least one day away and go into New York City alone. In the city, I go to church at Redeemer Presbyterian Church (which merits another article entirely – Tim Keller’s preaching is not to be missed!) and then do a variety of things: take in a show, visit a museum, shop in Union Square, walk through Times Square and act like a tourist, visit Rockefeller Center (possibly purchasing useless items related to the show The Office…), eat some food from sidewalk vendors, take the subway, etc. I prefer to live in sleepy Santa Barbara, but I do like to visit the big cities occasionally.

These yearly visits to New York have made me aware enough of the New Yorker mindset that I could not FATHOM how they would flock to a 3-hour movie about silence and God! The movie reviewer, Michael Schulman, commented on how New Yorkers were drawn to the oasis of silence that the movie provided. Later, upon visiting the theater, one of the employees further commented to Mr. Schulman that the movie was ridiculously popular, and that the previous day they turned away 100 people!

Viewers expressed a desire to better understand the monks in the movie, so the movie theater recruited a former Carthusian monk to be available for Q & A after screenings of the film. (It seems rather humorous to me that people needed to talk about silence! But it makes more sense when you know what most New Yorkers are like.) For the movie review in The New Yorker, Mr. Schulman interviewed this monk, Fr. Michael Holleran. In commenting on the noise of New York City, especially in comparison to his seven years at the Grande Chartreuse and twelve years at another monastery in Vermont, Fr. Holleran said, The drive seems to be to make things louder and louder. People are becoming desensitized to the tiny natural sounds that are around them all the time. Sound doesn’t have to be loud to be exciting.

I agree. In the last few months I have developed a new discipline that I want to make a lifelong habit – I try to go ‘off the grid’ once a week on my Sabbath day. I turn off my computer, which prevents me from checking email and going onto the internet. I also put my cell phone on silent. I realize that my life has become so noisy and over-stimulated that I have found the best way to truly rest is to unplug from my connectedness to the world. Through this new habit, I have seen all too clearly my addiction to email and the internet. I have also noted a tendency to opt for a few minutes of reading various things or just plain surfing on the internet rather than sit down with a good book, listen to some music, or go outside. I’ve also gotten used to doing more than one thing at a time (the infamous multitasking). All of this results in keeping very occupied, internally and externally.

As Eugene Peterson says in Working the Angles about Sabbath-keeping, Sabbath is

Uncluttered time and space to distance ourselves from the frenzy of our own activities so we can see what God has been and is doing. If we do not regularly quit work for one day a week we take ourselves far too seriously… [We need to] separate ourselves from the routines to which we are clinging for our identity, and offering them all up to God in praise.

I make it my goal to even get a little bored on my Sabbath – in other words, to make sure I don’t have a lot to do on a day of rest. As Peterson says later, Sabbath is not a day to get anything done but a day to watch and be responsive to what God has done.

I think this sort of peace and quiet is something all people are drawn to, whether we believe in God or not. When asked what her prediction for 2008 was in terms of trends, political commentator Arianna Huffington said, The next big thing will be people wanting to disconnect. She then remarked on how 2007 was the year of getting connected, through exponential growth in wireless internet, Blackberry usage, iPhones, etc. People are longing to… connect with themselves, she said. Which is, in my mind, a secular way of describing our fundamental, God-given need for Sabbath!

Both Arianna Huffington and Into Great Silence express the desperate human need for peace – primarily the internal kind. As a follower of Jesus, I take him seriously when he says, Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. (John 14:27) Only Jesus gives us true peace, the healing shalom we crave. This is good news we should be sharing with our friends who do not know Jesus. But to do that, we must know it for ourselves, don’t you think?

I made a mental note after I read the review, and ended up asking for the DVD for Christmas. I recently viewed it during the holiday. I must say, it defies description. It makes you realize how noisy other movies are, full of dialogue and car crashes and soundtrack music. If you put this movie on your Netflix queue, make sure you adequately carve out the time to watch it. Turn off the phones, select a time when you don’t think others will come by, and if you’re a parent of young ones, put your kids to bed first (although I’m not sure most parents can stay up for 3 hours after they put their kids to bed!).

Much of the photography in the film is like pondering photos by Ansel Adams, or even viewing impressionistic paintings. I already know I want to watch it again soon. And I am left with so many questions! I wish I could know what prompted each monk in the film to choose this life of arduous asceticism and silence. But like all those crazy New Yorkers, I too was drawn into the beauty and quiet and tiny natural sounds portrayed in the film, things I habitually neglect. I certainly don’t want to take vows of silence and move to a remote (albeit breathtakingly picturesque) monastery. But I do want to heed God’s weekly call to rest, to simply stop and be, to make sure, as Peterson says, that I do not take myself too seriously. Will you join me?