Today’s feast of St. Bruno (1030-1101) reminds me of the time I went to see the movie Into Great Silence back in 2005. Directed by Philip Gröning, it portrays the daily life of Carthusian monks in their monastery at Chartreuse, near Grenoble in France. This was the place where St. Bruno escaped with a few companions in 1084 to live an ascetic form of religious life among steep rocks and snow-covered mountains. It remains a vibrant community of monks today, who dedicate themselves to silence, simplicity, and prayer.
I recall a friend of mine inviting me to see Into Great Silence with the warning that the movie was over two and a half hours long with only about five minutes of dialogue; the remainder of the film was in silence. I remember wondering how such a film could possibly be a commercial success. As we know, a typical movie director is looking for a good storyline, engaging characters, plots and subplots, noise, action, romance, good guys and bad guys. Success is often equated with moving audiences to the edge of their seats. Therefore, the idea of making a film/documentary with none of these ingredients seemed a huge risk to say the least.
Nevertheless, I was curious, and so I went along. The theater was packed, and there was an atmosphere of awe over the full two and a half hours we were there. No one left early. My initial fears of boredom were soon replaced by a realization that the unhurried pace of life lived by these men of God was challenging my very understanding of time as dominated by activities and deadlines. The more the film progressed, the more it drew us into the beauty and simplicity of the life led by these monks. The witness of the elderly and vulnerable monks only added to the sense of enchantment, captured by a profoundly human and moving film.
The triumph of Into Great Silence stems from its ability to tell us more about ourselves than about the Carthusian monks and sons of St. Bruno. It tells us that despite our fear of silence, we also thirst for it. To face oneself in stillness is an essential exercise of knowing our true selves and knowing God.
First, knowing ourselves. We can only know ourselves by facing ourselves, once we’ve stopped running from ourselves. Floating into my mind as I write this is the 1982 song “I’ve Never Been to Me” by Charlene. The song tells of one woman’s journey to so-called paradise without really getting in touch with her true self. This task of getting in touch with our true selves is one that is not new. It was one that St. Augustine embraced after years of searching for happiness in futile places outside himself. For Augustine, this inner journey was not an end in itself but a prelude to giving himself away in self-sacrificing love: “First come back to yourself from the things outside you, and then give yourself back to the one who made you” (Sermon 330, 3).
This process of coming back to one’s true self can only be done in silence and prayer. From the witness of Augustine: “We are called home from the noise that is around us to the joys that are silent. Why do we rush about . . . looking for God who is here at home with us, if all we want is to be with him?” (On the Trinity). When Augustine did manage to enter into himself in silence, not all he saw was pretty: “Lord, you turned my attention back to myself. . . . And I looked and was appalled. . . . You thrust me before my own eyes so that I should discover my iniquity and hate it” (Confessions).
This can be our experience too when we shed our fear of solitude and silence. We face up to the things we have been fleeing from for a long time—our sinfulness, wounds, loneliness, and incompleteness. Silence pulls us back into the real. As Thomas Merton masterfully put it, “It is the silence of the world that is real. Our noise, our business, our purposes, and all our fatuous statements about our purposes, our business, and our noise: these are the illusion” (No Man Is an Island). The silence also puts us in touch with our dignity as God’s beloved and the freedom to rejoice in the goodness and blessedness in the created world around us. Again, in the words of Merton, “There is in all things an inexhaustible sweetness and purity, a silence that is a fount of action and joy. It rises up in the wordless gentleness and flows out to me from the unseen roots of all created being, welcoming tenderly, saluting me with indescribable humility. This is at once my own being, my own nature, and the gift of my Creator’s thought and art within me” (The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton).
Silence is also the space in which God reveals himself. Into this silence, he speaks his word. Immersed in silence, we listen to God with “the ears of the heart” (St. Benedict, The Rule). God who speaks not in noise but in gentle whispers (1 Kings 19:11–12). Before significant moments of preaching and decisions in his life, Jesus spent time in silent prayer to listen to the promptings of the Father and the Spirit. He spent forty days of silence in the desert before he began his public ministry (Matt. 4:1ff; Mark 1:12; Luke 4:1ff). He withdrew by himself in prayer before choosing the Twelve (Luke 6:12-19). The time the Lord dedicated to silence and contemplation nurtured his intimate relationship with the Father and gave birth to his words and actions that followed.
As his disciples, our thoughts, words, and actions need to be preceded by silence too. Yet this is the silence we continually run away from and only face uncomfortably. Why? Perhaps the answer lies in our restless hearts seeking fulfillment in things other than God. Only a conscious “remaining in the moment” encounter with God in silence can bring that stillness and rest we crave. It is where God’s thirst for us meets our thirst for him.
Into Great Silence succeeded because it took us by the hand and gently led us back into the silence that is so undervalued and unsought in our culture. It taught us not to be afraid of silence, nor to run away from it. We discovered that the silence embraced by St. Bruno and lived by the Carthusian monks becomes not a burden but the space in which we can know ourselves more deeply and know God better. Free from distractions and noise, it leads us deeper into reality and all that is true.
Blaise Pascal once lamented that “all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone” (Pensées). On this feast day of St. Bruno, we give thanks to God and the Carthusians for teaching us not to flee from solitude and the sound of silence. For it is in silence that we encounter both our misery and God’s mercy—our blessedness and God’s intimate union with us. There, we find the graceful silence lived by the monks at Chartreuse—the silence and stillness they invite us to cherish and cultivate every day.