Into Great Silence

A Movie for a Quarantine Evening

Like many people I know during this time of Covid, I have chosen to stay at home more than normal and to connect with friends and family through technology rather than in person. While I look forward to a time when gatherings and parties can once again take place without the shadow of pandemic hanging over them, I have found reasons to appreciate this unexpected social hiatus. I’ve finished a manuscript. I’ve begun a new one. I’ve had extra time for reading books, listening to music and podcasts, and streaming videos and movies. I’ve had time to slow down and soak up some things I doubt I would have had the patience for back in February.

Carthusian Cell
A replica of a cell in the Grand Chartreuse monastery

Here’s an example. I never would have found the time to watch Into Great Silence, a film I’ve known about for several years. This documentary explores life inside the Grand Chartreuse, a Carthusian monastery near Grenoble in the French Alps. I visited the monastery years back and learned about the silent, contemplative lives of its inhabitants at its visitor center and museum. Tourists aren’t permitted inside the community itself, but a replica cell provides a virtual glimpse of a Carthusian’s living quarters.

The Carthusians are responsible for providing the world with Chartreuse, the famous herbal liqueur with a color so distinctive it bears the same name. They long ago delegated the manufacture and distribution of Chartreuse to others, but the monks alone know the secret recipe. The global popularity of their liqueur means that the Carthusians are collectively very wealthy. Individually, however, they take vows of poverty.

Carthusian monks are contemplatives, meaning that they spend most of their waking hours in prayer and meditation. They are idiorhythmic, meaning that they don’t even eat together. While they do assemble for church services, and they do allow themselves occasional days for recreation, for the most part, they spend their lives in what might be described as voluntary quarantine.

Into Great Silence, the film that documentarian Philip Gröning was finally allowed to make after seeking permission for sixteen years, was released in 2007. It’s now available through Kanopy, the streaming service supported by public libraries and universities. When I discovered I could stream the film using my library card, I knew I would never have a better chance to get a peek inside the Grand Chartreuse and at the men who call it home.

Gröning lived in the Grand Chartreuse for six months in 2002 and 2003. He filmed by himself, using only natural light. He then spent nearly three years editing what became a finished movie nearly three hours in length. While a few subtitles provide some information, there is no spoken commentary, and there are no added sound effects.

And of course, there’s no plot. The only hint of story arc comes from images of snowy winter slowly giving way to an achingly beautiful alpine spring. I was riveted for the first twenty minutes. I felt like a voyeur looking into a private and alien world. Then, about half an hour in, I started feeling just a tiny bit bored. An hour in, I was fidgety bored. Another fifteen minutes, and I grabbed my phone. I kept watching, though, and soon I set my phone aside. I found myself unexpectedly re-mesmerized by the patient dedication of the monks to the repetitive quiet practice they had chosen for their lives. The second half of the film flew by, while at the same time feeling endless.

Rather than telling me what life is like inside the Grand Chartreuse, the filmmaker took me there. The film did not offer a virtual reality experience, but I think it did something even more extraordinary. It successfully drew me in to a virtual mental reality. It makes me wonder what March of the Penguins would be like with Morgan Freeman’s voice muted. Would I feel as authentically like a penguin as I did a French monk?

Perhaps that’s a question to be answered some other quarantine evening. In the meantime, I’m grateful to have had the time and opportunity to get a tiny taste of the contemplative life the Carthusians have been espousing for nearly a millennium. Into Great Silence is a unique reminder of the benefits to be derived from shutting up, slowing down, and staying the course.

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