Wednesday, March 7, 2007

"Into Great Silence"

Some part of my Irish Catholic soul must be attracted to the priesthood. Not that I'm religious, or a believer, or even particularly moral, God knows (if He exists). Still, I'm attracted by the practice of contemplating God, or rather its secular equivalent. If I can translate God from religion to secular philosophy according to the tenet that God is life, then contemplating God means contemplating life.

This attraction is probably the result of some foreign influence, since it is so un-American, against the cultural compulsion to DO: achieve, build, earn, consume. Or perhaps it's just a sickness, a brooding nature, an affinity for cloud nine (as my father used to tell me), in other words, a poor excuse for not DOING. Although, I must say, I DO plenty of building, achieving, consuming, never enough of course (especially earning), but plenty. Nevertheless, I'm better, happier, when I contemplate the purpose and meaning of being alive. I indulge those moments outside of everyday experience that nonetheless define everyday experience. Perhaps it's akin to a pursuit of grace.

No doubt this pursuit attracted me the other night to the west coast premier of Into Great Silence, a German film by Philip Grönig about a monastery in the French Alps famous for its monks' vow of silence. From the website:

Silence. Repetition. Rhythm. The film is an austere, next to silent meditation on monastic life in a very pure form. No music except the chants in the monastery, no interviews, no commentaries, no extra material.

Changing of time, seasons, and the ever repeated elements of the day, of the prayer. A film to become a monastery, rather than depict one. A film about awareness, absolute presence, and the life of men who devoted their lifetimes to god in the purest form. Contemplation. An object in time.

As advertised, the film, like life in the monastery, is remarkably spare, silent, almost completely uneventful: no musical score, virtually no dialogue; no plot, no drama, no climax. Indeed, in a three hour film, almost nothing happens. The film is one prolonged--two minutes or more--artsy camera shot after another, of the beautiful monastery and its alpine setting; of monks praying, ringing the bells to signal praying, or doing some simple daily chore like cutting celery; of monks passing each other in silence. The only structure is this cycle of daily life, repeated again and again, through the seasons, throughout the monk's life, from initiate to blind old age, minimizing doing and maximizing contemplation of God's meaning. Nothing changes or develops other than this unhurried, repetitive, distraction-less approach to God.

Not exactly a formula for a Hollywood blockbuster.

Yet the audience was maybe 500 in the college lecture hall and still well over 400 after three hours, most of us still awake, though quiet, subdued, perhaps transported, as was the film's intent, into the experience of the monastery, monastic life, contemplation. The three hours were not spellbinding. My attention wandered, settling at times on my "to do" consciousness, my plans for after the movie, my appetites. Still, I cycled back inexorably to the film and its silent, unhurried, inexorable pursuit of grace. By the end, I felt that this pursuit was also mine. The tiniest part of that grace mine.

I am certainly not apt to contemplate Christ as the path to God's grace, but rather to pursue grace by contemplating my own acts of doing and how they contribute or not to my purpose, meaning, and happiness in this pathless existence. Or perhaps I'll contemplate the meaning of the acts of human beings, today or in history. Maybe I'll contemplate a film or other work of art. Above all, I'll contemplate the people close to me, especially the uncanny, sometimes overwhelming presence of a loved one. I also struggle, forget, screw up, get lost in my projects and appetites and distractions. I'm no monk. When I return to the contemplation of life, however, I take to it as naturally as a monk to prayer.


George said...

(that was the sound of one blogger commenting)

George said...

Uh, there was supposed to be a bunch of white space before the parenthesis in that last one.

Queen Whackamole said...

Thanks for this... I would have liked to see this myself, but a good review is the next best thing... Captive audience seems like the way to go with a film like this. I suspect I won't be able to have this experience at the House of Many Distractions...

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