Monday, June 22, 2009

A small box . . . but a great silence

It was good of you to lend me this DVD before you'd had a chance to see it yourself. ‘Into Great Silence’ may be only a small box - but it brought an added dimension to Box Hill

I watched it on the first evening, and I’m glad I did. It affected the whole holiday. Was this really me, choosing not to listen to “The Today Programme” on Radio 4 the following morning?

I was tired when we arrived, I hadn’t realised quite how tired. Exhausted would be a bettter word. Foolishly, I thought that two hours and forty minutes of gentle contemplation in the French Alps would demand nothing of me in return. How wrong I was! But in a strange way, my very exhaustion, the effort needed to ‘participate’ over such a long and intensive period, only heightened the experience. When it finished at 10.15 I felt drained of every ounce of physical energy, but spiritually recharged.

This is not an experience that you want to know about in advance, so I won’t go into any details. Sufficient to say that without using a word of commentary it is the most persuasive personal statement you could hear. Philip Groning spent six months at the monastery, occupying a cell, living each day in a similar fashion to the monks. This is his ‘thank you’ letter - his love letter - to the monastery. Like all true love letters it is immensely tender. It handles its subject with passion, subtlety and gentleness. It rejoices in the smallest detail, it shouts its hymn of praise to God from the snowy peaks to the candle-lit chapel.

I said that I wanted you to come to it unaware of what awaited you, but there is one aspect that I must share. Yes, you go ‘into great silence’, but what the title fails to inform you is that such silence is rich with sound. Without the distraction of human voices you are alert to so much more . . . the tread of sandalled feet on stone floors . . . the varied notes of the different tools engaged in sawing wood . . . the crunch of scissors eating their way through thick fabric . . . the pondorous ticking of a distant clock . . . the gentle rustle of turning pages. . . the whirr of electric clippers moving over shaven scalps as the monks cut each other’s hair . . . the chopping of vegetables in the kitchen . . . and every sound regularly interspersed by the unifying, sonorous pealing of the bells. In winter the only noises come from within, but. with the summer months, the doors and windows are flung open and the resulting inflow of sound is breath-taking - so many birds . . . the rustle of streams . . . heavy spring showers gurgling down roofs and along drain pipes . . . bees . . . insects . . .

And it isn’t just the sound, visually it is quite intoxicating. Philip Groning uses his camera like a paint brush. The strokes are slow and precise, the effect is both profound and dazzling. Imagine a long sequence of Vermeer and Rembrandt paintings coming to life. He lingers lovingly on quiet corners, finds pure poetry in the shadows and brings a divine humanity to the faces of the monks.

At the start, before I was fully immersed, I was taken by the incongruities . . . the very modern watch on a monk’s wrist (why would a monk need a watch?) . . . another monk’s check shirt beneath his habit (if they never went out, how did they buy their undergarments
and their tooth-brushes?) . . . many of the monks wore glasses (how did they get
their eyes tested?) . . . one monk was writing the most beautiful calligraphy in his note-book (with a ballpoint pen?). But this questioning slowly dropped away

‘Into Great Silence’ is a profound, spiritual experience. Watch it as soon as you can . . . you’ll never regret it. Once you’ve allowed the tolling bell and the shadowed cloisters to weave their way into your subconscious, you’ve got them for life. I know that I have.

Oh yes, one more thing . . . there’s a gorgeous touch of sheer exuberance near the end of the film - I won’t say more than that, but don’t miss it!