Europeans were muting their cell phones and pocketing their iPod earbuds in fall 2005 to sit in Zen-ish quiet for the premier of Philip Gröning’s three-hour documentary Into Great Silence. With almost no dialogue, Silence reveals the life of monks in the Grande Chartreuse monastery hidden in the French Alps, where they have kept their Carthusian monastic rule since 1084 when they were founded by St. Bruno.
Gröning spent several months living in the monastery. The film has no soundtrack—only footsteps, echoes, and Gregorian chants. There are no voice-overs or commentaries. One monk murmurs to a cat. One monk—blind and deaf—speaks briefly about his joy. There is the sound of icicles melting and the rumble of fire in a wood stove.
For almost a thousand years, the Carthusian monastics at Grande Chartreuse have searched for God in solitude, practicing “the habit of the tranquil listening of the heart, which allows God to enter by all path and access,” as it is written in the Statutes. Their lives are an experiment with God’s declaration in Isaiah: “Listen to me in silence” (41:1) and with Jesus, who “rose long before daybreak and went out alone into the wilderness to pray” (Mark 1:35). They order their lives around radical availability to the present moment, like Samuel awake in the night listening for Eli’s call (1 Samuel 3).
Contemplative life is built on one simple, foundational Christian principle: unifying the life of the individual and community to God, along with a commitment to embrace a daily practice and lifestyle that reflects obedience to God. This commitment is renewed by continuously returning to one’s “first love,” as it says in Revelation 2:4. A Christian’s life must regularly be tested against God’s specific calling. What was my earliest experience of God in my life? Is that passion still present in my life? Am I living the life that Jesus invited me to? How do my daily patterns give glory to God in practical ways?
As a Catholic, I have always appreciated the Lenten opportunity to ask myself, Am I living within the framework of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy? The spiritual works are aimed toward caring for my neighbor’s soul. Traditionally, they include: Convert the sinner, instruct the ignorant, counsel the doubtful, comfort the sorrowful, bear wrongs patiently, forgive injuries, and pray for the living and the dead. The corporal works of mercy are aimed at the body and rooted in Matthew 25: Feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, visit the sick, visit those in prison, bury the dead.
Lent is a time for soul-searching and metanoia—literally, turning again toward God—and for reviewing our life. When Jesus went into the desert for 40 days, he was re-enacting the trauma of his people’s slavery in Egypt and their release from captivity. He wants to find out where his people went wrong. Why didn’t they achieve the full liberation God intended for them?
In that great desert silence, Jesus allows himself to be “revictimized” in order to remember, assimilate, integrate, and heal the trauma his people have suffered in the past. In this way, he begins to understand what is needed for them to be born again in freedom and truth—and what his particular role will be in that liberation.
Monastic communities still practice the Great Silence—where talking ceases and all media is unplugged—every evening, usually from 9 p.m. until morning prayer at 7 a.m. Most of us live in an extreme poverty of silence. Perhaps this Lent would be a good time to enter into the rich great silence in our own households.
Rose Marie Berger, an associate editor of Sojourners, is a Catholic peace activist and poet. She blogs at www.rosemarieberger.com.