first printed in the July/August 2009 issue of Tikkun.
by Michael Eigen
Philip Groning, a German filmmaker, asked monks of the Grande Chartreuse for permission to make a documentary of their day-to-day life. Sixteen years later, he received permission to do so. He lived in this reclusive world in the French Alps for half a year. The result, the film Into Great Silence, is a moving testament to a life of prayer.
The documentary shows the monks in their daily routines of prayer, work, ritual, discussions, haircuts, and hikes. The vow of silence is a thread that knits life together. Even when monks are interviewed, one can feel how quiet prayer informs their words.
Watching the initiation of new monks and an older man’s steps toward death, I did not experience the prurience of the camera so much as the affirmation of the human spirit that it revealed: in this case, the human spirit in contact with divine reality. If not a window on the soul, the camera provided glimpses of soul-states not usually honored in ordinary life, and I felt a sense of relief that I would like to try to share.
I had an immediate sense of recognition, particularly when seeing the men’s faces in prolonged, silent prayer. The movie touched something in my spiritual core and had the effect of diminishing shame. When I saw the faces in prayer and meditation, I felt shells of shame begin to fall off my soul and inner body. Their faces were the way I felt, and seeing them gave me a kind of permission to live that part of me more fully, less apologetically, less defensively.
In our society, to be a man often means to be aggressive, achieving, and out for power, sex, or money. Yet these faces, these supplicants, were unashamed of the deep intimacy with God they touched and courted. To court God in deepest intimacy seemed a freeing gift. The term “supplicant” resonates with “supple.” Instead of harsh, to be supple. To unabashedly spend time with Intimate Presence-as much time as one wants or can.
Witnessing the priests’ supplication helped free me to meditate and pray for longer periods, following the moment, on my knees, standing, sitting, head in hands, hands uplifted, head bowed, head lifted, heartfelt, ordinary, bored, caring. It is a wonderful thing to give oneself this time, this contact with the Deep One. Perhaps at my stage in life, moving toward the end, time is more precious and the need for the Deepest of All is pressing.
I needed the faces of these monks but didn’t know it. As soon as I saw them, I felt my own face more, my inner face. What the faces of the monks gave me was permission to come out of closets I didn’t know I was in: spiritual closets. To come out in the open, again, in new ways, touching silent depths-freeing depths that one fears and needs but, all too often, rushes past and fails to access.