How I spent three hours as a Carthusian monk

I was feeling a little out of sorts on Good Friday. Maybe it was from spending too much time at the computer reading about the Vatican and the clerical sex abuse scandal. It’s not just all the painful evidence of moral weakness that weighed me down, but also the vast mountains of misinformation and misplaced rage about it floating around the Internet. (For some clarity, see veteran Vatican-watcher Sandro Magister’s article for us on Page 4, and our editorial on Page 19.) 

So after church, I retreated to the basement with my oldest daughter and slipped into the player a DVD that I checked out from the OSV library last summer but never got around to watching: “Into Great Silence.” 

For the next three hours, we sat transfixed. And not because of the dialogue — there’s hardly any. 

The movie is a documentary of life inside Grande Chartreuse, a Carthusian monastery nestled in the French Alps. 

The natural setting is stunning, but the lifestyle couldn’t get simpler. The monks are permanently silent except for a period on Sunday, the one day a week when they eat a meal together and take a walk outside the monastery walls. 

Much of their time is spent in solitude in their “cell,” a small room with a rough-hewn prie-dieu, bed and table. 

Visitors normally are not allowed. Philip Gröning, a German filmmaker, wrote in 1984 to the prior asking permission to make the documentary. Sixteen years later, he received a reply: Yes, but he would not be allowed to use artificial lighting. 

He spent six months living with them, filming them in chapel, in their cells and at work in their gardens. 

It is mesmerizing. Everything they do is slow, meditative, deliberate, peaceful. There is a rhythm to their day created by church bells, but their gentle approach to it offers a glimpse of timelessness and eternity. 

Gröning opens and closes the documentary with a quote from 1 Kings about the prophet Elijah finding God not in mighty winds, earthquake or fire but in “a tiny whispering sound.” The monks enter “into great silence” to better hear the murmur of God in their lives. 

For someone usually caught in the frenetic pace both of the news business and home life with four young children, getting a brief taste of the monks’ stillness was exhilarating. Gone was the foul mood. 

I’m not sure what I like best: the idea that there are hundreds of contemplative communities like that around the world, exhausting their days praying for all the rest of us; or their heroic example of fidelity to religious vows and radically simplified Gospel living. That’s very inspiring. In some ways, it’s too bad their example is so hidden. 

So Gröning has done us a huge favor. I highly recommend you watch the documentary, if you haven’t already. Then I’d like to know if you had the same experience that I did. 

As always, I look forward to hearing from you at feedback@osv.com.