Genuine contemplative practices are difficult to describe with words. Director Philip Gröning captures the ineffable experience of daily monastic life by letting it speak without words for itself in Into Great Silence. It took him sixteen years to get permission to spend six months filming inside a nearly thousand-year old monastery in the French Alps. We were fortunate for the opportunity to see the documentary over the past weekend at the Wexner Center for the Arts.
The rhythms and repetition of the monastic routine whispered its secret: there is far too much noise and confusion in our contemporary lives. I have learned from direct experience that there is deep satisfaction gained from giving up talking, eye contact, news, weather reports, cell phones, television, movies, the Internet, and email even for a few days at a time. We assume that great simplicity results in intense boredom and can be surprised to discover the opposite. Iimagine the possibilities of developing an ability to be fascinated by boredom and completely absorbed in it.
Just as in meditation practice, not every sitting period can be overflowing with bliss. Impatience and even boredom provide their own lessons. I have sat countless times waiting and pleading for someone to strike a bell to release me from the exponential expansion of discomfort during a long period of meditation. At times during this 162 minute film, I found myself wanting it to end. But that seems to be one aspect of this film's brilliance, its ability to convey so much without handing us explanations, analysis, background, or biography.
What a rare and generous gift: to glimpse the quiet insights acquired by those who give up everything in order to discover them before drifting back out into the noise we've surrounded ourselves with like a threadbare security blanket, wondering what it is in life that truly brings happiness.
I read somewhere recently that renunciation is not so much about relinquishing ownership of personal possessions as it is about profoundly embracing the reality that everything is impermanent.
- "Sh-h-h," by Michael Schulman, The New Yorker, April 16, 2007
- "Director Philip Gröning Discusses Life at the Grande Chartreuse Monastery," by Steven Greydanus, Catholic World Report