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I pre-ordered the DVD as soon as I heard about it. So when “Into Great Silence” came in the mail, I immediately started to plan a time to sit down and watch it. In my overly busy and quite complicated life, the opportunity to spend a few hours in the day-to-day life of the Carthusian monks has definite appeal. My hope was to not merely watch the film, but to pray it. So, I looked for a space and time in which to screen it, uninterrupted.
That is where the difficulty began. Within a few minutes of pushing the disc into the player, the phone rang, the dog barked, and I suddenly remembered that there was something I absolutely had to do. I paused the film, did what needed to be done, sat back down on the couch, and pressed “play.” The scenery alone stimulated reflection. The film is a feast of images, filled with stark contrasts in light and darkness, the faces of men who speak volumes with their eyes, the creak of kneelers, the rustle of robes, the sound of washing hands, and of bodies rising from chapel benches.
It was soon school pick-up time, so I had to hit the pause button again. Upon return, one of the kids expressed an interest in seeing “Into Great Silence,” so I started it from the beginning. We watched a bit past where I had previously ended, but then dinner had to be prepared, kids needed to be driven to various places, and I had evening responsibilities at the parish. When I got home later that night, I went into my room, closed the door and picked up where I’d left off. But I was so tired, that instead of participating in life at Le Grand Chartreuse, I entered into my own “great silence” and fell asleep.
In the days that followed all kinds of things got in the way of me seeing the rest of that film. I started it from the beginning for yet another child who was interested in seeing what it was like. After three times through the first hour, at least I was able to remember what it had taken me so long to see. But between all the things I have to do in my daily life, and being too tired from doing all those things, and then becoming sick from doing too much, it took me more than a week to finally finish “Into Great Silence.” And I could only watch it bit by bit.
My life is so different from that of the Carthusian monks, that even getting the time to watch a movie depicting them was a struggle. I don’t spend most of my time alone in a cell; I don’t cook only for myself; and I don’t have prayer scheduled into my life. I do not live the kind of asceticism that is so visible -- and challenging -- in “Into Great Silence.” I eat more, pray less, and talk more (whether I actually say more is debatable). I spend more time working and doing, and less time being, mostly because I have direct responsibility for people other than just myself. A movie depicting the kind of life I live would never include the word “silence” in the title.
But watching the Carthusians didn’t make me wish that I was living another vocation. The God that called those men into silence is the very same God that gave us eight children. The God who invited them to come away from the world, is the same God who asks me to go into the world with the light of his Gospel. The God whose voice can be discerned in “great silence” can also be heard in the flutter of activity and the general noise of family and secular life.
It is possible to live the fullness of the Christian spiritual life in any setting. Ultimately, it is not better to be alone, in community, or in family. It is not preferable to be sick or healthy, prosperous or poor. Both fasting and feasting have the potential to aid spiritual growth, and to hinder it. God does not want my work, he wants my heart. God does not ask for our time, but for our lives. What it essential, what is actually best, is that we follow the calling of Christ in our lives according to our lives, and not anyone else’s. May the God of both silence and noise give that grace to each one of us.
Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a wife and mother of eight children, and a disciple of the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales. She is an author, speaker, musician and serves as Faith Formation Coordinator at St. Maria Goretti Parish in Lynnfield.