Speaking of Silence

Beyond words and Into Great Silence

At the beginning of March, Philip Groning’s film Into Great Silence—a two-hour and forty-minute meditation on life in the Grande Chartreuse Carthusian monastery in southeastern France—opened at a theatre in New York City for a two-week run. But when each of the three daily showings continued to sell out, the theatre owners put a “Held Over” sign on the marquee after the film’s title. Now, at month’s end, it’s still playing to a full house. Patrons are buying their tickets on-line the day before in order to ensure they get a seat.

All this for a film in which, for the first two hours, the loudest sounds are of rain falling, birds chirping, an axe splitting wood, and the monastery bell ringing. Could the film’s popularity the heart of Gotham (it has already found a large audience in France and Germany) be a stronger statement of how starved our souls are for quiet, introspection, contemplation, prayer?

You Seduced Me

Groning’s film is so quiet that when the fellow sitting in front of me folded up his paper popcorn bag to put it under his seat, heads all around turned in his direction as if to say, “Who’s making all that noise?”

A number of times in the course of the film, the scriptural verses “You seduced me, Lord, and I was seduced” are displayed on screen. One could be forgiven for asking “By what?” because one of the most striking features of scene after scene is the simple ordinariness of life in the monastery.

Eating. Working. Praying. Getting your hair cut. Repairing your work boots. Shoveling snow. Planting the garden. There are scenes that fix upon a glass of water. An apple cut in half. Ice melting.

Into Great Silence conveys the important spiritual lesson that union with God is found in the ordinariness of daily life. It comes in learning to live contemplatively by taking a long, loving look at the real. Union with God is found in doing small things with great love, hinging your happiness not on fortune or fame but to fidelity in one’s daily responsibilities. The contemplative life is about facts, about what is, and seeing it with new eyes.

God in Daily Life

The scriptures are full of stories about people who contemplated life as they lived and were rewarded with life-giving insight: Mary’s response to becoming a mother. Elizabeth’s grasp of what it meant when the child in her womb leaped at Mary’s greeting. Simeon and Anna’s recognition of the child Jesus in the temple. John the Baptist’s encounter with Jesus at the river Jordan.

These stories would suggest that our primary source of prayer and faith is the experience that each one of us has of the action of God’s Spirit in the normal course of our daily activities. An adult in faith must trust his or her experience of God in daily life. The simple experience of living, whether in a monastery or a home or an office or factory, is the soil out of which the movement of prayer most authentically springs.

“The film conveys the important spiritual lesson that union with God is found in the ordinariness of daily life. It comes in learning to live contemplatively by taking a long, loving look at the real.”

In other words, ordinary people have all the essential resources they need—their life experience and the Holy Spirit present to them in it all—to develop an abiding awareness of the Mystery that enfolds their lives. Reality is not just data to be analyzed, but a Mystery to be plumbed. It’s the reverential running of the heart’s finger over what is.


But honing our “sense of God” takes practice. It requires prayer. When we do not protect time in our lives to come before God in silence for even a few minutes a day, we risk losing our awareness of that loving Mystery everywhere present to us.

All too often we squeeze out silence by multi-tasking for stimulation. We jog and listen to music on our Ipods. We walk with our cellphones glued to our ears. In our homes the TV or radio provides constant background noise.

In the pre-Industrial period, the noises people heard were largely natural sounds. In our modern era, the sounds of nature are now exceptional and the sounds of machinery and technology are commonplace and dominant.

Normal Noise

Noise now seems normal and even good. It is quiet that is suspect, foreign, and threatening. We engage in an approach/avoidance conflict with silence: we want what it promises but flee from its subtle invitation.

Silence cannot be generated, created or manipulated. It slowly and gently emerges into awareness, coming like a gift with a life and will of its own. Silence feels as if it is arriving, natural and personal, from the very center of reality. Its appeal develops with growth in awareness and attentiveness.

Yet, it can simultaneously feel unusual or different. It can seem vast and awesome while mediating a presence that is overwhelmingly benign and life-giving. It has been said that silence is God’s first language and that all the rest is translation.

When the movie ended, my friend and I filed past yet another line-up of New Yorkers curious about and hungry for an experience of going Into Great Silence. As for ourselves, our thirty minute trip home by sidewalk and subway passed without a word being spoken between us.

Need I say more about the bewitching power of silence?