Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Into Great Silence

Silence, and what is heard therein, has been a powerful theme for me recently. Last week, my wife and I watched Philip Groning’s sublime film Into Great Silence which draws the viewer into the daily lives of the Carthusian monks of the Grande Chartreuse in the French Alps. Then this weekend I participated in a 24-hour silent retreat with some men in my church.

The film itself was wonderful, and I can hardly do it justice here. This is a synopsis I found at Rotten Tomatoes that I think accurately describes the experience:
Into Great Silence fits neatly into the sub-category of films that need to be experienced rather than just watched. Over 162 minutes director Philip Groening films a group of monks who dwell in the Carthusian monastery of the Grande Chartreuse in the French Alps. The monks have taken a vow of silence, and live life at such a gentile pace that it took them 13 years to respond to Groening's request to make a film about them. The subjects of Groening's film fill their days with slow and highly repetitive routines, so the director shoots at a suitably slow pace, highlighting simple tasks such as praying, gardening, cooking, and doing laundry. Groening lived with the monks for four months and worked under strict conditions dictated to him by the order; no voiceover, music, or interviews were to be included in the film, and Groening was to be the sole crew member on the shoot. There are a couple of moments when Groening breaks with his modus operandi. He interviews an elderly blind monk, the Gregorian Chants practiced by the order occasionally feature, and the monks stage a snowball fight on one of their weekly breaks from the monastery. But the film is mostly comprised of a long, lonely trip into silence, and will doubtless leave its audience members in a contemplative and restful state of mind once the journey comes to a peaceful end.
My wife was particularly affected by it, saying “I haven't watched anything less assaulting to my senses in a long time.” The silence and focus of the film brought such awareness to everything around us. Later that night I heard my pants drop to the floor as I crawled into bed, and the sound was deafening. Then out of nowhere came a strange conviction about the haphazard way that I treat the clothes that I wear.

As I entered into the retreat at a farm an hour away from the suburban neighborhood I live in, this conviction stayed with me. I found myself keenly aware that I needed to treat the things I brought along with me – warm clothes, pen and ink, a journal, my Bible – with respect, reverence, and love. I’m a fairly messy person, and have never thought it anything more than temperament, but in the silence I felt called to love the gifts God has placed in my hands.

There’s this thing about silence – it isn’t. There are a thousand sounds I don’t normally hear for my own voice. There is the tumultuous chaos of my own mind that will not stop. Silence is a discipline, and I am certainly a novice.

There were moments that amazed me, walking around the farmland: looking out onto a beautiful field surrounded by trees alight with the fireworks of fall; stooping to examine a fallen leaf and its intricacies; knowing through my own study of biology a piece of how deep the wonder goes in just one cell of that leaf; gasping at the knowledge that this little leaf is one of the billions rustling all around me.

It makes me grateful for the many years of art lessons I took. Drawing is, after all, necessarily an act of appreciation of the other. You have to look at something – a leaf perhaps – and study it for hours, as you painstakingly sketch each detail, each crevice, each highlight and shadow. I never thought of it quite like that, but art is very naturally a spiritual discipline – a school of love.

Eating communal meals together was fascinating. It’s a sacramental thing I suppose – how love embodied in care for material things spills over into love for people. Each taste and sip was done with care, and attention. You couldn’t ask verbally for someone to pass the salt, but what inevitably happened was a heightened sense of the needs of those around you. Afterward we all talked of the constant acts of courtesy and consideration throughout our time together – things of which we would have quickly said “oh no, don’t worry about it” had we only permission to speak. Instead, we had to allow ourselves to receive grace.

The meditation this weekend was Jesus’ healing of the man born blind with dust and spittle. He came to judge the world – to make the blind see and to blind those who think they can see. Or perhaps to mute those who would speak, and in so doing give them ears to hear. I went wanting to hear from God, and not really knowing what that would mean. And I returned not having a word from him, but instead a conviction to continue listening.

And so I was resolved. I returned home determined to bring this newfound intentionality into my own daily life. That evening I was especially determined to help my wife have some space with the kids. But then I was hit with nausea and a splitting headache, and all these intentions went out the window. Today at work was simply more of the same routine. The hectic pace of life drowns out listening, and to a large extent love.

This wonder mixed with helplessness reminded me of this poem by Galway Kinnell that captures it all – silence, wonder, and the frustration of our inability to love as we should in the harsh realities of life.
To Christ Our Lord

The legs of the elk punctured the snow’s crust and wolves floated lightfooted on the land hunting Christmas elk living and frozen; inside snow melted in a basin, and a woman basted a bird spread over coals by its wings and head.

Snow had sealed the windows; candles lit the Christmas meal. The Christmas grace chilled the cooked bird, being long-winded and the room cold. During the words a boy thought, is it fitting to eat this creature killed on the wing?

He had killed it himself, climbing out alone on snowshoes in the Christmas dawn, the fallen snow swirling and the snowfall gone, heard its throat scream as the gunshot scattered, watched it drop, and fished from the snow the dead.

He had not wanted to shoot. The sound of wings beating into the hushed air had stirred his love, and his fingers froze in his gloves, and he wondered, famishing, could he fire? Then he fired.

Now the grace praised his wicked act. At its end the bird on the plate stared at his stricken appetite. There had been nothing to do but surrender, to kill and to eat; he ate as he had killed, with wonder.

At night on snowshoes on the drifting field he wondered again, for whom had love stirred? The stars glittered on the snow and nothing answered. Then the Swan spread her wings, cross of the cold north, the pattern and mirror of the acts of earth.
His grace is sufficient for us.

I believe I saw this on Netflix's "watch it now" system. I'll have to double check.

I also go to silent retreats from time to time. Although rather from a buddhist point of view. But it feels so good to be quiet.

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