I recently re-watched Philip Gröning’s film Die Grosse Stille, or in English Into Great Silence. This film is an immersive experience and possibly one of the better ways to bring people into the world of Christian monasticism and the contemplative tradition.
When I first watched it, I watched it over more than one sitting. Although this film is a bit long — 2 h 42 min — it is, I think, important to watch an immersive film such as this in a single sitting. Into Great Silence is about the monks of La Grande Chartreuse in the French Alps. This is the mother house of the Carthusian order. Carthusians do not talk to each other. They sing the office and chant the readings. The few times they eat together in refectory, a brother reads to them, and they keep silent as they eat.
The first non-singing human voice in the film is the monk who takes care of the cats, about 20 min in.
The sounds you hear in the great silence are footsteps in the cloisters. Feet treading up stairs. The sound of a kneeler creaking beneath monastic weight. The rustle of white robes. Birdsong. Spoons in bowls of soup. Rain. The river. Scissors cutting fabric. The rasor shaving their heads. The food trolley rolling down the corridor. A shovel in the snow. You hear the bell ring and watch the monks kneel to pray wherever they are. You hear them shuffle in, taking turns at the chapel bell and arranging themselves in the choir. You hear them sing the night office in Latin.
There is no voice over. Just the great silence of the Carthusian life.
The film covers about one year of life at La Grande Chartreuse. It begins and ends in winter, with shots of blizzards in the Alps. You see La Grande Chartreuse covered in snow. You see the majestic backdrop of the Alps surrounding it. You watch the spring melt-off. You see the rivers and streams swell. You see two young men make profession as novices. I found it interesting that the prior seemed to roll his R’s in French like an Italian (maybe he’s Italian). You see a monk sitting at his table in his hermitage reading. You see a monk preparing celery. You watch the monks get their heads shaved.
It is a very simple life. They seek to live that monastic ideal ora et labora. They cut their own wood for their fireplaces; Carthusians live in little houses, each with its own garden. There are also larger, communal gardens. These all grow vegetables. They pray, they read, they prepare food, they take care of the cats, they take care of the cattle, they clean the monastery, they keep the spring water flowing to the charterhouse. They work. They pray. They sleep. They pray. They sleep. They pray. They work. Repeat.
There is a bit of modern plumbing, a few electric lights, electric rasors, and an IBM Thinkpad. But most of what they use looks mediaeval. You see a monk washing his dishes in his room with a jug and a bucket, and the water flows out a hole to the outdoors.
They do talk, though. Gröning edited the material very well — at the one communal meal in the film, the reading is from the constitutions of the Carthusians, talking about how they eat supper together on Sundays and solemn feasts, and that after the meal they have the chance for conversation, so that they can experience some of the joy of family life. They also get to go for a walk once a week because of how refreshing a walk in the forest is for frail humans after all the strictness of the Carthusian way of life.
What do they talk about? Whether they should maintain the tradition of handwashing, and if getting rid of the handwashing would be the start of a slippery slope into indiscipline.
They also go sliding in the winter. Their laughs are very highpitched.
In the end, this is a beautiful film of extraordinary power. I recommend it highly, whether you are into monks or not. For me, I really felt like this was a taste of the kind of spiritual tradition and spirituality that I could get into. Maybe never actually as a Carthusian, but this world of silence, calm, prayer, service, is enchanting.
Finally, if you get the collector’s edition, it has a second disc full of interesting information and slideshows about the making of the film and the history and spirituality of Carthusians.