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).