The film Into Great Silence was released in 2005/06. It doesn’t feel that long since I saw it! It was a wonderful experience. It is a silent (apart from natural sounds) film about the lives of the Carthusian monks of the Grand Chartreuse monastery in the French Alps.
It is not so much a documentary as an attempt to capture the lived spiritual experience of the monks allowing us to enter into their experience of silence.
It was an unexpected hit, winning awards and the cinemas were packed. The one I saw it in was full for every showing over three days.
Now another film on a similar theme has been released. 'No Greater Love' . This is a documentary about the lives of a community of enclosed contemplative nuns at the Carmelite Monastery of The Most Holy Trinity, Notting Hill, London. I was fortunate enough to see it yesterday.
The Carmelites gave us St John of the Cross, St Teresa of Avila, and St Therese of Lisieux. Three of the greatest. Also, Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity, St Edith Stein, St Teresa de los Andes. So it’s well worth while meeting some 21st Century Carmelites even if only through the medium of film.
At first sight the film looks like a poor copycat of ‘Into Great Silence’. The cinema was nearly empty! But I think this is a little misleading. The two films seem to be doing different things and have different insights to offer.
‘Into Great Silence’ was very successful at providing an experience of contemplative prayer and worship. The atmosphere in the cinema was deep and profound. People were still and silent for nearly three hours.
‘No Greater Love’ was more an attempt to understand the motives and lives of the nuns, and had more spoken interviews with the nuns. Not so much an attempt to draw us into the experience of contemplative prayer as an attempt to explain their lives and the reasons why they live this way. To let us meet them as people. The experience wasn't one of prayer and transcendence.
The nuns spoke very openly and movingly about their spiritual lives. In particular they spoke about the phenomenon whereby on entry into, or at some point in the religious life, all experience of God in prayer, all feeling for and about God disappears, He seems absent, almost non-existent. The religious life itself seems pointless. It is the ‘dark night of the soul’ described by John of the Cross and by Therese of Lisieux. For the Prioress this lasted for about 18 years.
How did she get through it? By keeping very busy she said.
Her reason for wanting to enter the religious life, especially an enclosed order, was in order to give everything to God. It seemed to her to be the ultimate challenge. Seeing the roll call of Carmelite saints they certainly would be a hard act to follow!
Jesus said “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” John 15:12-13
We saw the nuns doing a lot of mundane ordinary daily tasks, the sorts of things we all do, cleaning, cooking, working, shopping, gardening, caring for their frail elderly sisters.
The impact of ‘Into Great Silence’ was immediate. ‘No Greater Love’ has taken more time for me.
I think that ‘No Greater Love’ has given me more ideas to apply in my daily life. We tend to think that we want what these monks and nuns have got, and then decide that of course, it is all right for them in their monasteries and convents, but we can’t live that sort of life.
‘Into Great Silence’ rather encouraged this feeling. Their physical lives seemed hardly to have changed since their foundation in the 11th Century. They live in a remote, ancient building. It was another world. We saw the monks doing ordinary things, cooking, gardening, sewing, having haircuts, but somehow it all seemed rather exotic and remote. The Grand Chartreuse invented and manufactures the famous liqueur, but we didn’t see any of this work.
The convent in London was founded in the late 19th Century. It is in the middle of a major world capital. They shop online at Sainsbury’s. We saw them doing the work that earns them their living, making altar breads. Somehow, it seemed more relevant to our ordinary lives. It seemed possible to acquire something of what they had.
Perhaps we are not all called to lay down our lives for our Lord in quite that way. But surely we can all, if we are honest, find more time for prayer, silence, solitude and simplicity in our lives, if that is what we want.
No one forces us to watch television, listen to the radio, have our ipods, iphones etc permanently switched on, surf the net…… No-one forces us (mostly!) to be permanently too busy. Or to try to do several things at the same time. As the Prioress pointed out, busyness is a wonderful means of distraction from the demands of prayer and the spiritual life.
But perhaps the key to this is that what they have is to be found most especially in prayerful attention to manual tasks and our relationships. The friend I was with was especially struck by the tender care given to the elderly sisters.
The thought that has been occurring to me since is that the spiritual life is not something apart from our daily tasks and lives. It is part of them and to be found in them. Through these are made visible the fruits of our prayer. Heaven in Ordinary Not original, but something perhaps I needed to be reminded of.
John Keble had it right in his hymn, New Every Morning is the Love . One day at a time.
And perhaps Therese of Lisieux, she of the Little Way should have the last word.