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Into The Great Silence

Some might remember the unexpected -and unlikely- cinematographic success of a documentary film called Le Grand Silence, in English Into the Great Silence, in 2005. A 2.40-hour movie by the German film maker Philip Gröning with no dialogues, no music, shot with no artificial light, and no real plot. Only images and ordinary sounds from the daily life of monks belonging to the strictest order in Christianity, the Carthusians, who belonged to the French community of La Grande Chartreuse near Grenoble, in the Alps, also known for its famous élixir végétal, a liquor distilled from 130 herbs. Even if, for almost 20 years, I myself lived in what can be considered a pretty austere monastic setting, I could not help being in awe at the radical character of the life of Carthusians: once they join the monastery they never live it nor go out until their death, they spend most of their time alone in their cells and devote the whole of their lives to prayer. Nobody can visit their communities, not even other monks, unless someone wants to join the community or is invited to preach a retreat to them.

So you can imagine my surprise and anticipation when I was asked to preach a retreat to the Carthusian community of Serra San Bruno, in the Southern Italy, in August 2011. At the time I was spending a sabbatical period in Switzerland, preparing to take up my new position of theology lecturer in Rome and already was in a quite introspective mood. So I welcomed this invitation and flew to the airport of Lamezia Terme in the Italian region of Calabria where a friend of the community picked me up and drove me to the remote location of the monastery, up in Apennine mountains.

Calabria is one of the most background regions in Italy, owing to the unyielding hold of the local mafia, called ndrangheta, which is one of the most powerful in the world. For decades, the mafia has successfully prevented the building of a motorway and done everything to keep the villages of the inner part of the region isolated from the rest of the world. My two brothers went to fetch me by car at the end of the retreat to drive me to my family home which is in the neighbouring region of Basilicata – and I remember that we got lost several times because the GPS was not accurate. One of my brothers had been in that area before and as we drove through one of these remote villages he told me that nothing was done by anyone there without the permission of the local mafia boss whom everyone only referred to as Iddu, “Him”.

I spent one week in the Carthusian monastery, giving one talk every day, and spending the rest of the time alone in the little house assigned to me which was very similar to the typical dwelling of the other monks. Because they live in solitude, Carthusians do not have just a single room, as in other monastic orders, but live in small two-storey maisonettes with a little garden for their daily manual work. They pray together in the chapel only 2 or 3 times a day (instead of the 7 times in a Benedictine monastery), eat their meals alone in their dwellings, and have a mandatory walk once a week which is the only time they can talk with each other. One of the common times of prayer is at 1 am and lasts… well, forever! I joined the night office the first night but couldn’t stay awake. I am accustomed to get up early and have always loved Matines which in my monastery was at 5 am, but I was not accustomed to break my night sleep in two and having to wake up only 3 or 4 hours after I had gone to bed, spend hours chanting psalms, and then go to bed again for another 3 hours…

As always when I preach retreats, from the third day on, monks started to come to see me individually for a talk – which always is the best way to get to know the community from inside, so to speak. It is refreshing for me to find out that even in such disciplined forms of life, one finds the same humanity, the same problems, inner conflicts, hopes and doubts as in any other lifestyle. The only perceptible distinctive element is a different sense of time. There is nowhere to rush to and no reason to hurry – you are relieved from any form of outer pressure, and from the prospect of anything exciting or out of the ordinary. Something like a life-time lockdown, which however is not endured but embraced, and instead of infinite and unbearable boredom and depression somehow gives access to another level of existence.

You cannot survive long in this way of life unless you accept to look at your inner fears and demons straight in the eyes and embark in the journey of self-knowledge, which is at the heart of monastic spirituality. The result is not a purer or holier humanity, but people more humble and at peace with themselves.

During my many conversations with monks and nuns in the many other monasteries where I preached, what I have found most endearing is a peculiar mixture of naivete and wisdom.

Most of the time, if you ask a monk or a nun to talk about their prayer, their lifestyle or, even worse, their views on secular problems, they come up with absolute platitudes. Which is not surprising, since they have no experience of everyday life in secular society and normally do not preach or give talks or even write, so they do not have many incentives to translate their experience into effective teaching.

This is what makes the film I mentioned at the beginning, Into the Great Silence, so powerful. It captures the essence of Carthusian life precisely because monks don’t talk, but simply live – and since they were filmed for 6 months, they had become unaware of the camera. The most powerful section of the film is when, towards the end, the film maker shows for few seconds each the faces of the monks. On those facial traits, their barely perceptible movements, especially in the instant in which, after the initial self-awareness, the monks lose their guard and relax, somehow their soul speak, and you are reached by something that stays with you, and provokes a little epiphany of your own soul too.


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