Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

The silence is indeed great

I sat down to Into Great Silence prepared for a very foreign experience. (Latin-chanting monks, speaking in French, subtitled in German, and sub-sub-titled in English . . . doesn't get more foreign than that, without leaving Europe.) And yet in the first few minutes, as we dwelt with a single monk in his cell, a saw a bunch of things that were surprisingly familiar to me. The young brother reached over to close the damper on his little wood-stove -- a stove almost exactly like the stove I used in a tiny little cabin in the woods of West Virginia, when I lived on Richard Rose's farm. And the wooden floors, the wooden doors, the crude masonry . . . a kept having flashbacks to the farmhouse where Rose presided over students.

And the beautiful monotony of it all . . . oh yes, that too. You have to be in a certain state of mind to watch someone in prayer, minute . . . after minute . . . after minute. You realize that his mind may be full of weighty questions of God, grace, redemption, penitence . . . but we don't get to share his thoughts, nor can we even read what he might be reading, or understand the prayers that he chants. So you have to fill in those gaps for yourself . . . and that drives you inexorably inward, and ironically takes you to the same place the monk is in.

When you have a film in which very little is ever spoken, and almost nothing ever happens, you are left with feast of mise-en-scene. And the film lets you do that, dwelling patiently on every sight and sound: a bowl, a piece of fruit, a cluttered desk, a snow-covered view through a narrow window. That, more than anything, reminded me of what it was like to live in contemplative isolation. No matter where your head is at, you spend long stretches of time with your eyes settled on a door, a window, a hole in the wall . . . until the whole world is contained within a few views. A casual viewer might think: "Geez, that film could have easily been an hour shorter; how many times do we need to see a darkened chapel?" But that misses the point entirely, which is to get you into the timeless rhythm of their office. It turns out it really does take about two and a half hours to get into that frame of mind.

The film has no plot, but that doesn't mean that there aren't threads of consistency that you can follow. Early on we see two new brothers make their Simple Profession, asking to be accepted into the community; one of them, Dom Marie-Pierre, happens to be the only black man there, which helps us follow him along in his path. We see one of the brothers making a new robe for him, and later helping him into it. We see the new brothers studying the liturgy, practicing the chants. We see his cell, at first bare, but gradually fill with books, and notebooks, and devotional pictures.

For those who have had some exposure to monastic orders before, there are some telling details. Once, when the brothers are discussing some finer details of a hand-washing ritual, one says, "At such-and-such a monestary, they actually have six basins, so you can properly wash your hands." And another monk quips, "Yeah, but their Trappists," and everyone laughs. When someone can cap on the Cistercians for being extravagent . . . now that's ascetic. Sadly, I saw some other all-too-familiar sights: more choir stalls than monks, an enormous monastary occupied by less than two dozen brothers, and the majority of them quite old. Their order, like most, is struggling to stay alive.

The film doesn't editorialize at all, but it does pause occasionally to repeat some passages from scripture on the screen. The most-repeated one was: "Unless you give up everything you have, and follow me, you are not worthy to be my disciple." The average Christian might start out thinking that these men are super-Christians, zealots, extremists . . . but the film reminds us they are only doing exactly, and completely, what Jesus commanded. They are not zealots; they just took Jesus seriously. We are dabblers in comparison.



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