Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
People muted their cell phones and pocketed their earbuds in the fall 2005 to sit in a packed theater in monkish silence for the premier of Philip Gröning’s three-hour documentary, Into Great Silence.
The movie has almost no dialogue. Into Great Silence follows the life of monks in the Grande Chartreuse monastery hidden away in the French Alps, where they have kept their monastic rule since 1084 when they were founded by St. Bruno. 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, they say, allows God to enter by all paths.”
Gröning originally proposed his idea for the film to the monks in 1984. The monks said they some wanted time to think about it. 16 years later they invited him to come shoot the movie. Gröning lived at the monastery for a total of six months in 2002 and 2003. He filmed and recorded on his own, using no artificial light. The movie has no spoken commentary or added sound effects. It consists of images and sounds that depict the rhythm of monastic life with occasional selections from Holy Scripture.
The monk’s lives are an experiment. They live according to God’s declaration in Isaiah: “Listen to me in silence” (41:1) and inspired by 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 the child Samuel awake in the night listening for Eli’s call (1 Samuel 3). (Rose Marie Berger, Sojourners)
The world insists that we are what we do and achieve, but silent contemplation invites us to practice under-doing and under-achieving and reminds us of the simple grace and humility of being human.
In these days when, often, we are exhausted, or enraged at the news of the day, or afraid of the social, political, and ecological forces we do not understand, and feel powerless to control; as we work to tighten our grip, put on a smile, and squeeze one more spoonful of sweetness and energy by sheer force of will to greet the new day–if that’s how you feel –then it might be time to let go. Let your hope and strength and wisdom be renewed by God.
This Lent could we let the Holy Spirit show us again how to be human beings, rather than human-doings? If you’re still searching for something to do this Lent, let me suggest you give up words. Specifically, prayers with words. Instead, listen, like the Carthusian monks do with all your heart, soul, strength and mind.
Can you set aside a minute, three minutes, or five minutes in your daily routine and just let yourself be? Let yourself go silent in order for the still, small, life-giving Spirit to speak.
19th Century British pastor Alexander Maclaren called it sitting silent before God. Warmed by the light of God’s grace we pray that our fisted minds and hands may be opened to the compassion and understanding that is truly required to solve difficult problems. That treasure comes from God.
The spiritual disciplines of the Lenten season – prayer, fasting, giving, prayer – these are not designed to leach you of your time and energy. They are meant to help reorient your life in God, and God’s promises. They are meant to refresh and restore you. They are meant to help you breathe again.
Jesus said, ‘where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). Store up treasure in heaven by releasing grace and love into the world that comes from God. You don’t need to keep going at the pandemic and all the troubles of the world by your own power and strength but let go. Let go of the blizzard of thoughts, and feelings. Let go of your words for God to meet you again, in silence. Amen.