This past week, I had a movie night for my students.  The movie had been requested by one of the young men, so although I had my doubts about its ability to attract college students, I went with it.

Into Great Silence.

I hesitate to even write about it.  To find words for this film, nay, this experience, seems to betray it at its very core.

I doubted the whole thing.  I wondered how I could watch a movie for three hours in complete silence.  And while we did break it up (we’re watching the second half tomorrow), all I can say is that you just have to give it a chance.  Sit there in silence and take it in.  Stop doubting.  Just watch.  Let go.  And you’ll find yourself slipping into a peacefulness that you haven’t felt since you were six or seven years old.

A few observations on the viewing:

In the first several minutes of the movie, the loudness of the room around us was apparent.  I instinctively wanted to turn up the volume, as if that would make the silence cover the cacophony of noises that surrounded us.  Noises we hadn’t even noticed five minutes earlier.  A Coke machine hummed.  A refrigerator kicked on.  Someone drove by outside.  A siren screeched from the hospital next door.  A speck of dust landed on the couch.

It was hard for some of the students to sit still and really enter into the movie.  While they didn’t mention it when we broke at the end, I was sitting behind most of them and could see them instinctively check their cell phones every so often.  It wasn’t that they weren’t enjoying the film– rather, we’re programmed to commit half our brains to something or someone that may or may not need us now or later.  We can’t surrender our entire attention, we can’t become completely engrossed in something, because we have made ourselves available at -literally- every moment of the day to anyone who can get a hold of the ten numbers that correspond to our pants pocket.

Once I allowed myself to fall in, I fell in.  Once I stopped wondering, “How long are they going to show that monk kneeling there in prayer?” or “Why are they zooming in on that drop of rain on that windowsill?” I found myself sitting on the stone floor, the coldness numbing my rear, the damp French air heavy in solitude.  The monks didn’t seem to notice I was sitting there, the incredulous interloper who carefully watched their calculated, graceful movements.  I wanted to tug on one of their rough habits and ask how they resisted running outside into the Alpine wonderland and yelling for joy, just to hear their own echo.  The silence around me,  interrupted only by the sound of a monk’s footsteps or the sound of a cart coming down the hallway, seemed the remedy for a long week of work in the world.   

There was utter and complete peace.  I never thought I could watch a movie that seemed to give me that same weightless feeling that sitting in the chapel sometimes gives.  You know the feeling– all the stress disapears as if someone physically lifted it from you with a compassionate yank. 

After awhile, just the thought of a movie with people talking in it seemed loud and wrong.  That’s the only way to explain it, really.  It seemed odd to think people talked at me in movies, and I had to stop thinking of the possibility before it gave me a headache.

I think some people would complain that more things in the movie weren’t explained.  For example, there are a few scenes of a monk rolling a cart down a hallway and opening little windows and putting things in, taking things out, etc.  I think this is how the monks eat– normally they eat in solitude, and their meals are delivered by the cart-pushing monk through a little window-like door.  (On Sundays, we learn, they eat in common.)  This isn’t explained, but is absorbed.  I believe not having explanation helped.  I know that sounds weird.  But in this day and age, we always want to know the answers.  We’re always demanding information… without letting ourselves just enter into the situation.  

Let me ‘splain. Friends of mine attended Vespers at St. Paul Outside the Walls last spring.  Everything sung and prayed was  entirely in Latin and Italian.  One of the women wasn’t Catholic, and therefore even the notion and form of Vespers was rather foreign to her.  Afterwards, my Catholic friend apologized to her.  But Carol had a very interesting comment.  She loved the Vespers, and she commented that it was better that she didn’t understand the language.  Not distracted by every word, she was able to enter into prayer.  It became an experience to be lived, rather than a pedantic exercise.  That’s what it was like here.  Not burdened by a didactic explanation of every action, one is able to enter into the life.

All of this being said, my favorite part of the movie, ironically, was a conversation the monks were having (the priests get to speak to each other on Sundays) about washing their hands before eating.  I don’t want to ruin the whole scene, because it really is a jewel, and I debated whether or not to mention it here.

But it’s just too good to pass up.  If you’re going to watch the movie, stop reading here, and then come back and read this after watching. ; )

 They weren’t washing their hands for sanitary reasons, but in a symbolic gesture.  One monk questioned whether they should continue.  It wouldn’t be wrong to get rid of something useless, right?

Another monk replies, “Our entire life, the whole liturgy, and everything ceremonial are symbols. If you abolish the symbols, then you tear down the walls of your own house.”

Another monk… or perhaps the same one (it’s hard to tell them apart, haha) adds, “When we abolish the signs, we lose our orientation.  Instead, we should search for their meaning.  But one should unfold the core of the symbols.  The signs are not to be questioned, we are.”

And another (or again, the same… he’s very wise if it’s still him…) adds, “The error is not to be found in the handwashing, the error is in our mind.”

And then, as quickly as the profundity came in words, it slips back into deeds, and you find yourself in great silence once again.

As for that discourse… someone may have just found the beginnings of a dissertation topic.