Peeping Into a Monk's World; Pilgrim's Progress
An Unusual Film Captures the Carthusians
By Elizabeth Lev
ROME, JUNE 9, 2006 (Zenit) - In a world bombarded by digital effects and surround sound, it's hard to imagine that anyone would give up a Saturday evening to go see a documentary about a vow of silence.
And yet "Into Great Silence," filmed entirely within the walls of the Grand Chartreuse near Grenoble, France, held to be one of the most austere monasteries in the world, has been generating interest all over Europe.
It was presented and practically ignored at the Venice Film Festival last fall, except for a few astute critics who were struck by the unusual subject and style. Upon the film's release in Germany, it outsold Harry Potter. "Into Great Silence" opened in Italy in March and managed to remain in theaters until the end of May.
German director/producer/editor and cameraman Philip Gröning approached the Carthusians in 1984 requesting permission to film their lives within the monastery. Sixteen years later permission was granted. Gröning spent six months living with the monks and the result is an opportunity for everyday people to witness the awesome commitment to Christ made by these Carthusians.
"You seduced me, Lord, and I let myself be seduced" (Jeremiah 20:7) appears a dozen times on the screen to help viewers try to understand the spirit of the Grand Chartreuse. Although the camera may have penetrated the walls, it is far more difficult to enter the hearts and minds of these men.
The film opens with snowfall. Big blurry white flakes fill the screen until the camera pans back allowing us to see the monastery nestled against the Alps. The camera then rests on the big gate and the outer walls of a world that seems inaccessible to us. When the camera enters the monastery, the screen is dark with only the votive candle burning softly red against the darkness.
Gröning then films through a door left slightly ajar, so that the viewer peeks into the chapel where a lone monk kneels praying. He rings a bell and darkness falls again as the monks gather for their prayers.
These nebulous or furtive images serve to entice us into following the monks on this inner journey. The director reserves the first well-lit and clear shots for a young monk's entry into the Carthusian life. The sunlit chapel reveals the small group of European men seated in the choir stalls as a young African and a young Asian make their final vows.
The camera then accompanies the brothers into a monk's cell as they all gather around to pray for the young man's vocation. We, together with the young monk, are in. Those prayers are the last words we hear for a long while. The life of silence is imposed on the viewer.
No voices cover the sound of scraping wood or chopping vegetables of shoveling snow. We see the monks work at their mundane daily activities, punctuated by moments of private prayer.
At last, reprieve. On Sundays and holidays, the monks are allowed to go for a hike and they may speak to one another. The startling aspect of this is how gregarious the monks are and what a lively sense of humor some have. They haven't chosen a vow of silence because of surliness or taciturn dispositions, but to "empty oneself in order to allow the Word of God to flower within."
Only three-quarters into the film are we allowed to witness the most intimate part of the monks' world, their sacramental life.
First the film shows daily activities, with long intermittent close-ups of the individual brothers as they stare into the camera. Then we enter more private realms -- the treatment of an ailing priest, a visit to the barbershop -- but we only witness the monks before the Blessed Sacrament or celebrating Mass after we have explored every other aspect of their lives.
This is definitely not a film for everyone. At two and half hours, "Into Great Silence" demands an intense commitment of the viewer, a tiny taste of the commitment made by these monks to give themselves over to this way of life. Lingering shots of falling raindrops or budding flowers allow us to gauge the different sense of time experienced by those who have removed themselves from this world.
As an art historian, I found it interesting that the director forced us to look at a single thing for such a long time -- a discipline almost lost in today's world of lightening fast images. As the camera panned away from the monastery at the end of the film, it seems as if part of us is still caught behind those walls.
* * *
A Trek for the Soul
When we think of a Michelangelo itinerary in Rome, we think of the Sistine Chapel, St. Peter in Chains and St. Peter's Basilica. But beyond tracing the artistic footsteps of this great Florentine, we can also tread in his spiritual path. The road of the traditional Seven Pilgrim Churches of Rome is an itinerary that has been walked by eight popes, several saints, and millions of faithful over the years.
As Rome's physical foundation took place on seven hills, so her Christian foundation rests on seven churches; St. Peter's, St. Paul's Outside the Walls, St. John Lateran, St. Sebastian, Holy Cross, St. Mary Major and St. Lawrence Outside the Walls. To walk to all seven churches is a circuit of about 14 miles.
Pilgrims during the medieval period of Rome used to visit the seven churches during the course of their long stays in the Eternal City, but the origin of this itinerary dates back to the Counter-Reformation and St. Philip Neri.
The pre-Lenten period of Rome has been celebrated as carnival since time immemorial, but in the 16th century the excesses of carnival became legendary. Bruegel's "Battle between Carnival and Lent" provides an apt albeit exaggerated image on the confusion between sacred and profane rife at the time.
In 1552, St. Philip Neri, always alert to how to cajole the populace into dedicating more time for the soul, proposed a sort of spiritual carnival with processions and picnics. Singing and strolling through the historical testimonies of Rome's ancient Christian origins, he brought the Romans on the "Via Paradisi," the Road to Paradise.
The churches they visited reminded the pilgrims of the earliest Christian community, buried in the catacombs under St. Sebastian. They remembered the blood of the martyrs spilled in emulation of Christ in a time when Christianity didn't mean parties and festivals but persecution and death.
They saw the tombs of St. Peter and Paul and recognized Rome's great honor and responsibility as the headquarters of the church. And they prayed in the first Western church dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, a reminder of Rome's leadership in Marian devotion.
The initiative was wildly successful and eventually the Pope conceded an indulgence to the practice. From 1575 to 1950 (when the tradition stopped) many a celebrated visitor to Rome walked the Road to Paradise.
Michelangelo was 80 when he traveled to the seven churches. Because of his advanced age he was allowed to ride a horse for the long journey and the Pope granted him a special double indulgence, one for himself and one for someone else, as thanks for Michelangelo's work on St. Peter's.
The cultural association Sotto il Cielo di Roma (Under the Rome Sky) in collaboration with the Oratorians' Chiesa Nuova started reproposing the itinerary this spring. So perhaps among the Colosseum, the Piazza Navona and shopping in Via Condotti, a few visitors might discover tourism for the soul.
* * *
One of things tourists love to see during their spring stays is the vast number of weddings. Cameras swing away from ruins and monuments to eagerly capture brides and grooms dressed in their wedding finery. An exhibit in the Church of San Carlo al Corso, "Ceremonial Clothing from 1700 to 1940: Sacraments in Christian Life Seen through Fashions," explores a time when people dressed up for all the sacraments.
The exhibit, tucked away in the crypt space of the church, opens in a long hall with a large wooden crucifix at the far end. Liturgical robes, made of red or white silk and embroidered with gold thread, are arrayed below, in memory of the wondrous copes and chasubles worn by the clergy when processing with the Blessed Sacrament or celebrating holidays such as Easter and Christmas.
Around these priestly garments are a number of other white robes, some in silk and some in cotton with fine lace and tiny pearl embroidery or intricate needlework. These are the clothes worn in years past for baptisms, first Communion or weddings. The preciousness of the workmanship of many of these gowns expressed the importance of receiving the sacrament.
Even dresses worn for Sunday Mass were elaborate affairs. A solemn and elegant black silk gown from the late 19th century, with a high lace collar and jet beads embroidered on the bodice, was ordered and worn by a noblewoman to Mass.
Leading away from the central exhibition space are many ladies dresses, from 1800s tea dresses to "walking dresses" to stunningly ornate bodices from the 1700s. Several outfits for young women from the early 20th century are on display. The pretty floral patterns or pastel colors and soft cotton material in modest flattering styles are a far cry from many of the tawdry outfits that the clothes sellers in fashionable Via del Corso outside foist on young women today.
Interesting tidbits from the history of fashion light up the show. I was interested to learn how Irish lace (originally produced as cheaper alternative to Venetian lace) was made with crochet hooks instead of needles. This lace developed by Irish nuns became very popular and in famine-struck Ireland of the 1850s, the sisters taught Irish wives and mothers how to make this coveted commodity so as to be able to support their families.
These fine clothes reflect an age when people drew a sharp distinction between the profane everyday activities and their sacred Christian life. The very act of dressing in fine clothes and preparing a proper appearance for Mass reflected the inner preparation that one would make before attending the liturgy, such as prayer and confession. In this world, to put on "one's Sunday best," meant to dress up both the body and the soul.
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