Of Monks & Madmen

This story is included in these collections

There has been a lot written about Into Great Silence, a film which shows the life of monks in the Carthusian monastery of Le Grande Chartreuse. I saw it not long ago, and so should you if you get the chance—which you may not; so far its distribution has been limited, and it is easy to see why: there is very little talking, no background music, and nothing like a plot. The film lasts for nearly three very quiet hours. But here in New York, it packed them in at Film Forum and was held over for weeks.

Philip Gröning, the director, said during one interview that he found looking at the paintings of Mark Rothko helpful when he was editing the film, and I can see the connection. There is a similarity between the esthetic stillness in Rothko’s paintings and the contemplative stillness the monks seek in prayer. This sensibility shows up in Gröning’s camera work, in the images of flame and snow that begin the film, in the passage of time in slow seasonal change captured by time-lapse photography, in the rhythm of the communal liturgical hours and the solitude of the monks in their hermitages, in the scenes we are offered of their solitary prayer and study.

The film has been a huge hit, not only in New York but also in allegedly secular Europe. Its success reminds me of the rave reviews given to Marilynne Robinson’s wonderful, quiet, and unabashedly Christian novel Gilead. There is a spiritual hunger that goes deep. Some of its expressions can be shallow, but the need is heartfelt and real. Many churches may not meet it, but some places and ways of life (monasteries and monasticism, for example) attract people because they offer the hope that there is an answer to an eternal, deeply felt need.

It wasn’t long after my wife and I saw Into Great Silence that the murders at Virginia Tech happened. Two comments that came up in the news reports have stayed with me. A survivor said that she would never forget the laughter of the gunman; and one of Seung-hui Cho’s teachers said that when he came to her for tutoring, he always wore dark glasses, behind which he seemed to be weeping.

We are called into being from nothing, and the monks face this as a vocation. They have tried in the life they have chosen to eliminate the distractions that keep us from being what we are called to be. Not all of us are called to this way, but it does illuminate a central truth about life: Ultimately we are alone before God. The paradox is that this solitude is shared with all of humanity, and we are obliged to take up what it means to share it, through charity, through family, through community, and above all through prayer—which means a moment-to-moment acknowledgment of our absolute contingency, our dependence on the will of God who calls us to be.

A lot of what followed the Virginia Tech massacre was predictable: editorials about gun control and the treatment of mental illness, interviews with people about the need for reaching out. Some students expressed their concern that they may not have done enough to help Cho, though it is not at all clear that they could have. All I can think about are the human extremes here: monks who spend their time in solitary silence before God, listening deeply; and someone weeping in his own howling, desperate isolation, one that turns to evil rage and the destruction of other lives. This is the range of human possibility: you can be a person who moves through silence toward the light, or you can be destroyed by darkness. There is nothing here about morality or moral choices. This is about what we are called to be, and about those things that assist or prevent us from getting there.

I do not know what might have been done differently to prevent the Virginia disaster. It is impossible to determine what led Seung-hui Cho to his final terrible moments or if he was capable of making any clear choices at that point in his life. But it is the source of some hope to know that in a world where such horrors can happen, within any human heart, people still make the sign of the Cross and sit in silence before God, whose love has called both the monk and Seung-hui Cho into existence.


Related: A Gentle Whisper, by Matthew Boudway

Published in the 2007-05-18 issue: 

John Garvey was an Orthodox priest and columnist for Commonweal, and author of Seeds of the Word: Orthodox Thinking on Other Religions.

Also by this author
‘Intelligent' Design?
This story is included in these collections:

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads