In a rush of a possibly naïve attempt at personal growth, I stumbled on the documentary “Into Great Silence” about monastic life inside of Grande Chartreuse. It follows the lives of Carthusian monks in the French Alps. Here’s the kicker; they have taken a vow of silence. There is almost no speaking. No background music. No commentary. (Think feet shuffling, creaking floors, and the quiet that accompanies no cars, no airplanes, no sirens…)
It took 16 years to get permission to film it and even then, only the director was allowed to film. He used no artificial light. I thought that I would learn about the “Great Silence.” I didn’t expect to experience the great silence.
In my defense, it wasn’t like I’ve only watched Law and Order and West Wing.
I’ve tackled books on faith, spirit, the Tao Te Ching, compassion, the Amish, trials, prayer, meditation, the Quakers, the Mormons, solitude, forgiveness, love, fearlessness, grace, dharma, Buddhism, inner peace, grace, enlightenment, atonement and the Holy Ghost among other things.
I’ve read a handful of books about the lives of nuns (Unveiled: The Hidden Lives of Nuns and Stalking the Divine) and priests as well as Buddhist monks. I have read books on silence as well (Holy Silence: The Gift of Quaker Spirituality and Dialogues with Silence: Prayers and Drawings.)
I felt prepared to watch “Into Great Silence,” to learn about monks, to get a monastic fix without having to actually take vows. I hoped to siphon a bit of spiritual deepening by watching others. Truthfully, I hoped to learn something.
And I did.
Here is the truth:
My brain is chaos.
I have the attention span of a fruit fly.
I could not sit still. 8 minutes into the film and I am jumping out of my skin.
Beautiful, rich, deep bells echoing over a snowy mountainside
More snow? Am I really sitting here watching it SNOW????
A monk in creamy thick robes, kneeling and still in prayer.
Could they cut this to get to the next part? What is he praying about? Do his knees hurt? (insert 100 questions I have but will not be answered because I am quickly realizing that this is not just going to be about “great silence” but is going to actually BE silent.
A single, small candle in an ocean of black. On my computer screen it is the size of an eraser head.
How long is this going to go on? I wonder if there is anything else to watch on Amazon Prime? How am I supposed to learn anything if they don’t tell me what I need to know??
The monks are singing. Their voices echo in foggy complements of each other.
Ok. That’s nice. Singing monks. I like this.
14 minutes into the movie. It is 162 minutes long.
Here is where the learning happened. It occurred to me that my reaction to this movie—which was delivering exactly what its title said by the way—was an indication of my monkey mind. The swinging monkey that flung itself across the bars of my brain, from one reckless thought to another. That undisciplined, inattentive, spiritually immature monkey.
What does that say about ME?
My mind looked to check email, learn interesting facts about the monks, find out the weather tomorrow and check to see if there would be a movie on later. Anything but sit quietly and be with the monks. Anything but slow my pace. Anything to not reflect on how much I was totally lacking in the qualities I saw before me on the screen.
Prayerfulness and meditation.
Attentiveness to the task at hand and only the task at hand.
The importance of consistent spiritual practice, rather than occasional or spiritual practice that is an after-thought.
I’m 84 minutes in and only now am I starting to appreciate these guys.
So I’ve decided to stop writing and actually watch. Just watch. Not watch and do something else.
Let’s see how it feels.