November 3, 2007 at 6:04 pm #25656
From the post on the board below, I mentioned that
I would be ordering the DVD “Into Great Silence”.
Below I give my personal feelings after watching it.
For those that missed the post, the website for the
DVD says the following:
“Nestled deep in the postcard-perfect French Alps, the Grande Chartreuse is considered one of the worlds most ascetic monasteries. In 1984, German filmmaker Philip Gröning wrote to the Carthusian order for permission to make a documentary about them. They said they would get back to him. Sixteen years later, they were ready. Gröning, sans crew or artificial lighting, lived in the monks quarters for six monthsfilming their daily prayers, tasks, rituals and rare outdoor excursions. This transcendent, closely observed film seeks to embody a monastery, rather than simply depict oneit has no score, no voiceover and no archival footage. What remains is stunningly elemental: time, space and light. One of the most mesmerizing and poetic chronicles of spirituality ever created, Into Great Silence dissolves the border between screen and audience with a total immersion into the hush of monastic life. More meditation than documentary, its a rare, transformative experience for all. ”
“Into Great Silence” is right. The film is dead quiet. With the exception of
a few rare moments when words are exchanged in the right settings, there is nothing
but silence. You are given the feeling that you are merely a housefly–or should
I say, “monastery”fly that goes from one location to the next just casually and unobtrusively observing the daily activities inside the monastery. When you put
yourself in the right mind space, you feel like you are actually there.
The silence was so overpowering for me, that at one point during the film, one
of the monks leaves the main building to go to an area where he is going to feed some
house cats. He calls their attention by hitting a fork against the metal plate he
has with him, and the sound from that about caused me to jump 10 feet off the couch in sheer shock!
Some completely personal opinions and feelings:
I felt an overpowering sadness behind a good number of monks’ eyes.
It’s hard to put it into words actually. It felt like
something along the lines of feeling completely unworthy of receiving
God’s love, and that no matter what is done, that they will
ultimately fall short of what is required–as though they
had been abandoned by God and are now trying with all their
spiritually intensity and inner calling to try to earn back that
love and direct connection. This mixed, however, with an intense optimistic view
of hope and contentment that if they only continue along this path
providing uninterrupted devotion, that they will be granted
their wish. I couldn’t help but feel that they each needed
to be reminded that they are in fact loved, and then to give
them a well-needed overdue hug.
There were some exceptions to this.
One shot where they were shown outside sitting together in a circle,
and actually speaking to each other about monastery policies,
a number of them seemed happy and were laughing. Similarly,
a scene showing some monks sliding down a snow-covered hill, and
a scene showing a quite happy and contented blind monk who shared
some personal views verbally, seemed to offset the sad quality and
highlight the optimistic view.
I spent a good deal of time both while watching, and then after
I finished, in some thought–if maybe my opinion of sadness was
false, and if I was either projecting or misunderstanding what
I saw, but I couldn’t shake it. There’s a difference between
contemplating and contemplating with internal emotional pain, and
I could feel some deep sadness there.
I had another sort of realization while watching the video.
(Warning: I’m drifting into a state of pure emotional
stream-of-consciousness, so what follows may seem completely
off the wall . . . )
There are some very disturbing similarities between
a monastery and a prison.
1. In both a monastery and a prison, you both give
up your life to be an occupant (although the former
is voluntary, and you could possibly leave).
2. You give up your free will in a way. In both
cases, your day is so completely structured that you
have little/no time to yourself.
3. You spent a good deal of the day doing chores,
and much of the remainder is dictated by those in charge.
4. Much of your time you are left inside your own mind
to think about your life.
5. The monastery rooms are called “cells”.
6. Certain meals are delivered to your cell and
passed to you through an opening in the door.
Of course, you don’t have to worry about your safety
in a monastery, and it operates mainly in silence, whereas
a prison is mainly noise. However, the number of
parallels are staggering actually.
It kind of makes me wonder if some of our prison
population consists of people that if they had
had a different upbringing would have chosen to
go into a monastery! Certainly certain ex-cons
intentionally commit crimes so they can go back.
Maybe criminals are just people that are deep
down craving spirituality and don’t realize it,
and then they act out in various ways because
they don’t understand what they are missing.
Hmm . . .
At any rate–back to reality–I found the DVD
to be profound and enjoyed it in some weird way.
I haven’t yet watched any of the special features,
but I’ll pass along any such comments at a later time.
StevenNovember 3, 2007 at 6:08 pm #25657November 3, 2007 at 7:36 pm #25659
I remember once I tried to explain MichaelW’s work in retreat, I think on Huashan, to someone not in the least esoteric. It didn’t go very well. What seemed to me to be an enthralling (and successful) experiment on Michael’s part into the subtleties of earth and cosmos came out as, “He spent a long time alone in an isolated mountain cave drinking his own urine.”
Things like that just don’t normally come across too well in general to some people. There’s really no way to explain that, no, he didn’t do it as some kind of penance, no, he’s not disgusted by the ways of the world, no, he didn’t need time alone. It’s hard to explain, there’s actually something *in* the cave that’s genuinely interesting and worth checking out.
In the same spirit, perhaps a monk would answer your ’emotional stream of consciousness’ sort of…
‘Give up my life to be an occupant?’ You call that a life? 🙂
‘Day totally structured’? So’s any top flight excutive’s.
‘Do chores’? Whaddya, want me to hire someone in?
‘Meals passed through a door’? It’s called room service.
… etc. 🙂
Not that I’m advocating this as the best lifestyle for everyone! But I can certainly see how it might get you somewhere, if that was where you happened to want to go…. j
PS Yeah tell on the extras. Did the crew have TOTAL access?
PPS Have you done the China Dream thing, maybe you’d visit a Chinese monastery and compare.November 3, 2007 at 9:02 pm #25661
>>I remember once I tried to explain MichaelW’s work in retreat, I think on Huashan, >>There’s really no way to explain that, no, he didn’t do it as some kind of penance, no, he’s not disgusted by the ways of the world, no, he didn’t need time alone. It’s hard to explain, there’s actually something *in* the cave that’s genuinely interesting and worth checking out.
Actually, I view this as completely different.
Here, such a retreat is something that is completely self-initiated, where
a person could investigate spiritual questions in the nature that
*they choose*, with a sort of unlimited freedom.
>>In the same spirit, perhaps a monk would answer your ’emotional stream of consciousness’ sort of…
>>’Day totally structured’? So’s any top flight excutive’s.
My response would be, “so how is that any better?”
Aren’t you just trading one structure of rigidity for another one?
>>’Do chores’? Whaddya, want me to hire someone in?
>>’Meals passed through a door’? It’s called room service.
Well, for these things I wouldn’t qualify them in either
a positive way or a negative way, I was just making an
observation that there are definite parallels between
a prison life and the rigid monastery life. In fact,
some of the examples above could definitely be viewed as
>>Not that I’m advocating this as the best lifestyle for everyone! But I can certainly see how it might get you somewhere, if that was where you happened to want to go…. j
Actually, I think it depends totally on the person’s personality.
I’ve talked to former monastery members of both the Christian
and the Buddhist or Zen variety, and some of them really espoused
to me how much they actually liked the rigid structure that they
were placed in. Statements were given along the lines of, “it’s
great, because you don’t have to think at all; everything is
completely planned out for you”.
As for me, I definitely do have an attraction to the deliberate
spiritual life, but rigidity for me is a complete anathema.
While I would personally have no problem with the chore aspect,
because those things need to get done for the place to function
and moreover doing chores can be meditative in their own right,
my real problem would be with the rigid structure that lies outside
For instance, in a Christian monastery, what if I felt like
I didn’t want to spent all the remainder of my time either in
mass or silently praying? What if I wanted to spend some
of my time doing silent sitting meditation? If in a Buddhist
or Zen monastery, what if I felt like I didn’t want to spend
all of the remainder of my time doing silent sitting meditation
or studying Buddhist philosophy? What I felt like I wanted
to spend some of my day doing qigong work? The inherent
rigidity would tend to prevent that. I personally
don’t like structure, as it can box you in, and limit
your opportunities and options for growth.
In short, what if the overall monastery vision of how
I should spend my time progressing spiritually didn’t
fit in totality with how *I* intuitively feel I should
practice to achieve the best results. Someone elses method
might not necessarily be the best for me–or even if it
is, what if during a particular period of time, I felt differently?
Present for me a monastery that operates from a standpoint
of spiritual freedom for investigation rather than one
of rigidity and “parent-child” mentality (i.e. you do what
we say), and then we’ll have a different discussion entirely!
This is why I feel the example that you gave of MW practicing
in a cave is an entirely different situation. Here, while in
isolation, he chose to practice in the way that he felt would
be the best for him at any given time. So this is, in fact,
the complete opposite situation–complete freedom! This type
of practice sounds great to me.
>>PS Yeah tell on the extras. Did the crew have TOTAL access?
As far as the extras go, I haven’t seen them yet. When I
get the opportunity to view them, I’ll pass along my impressions.
As far as the crew, there was *no* crew. Philip was permitted
to film the inside of the monastery *only* as a solo member.
No crew was allowed. He entered the monastery and actually
lived the day-to-day activities of the monastery, just as a
monk would–going to the masses, liturgy, etc. The only real
difference being that he carried his modest film equipment with
him and filmed what he saw from his perspective. In this way,
he delivered the monastery experience–although there were
definite occasions when he would be in a particular monk’s quarters
or some other area filming unobtrusively observing what other
monks were doing without interfering and trying to be as
invisible as possible. In this way, he stayed solo in the
monastery in this fashion for 6 months.
>>PPS Have you done the China Dream thing, maybe you’d visit a Chinese monastery and compare.
No I haven’t done that yet, but it sounds great!
Maybe in several years when I’m not a poor graduate student and
assuming that Michael is still going . . . 🙂
SNovember 7, 2007 at 3:42 am #25663
You should like it. It’s quite good actually for
what it intends to do.
Very meditative . . .
SteveNovember 7, 2007 at 4:08 am #25665
I finally finished watching all of the special
features/extras that come on disk 2 of the film.
It took some time, because actually there is just
as much on the second disk to see as there is on
the first disk–if not more!
It is fantastic actually, and well worth seeing–
as it, in total with the movie, helped paint
a much better picture of the monastery, and
gave me overall much more positive feelings about
it than in my first review. I think in the main
movie, the movie was cut and scenes were chosen
by the director that gave the film a slightly
more sombre tone than what actually exists–i.e.
I think you get a much better feeling for what
really is going on, as well as the attitudes, by
watching these extras. In fact, I think that
upon watching the main film again, I would have
much different feelings.
There is at least an hour of additional scenes to
the film–they show the production of the Chartreuse
liquor process, they show an extended scene of the
interview with the blind monk, and they show more film.
The liquor production process was interesting
as they showed the great care that is put together
in collecting the 120 some odd plants used for
the liquor, and a brief interview with the monk
in charge was great as you feel a great sense
of happiness from him. Similarly, in the
extended blind monk interview, his words were
extremely touching and demonstrated a heart filled
They also have the complete 53 minute “Night
Office” on the extras. This is a chanting
and liturgy that takes place every night
at around midnight. The great thing about
this segment is that you pretty much go
through the whole thing start to finish, and
(even more than before) you get the feeling like
you are right there.
There is also an hour long “audio CD” of monastery
sounds on the disk; a ten minute review of the
movie by a cardinal; “making of” photos and film
clips; a written text guide to the rules, daily
program, and history of the order; extensive
photo galleries of the monastery as well as
If you investigate all of the extras, as I did,
it will take you several hours–ultimately longer
than the film itself–but in total, I think
it is well worth the effort and gives a much
more complete picture of the film.
In total, if you would like a true meditative
experience and you would like to get a real
glimpse of an aspect of life that has probably
never been shown before, then I highly recommend
you pick up this film.
StevenNovember 7, 2007 at 12:14 pm #25667
…. the initial impression you had of the film, because of the way it was edited, reflected a bias on the part of the film-makers? jNovember 8, 2007 at 3:46 am #25669
I think that that had part to do with it.
One of the things about the film was that it
was cut so that repeatedly through the movie, like
every 10 minutes or so, it would cut to a screen
of text that would say “He who does not give up
all he has, can not be my disciple.” Then it would
cut back to the film and show a scene that was
sombre in nature–like the picture of a monk’s face
with a serious/sad tone for instance.
In all fairness, with this aspect, I don’t think
that the director intentionally wanted to give a
sad appearance, but rather one of a deeply reflective
serious tone; however, it created a sense of sadness
in me . . . making it seem as though the monks felt
that only through this extreme version of devotion
could they have any hope of connecting with God’s love.
However, through seeing more of the film and in regard
to omitted scenes and extras, I felt I got a much
better/accurate version of what was truly going on.
I don’t really fault the director though, because I think
it is really hard to be able to accurately capture the
complete dimension of the experience, especially when
there is so little dialog in the main movie, i.e.
you’re not able to get a verbalization from the monks
as to what their feelings are–only an inference based
on the scenes that you are exposed to. However, as
time progresses and you see more of the film and become
more acquainted with all aspects of the monastery,
you develop a little more clarity to the true nature
of the experience shared there. Moreover, in the
extras you get more actual dialog from the monks
themselves which helps to clarify the viewing.
All in all I think it is an amazing film and
offers an extremely intimate and meditative
look into a realm that can’t readily be
experienced by everyday normal people.
As such I think the film is a real treasure,
and I would imagine that anyone who takes
spirituality seriously would find the film
to be quite powerful and to evoke strong
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