MattAndJojang's Blog

God. Life. Spirituality.

Posts Tagged ‘Contemplative Spirituality

The Inner Journey: Thomas Merton’s Contemplative Spirituality

with 5 comments

Journey

Photo: Johannes Plenio

Many times I find myself wishing that we had a concordance of Merton’s writings. A concordance would make it easy to locate Merton texts we remember reading, but can’t recall where we read them. It would help us also to find the many ways in which he used a particular term. It would enable us to clarify his understanding of a particular topic by putting together the things he wrote on that topic. I hope someday this project will come to fruition. Anybody out there who would like to help? I might add that at the present time we do have The Thomas Merton Encyclopedia, which has some 350 entries that bring together Merton’s thinking on a wide variety of topics. I have to confess to a personal interest in this work, since I am one of its three authors. Clearly an encyclopedia is not a concordance, but it does give at least a bit of help in this direction. Particularly helpful is the paperback edition of the Encyclopedia, which has an extensive index.

It would be interesting to guess which topic would have the most entries in a Merton concordance. I would be willing to bet that “contemplation” would be at the top or near it. In one of Merton’s early books of poetry there is a poem based on Psalm 137. The psalmist, writing in exile, vows the depth of his commitment to the holy city of Jerusalem. Plaintively, he cries out:“Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you,…Jerusalem….” In his poem Merton pictures himself as an exile seeking the land of promise and makes the vow:

May my bones burn and ravens eat my flesh,
If I forget thee, contemplation.

Though this poem was written early in his monastic life (1949), I believe it can be said that he remained faithful to its commitment to the very end. And that commitment involved not only making his own life contemplative but helping others to do the same.

Contemplation: The Impossible Dream?

As I write this, I wonder when you, the reader, first heard about contemplation? Was it in connection with certain extraordinary people (John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila) who achieved a life of contemplation? If this was the case, did your reading about them help you to see contemplation as a viable experience for yourself? Or was it something to admire in these unusual people, but hardly something that could find a place in your own life? I ask these questions because I believe that many people in the not-too-distant past thought of contemplation as an elitist experience given only to a few and not even to be thought of by the rest of us. And many today, I believe, still think that way. I quite readily admit that that was my thinking for all too long a time in my life. What changed my attitude and encouraged me to think that contemplation was a possibility for me was my reading Merton and studying his writings.

Contemplation: Dangerous Involvement?

In fact, I can remember the first talk I gave inviting people to look to contemplation as the ordinary flowering of the baptismal vocation. It was sometime in the early 1970s. I was then a member of the liturgical commission of our diocese and was invited to address the commission at its annual day of retreat. It was the time in my life when I was beginning to study Merton’s writings in earnest, especially what he had to say about contemplation. I decided to throw discretion to the wind and talk about “The Contemplative Dimensions of the Sacraments.” My talk was followed by a rather heated discussion. One of the commission members was quite uneasy about what I had said. “My concern,” he told us, “is that contemplation is a dangerous thing to get involved in. It means delving into areas of our lives that are deep and ambiguous and confusing. Encouraging people to be contemplatives could easily lead them astray.”

I was quite willing to admit that talking about contemplation (at least at that time) was a bit daring and getting involved in it (at practically any time) could easily be dangerous. It’s dangerous because it leads me into unexplored areas of my person. It is dangerous because it puts me into contact with my contingency, my utter dependence, my nothingness. Contemplation is, to quote Merton, “An awareness of our contingent reality as received, as a present from God, as a free gift of love.” My ego gets pushed out of the central place in my life, for that place belongs only to God. In Merton’s words:“The only true joy on earth is to escape from the prison of our own self-hood … and enter by love into union with the Life Who dwells and sings within the essence of every creature and in the core of our own souls.”

More than all this, contemplation undoes my perception of God. I come to realize that I do not know who God is at all. Up to then I had thought that my language was adequate to deal with God. But in contemplation I am in the presence of a Reality I do not understand, I am Jacob struggling through the night and demanding of his “Adversary”:“What is your name?” and receiving no answer. I am like Zachary in the temple, struck dumb by what he experienced. The words I used to use so glibly now stick in my throat. I thought I knew how to say: “God.” Now I am reduced to silence. No matter what I say about God it is so far from the divine Reality that I am forced to unsay it. I find myself blinded by the dazzling light of a Reality I thought I knew.

Fallen Idols Along the Contemplative Way

All along the contemplative way lie fallen images of the false gods that I had created or my culture or my religion had created for me and that now I have to give up, for they are no more than idols. A few examples: the god who is “up there,” not “here”; the god who is an object or a being (even supreme being) among other beings; the god with whom I carry on friendly, cozy conversations; the god made in the image of my own prejudices (who is probably white, male and American); the god who rewards and punishes; the god who is so obviously male and paternalistic. Contemplation, Merton says, “is a terrible breaking and burning of idols, a purification of the sanctuary, so that no graven thing may occupy the place that God has commanded to be left empty: the center, the existential altar which simply ‘is.’ In the end the contemplative suffers the anguish of realizing that he no longer knows what God is.”

When contemplation begins to “take hold” in our lives, we are conscious, without fully understanding it, that we are in this God whom we can no longer name and that this God is in us. Distinct from God, we are yet not separate from God. We feel scorched by the terrifying immediacy of the presence of One whom we had thought we could keep at a safe and comfortable distance. We find that this God cannot be kept in a secure or predetermined place: This God is everywhere.

Getting back to my talk to the diocesan liturgical commission, I readily confess I would not have given that talk (in fact would not even have thought of giving it), were it not for Thomas Merton. He was writing a chunk of American history when he wrote in The Seven Storey Mountain: “America is discovering the contemplative life.” And for many (myself included) he was the spiritual master who led the way to that discovery. As I have said on many occasions, Thomas Merton made “contemplation” a household word.

Teach Contemplation?

This is not to say that he was a teacher of contemplation. As he himself put it, it is as impossible to attempt to teach people “how to be a contemplative,” as it would be to teach them “how to be an angel.” For contemplation is an awakening to a whole new level of reality, which cannot even be clearly explained. “It can only be hinted at, suggested, pointed to, symbolized.” He did believe, however, that an aptitude for contemplation can be awakened in people. But this is possible only if they have already had good human experiences. Only those who have learned to see with their own eyes, hear with their own ears, taste with their own tongues and experience with their whole being are apt candidates for the contemplative life. Television addicts, people whose lives continually need external stimulation, who have never opened themselves to their own inner truth, live lives so low in authenticity that a contemplative life would simply be out of their reach. They need to have opportunities for normal wholesome human experiences before it makes any sense even to talk to them about contemplation. And let us face the fact that the culture we live in, with its emphasis on the external and the superficial, its penchant for pleasure and ease, its production-driven mentality, its tendency to emphasize rights over responsibilities, does not provide good soil in which the good seed of contemplation can grow and develop.

We Are All Contemplatives!

Yet that seed is really present in all of us. There is a sense in which it can be said that we are all contemplatives, because whether we know it or not we are in God. This interiority and depth are present in all of us and can be reached by those who are willing to submit to the discipline that a contemplative way of life demands. While this discipline may require a change in behavior, its principal aim is to achieve a transformation of consciousness whereby we view reality differently. We discover the true God at the very center of our being and ourselves as nothing apart from God. With this discovery a new life dawns. We are liberated from selfishness. The egoself (which in reality is a false self) is discarded like “an old snake skin” (to use Merton’s words) and we come to recognize our true self which all the while had been hidden in God. The true self is not a separate or isolated reality, but one with everyone and everything in God. Thus we find not only our own identity, but also our inextricable link with all our sisters and brothers in God. This is the contemplative vision. It begets compassion and nonviolent love.

Contemplation: Awakening to the Real in All Reality

This is why Merton tells us over and over that contemplation is a state of heightened consciousness. “Contemplation,” he writes, “is the highest expression of man’s intellectual and spiritual life. It is that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive.” One is reminded of Evelyn Underhill’s words: “Only the mystic can be called a whole man, since in others half the powers of the self always sleep.”

Contemplation, Merton tells us, is “an awakening to the Real in all that is real.” The word “real” is an important word in the Merton vocabulary. If you look to the Oxford English Dictionary, you will find “real” described as applying “to whatever is regarded as having an existence in fact and not merely in appearance, thought or language or as having an absolute, a necessary, in contrast to a merely contingent, existence.” Now that definition of “real” may not make you jump up and down with joy. Not many definitions do! But this OED statement makes an important distinction. The word “real” has two meanings. It may mean that which exists in fact, but contingently. To exist contingently indicates dependence: it means existing not on one’s own, but derivatively. It means deriving one’s existence from another. The second meaning of “real” designates that which not only exists in fact, but exists absolutely and necessarily. What exists absolutely and necessarily exists in its own right, totally independent of anything or anyone else. Since the contingently “real” depends on the absolutely “Real,” to see the first aright one must see the second. In other words, you do not see the “contingently real” as it truly is, until you see it in the absolutely “Real.” When you achieve this vision, you have achieved the contemplative vision. This is the meaning of Merton’s words which I quoted at the beginning of this paragraph: “Contemplation is an awakening to the [absolutely] Real in all that is [contingently] real.” To be unaware of God at the heart of all reality, as the Source and Sustainer of all that is, is to fail to see reality as it is. It is to pretend that the contingently real can exist without the absolutely Real. It is going through life half-awake, or even worse, it is to live a contradiction.

On January 15, 1966, Merton responds to a correspondent who was involved in helping people make career changes, and who asks Merton if he has any advice for such people. Merton replies that, whatever the changes may be that we make in life, “We should decide not in view of better pay, higher rank, ‘getting ahead,’ but in view of becoming more real, entering more authentically into direct contact with life.” Direct contact with life means recognizing the derivative existence of everything that is and awakening to the presence of God, from whom all reality derives. It is to awaken to the contemplative dimension of reality. It is the discovery of God within us.

Two Ways of Prayer

In 1961 Thomas Merton put together a fifty-three-page collection of prayers for the novices at Gethsemani. It includes selections from the Scriptures, the Fathers of the Church, the Cistercian Fathers of the thirteenth century, the English mystics and others. The most interesting part of the book for me is the one-page introduction that Merton himself wrote. In this introduction, he speaks of two kinds of prayer:“Prayer is not only the ‘lifting up of the mind and heart to God,’ but also the response to God within us, the discovery of God within us.” The first type of prayer is probably the one we are most accustomed to: lifting the mind and heart to God, generally with words. This is often called vocal prayer, prayer in which we use words to praise, thank and petition God as well as to express our repentance. The second type of prayer to which Merton refers, “response to God within, the discovery of God within us,” is a way of prayer that is less familiar to most people. This is the prayer of silence, when we try simply to be in the presence of God, without words, thoughts, ideas. It is sometimes called “centering prayer” or “prayer of the heart” or “prayer of awareness.”

Contemplation as the Highest Degree of Awareness of God

There are various degrees of awareness of God’s presence in our lives or of our “discovery of God within us.” The highest degree is what we call contemplative prayer. Contemplative prayer, which is so total an awareness of God that nothing can distract us from the divine presence, is not something we can earn. It is not something we do. It is always God’s special gift, given not on demand, but when and as often as God wills it. Yet our God is a generous God who does not withhold gifts when we are ready for them. Merton writes in that page of introduction to the Selections of Prayer:

Prayer is an expression of our complete dependence on a hidden and mysterious God. It is therefore nourished by humility….We should never seek to reach some supposed “summit of prayer” out of spiritual ambition. We should seek to enter deep into the life of prayer, not in order that we may glory in it as an “achievement,” but because in this way we can come close to the Lord Who seeks to do us good, Who seeks to give us His mercy, and to surround us with His love. To love prayer is, then, to love our own poverty and His mercy.

What a great sentence that is: To love prayer is to love our own poverty and God’s mercy!

Daily Perseverance

If we are to prepare ourselves for this total awareness of God’s presence which is contemplation, we need to spend time in silence and quiet, simply being in God’s presence. This needs to be a daily practice. Perseverance is the key; humility is the disposition—a willingness to admit how distracted we so often are, yet the determination to be more attentive, realizing that God wills our attentiveness so much more than we do or ever could.

Perseverance will inevitably effect changes in the way we live our lives. Experiencing our oneness with God brings the realization that what is true of us is true of all our sisters and brothers: They too are one with God. This makes it possible for us to experience our oneness with them and indeed with all that is. We are more alert to treat people with love and concern, because we experience that oneness.

Methods of Prayer?

After several years as novice master, Merton was pleased with the way his novices were “progressing” in prayer. He was not overly directive regarding their prayer lives. On the contrary, writing in September of 1964, he said to one of his correspondents (and what he says is a helpful word for us too):

I must say that there is a good proportion of contemplative prayer in the novitiate. I don’t use special methods. I try to make them love the freedom and peace of being with God alone in faith and simplicity, to abolish all divisiveness and diminish all useless strain and concentration on one’s own efforts…

This is a good text on which to close our reflection on contemplation. “Getting our minds off ourselves” is key. As Merton wrote in The Sign of Jonas:“If we would find God in the depths of our souls we have to leave everybody else outside, including ourselves.” Even more emphatically in an earlier text in that journal, he puts it very simply: “[T]he important thing is not to live for contemplation, but to live for God.”

–William Shannon

Advertisements

Written by MattAndJojang

September 26, 2018 at 3:49 pm

Healing The Divide: A Book Review

leave a comment »

Healing The Divide Cover

Amos Smith‘s Healing The Divide: Recovering Christianity’s Mystic Roots is a joy to read!

As a lay person who has studied our Christian mystical heritage (my favorites are Meister Eckhart, the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, and St. John of the Cross) for 40+ years now, I’ve come to almost similar conclusions as the author. The themes that he tackles in his book, like paradox as the key to understanding Jesus, the nondual approach to Christianity, the transformative power of contemplative prayer, compassion and social justice as the fruit of spiritual practice really resonates with me.

Our Christian theology since the Middle Ages has become over-analytical and too rational, leaving no room for paradox and mystery. This has resulted in a Christianity that is too intellectual, legalistic, formal and rigid – and for the most part irrelevant to the contemporary person. What the 21st century man or woman wants is a direct encounter with God. And this is what is meant by Christian mysticism – a direct experience of God through the person of Jesus, which results in personal transformation as well as the transformation of our society.

If I’m not mistaken, this is what the book advocates, based on a theology which sees the person of Jesus through the eyes of the Christian mystics, specifically the Alexandrian mystics. And herein lays the value of the book: it is not just a book only about mysticism but about Christian mysticism, solidly built on a Christology based on what the author refers to as the “Jesus Paradox.”

Like the author, I’m convinced that paradox is the key to understanding the deepest truths in life, and that includes the truth about Jesus. Another author puts it this way:

Paradox is the best form of language for expressing some of the fundamental truths of human existence.

Jesus is not only divine, neither is he only human. He is absolutely divine and relatively human! This is the key to understanding Christian mysticism. And for those who can absorb it– this could be a life-changing experience!

What the book offers us is a fresh approach to Christianity that is not only based on theology (although the book is very theologically sound), but one that is also based on a personal encounter with God – an encounter which leads to personal transformation.

Highly recommended!

–Matt

The Monastery

with 2 comments

Worth Abbey Church

Worth Abbey Church

A few years ago BBC asked a Benedictine monastery to open its doors to 5 ordinary men to share in the lifestyle of the monks. Does the 1500-year-old spiritual vision of the monks have relevance in our day and age? What does the monastery have to offer to our frenetic, materialistic, consumeristic society?

Abbot Christopher Jamison says:

We saw in this project an opportunity to discover what our way of life offers to people today who do not share our beliefs.

The 5 participants, although coming from different backgrounds, had a common desire to find out if life has meaning. The challenge for them is: Will they be able to follow the strict rules of the monastery? Will they be able to live a life of silence, simplicity, prayer, study, and manual labor for 40 days?

Tony Burke is 29 years old. He’s single, lives in London, and works in an ad agency, producing trailers for a sex chat line. He has recently questioned the materialistic and hedonistic life he’s living. He doesn’t believe in God, and has no religious background. Will he be able to turn around his life?

Gary McCormick is from Belfast. He is 36 years old and single. He currently lives in Cornwall, where he works as a painter and decorator. He struggles with his faith, and the emotional scars he carries from spending time in prison early in his life. Will he be able to cope with the pain in his life and move on?

Nick Buxton is 37 years old and single. Studying for a PhD in Buddhism at Cambridge University, he has been on a spiritual search for the past 10 years. Coming back recently to his Anglican roots, he’s questioning some of the tenets of his faith. Will he be able to make that leap of faith?

Anthoney Wright is a high-earning 32-year-old bachelor from London. He works for a legal publishing company. He has issues stemming from the fact that his mother abandoned him when he was a child. Will he be able to find inner peace?

Peter Gruffyd is a married published poet and a retired teacher, living in Bristol. Having rejected religion when he was a young man, he would like to know if life makes sense. Will he be able to find the answer to his question: “What is the meaning of life?”

To find out watch the episodes of “The Monastery” by clicking the links below:

The Monastery: Episode 1

The Monastery: Episode 2

The Monastery: Episode 3

The Monastery Revisited

–Matt

Written by MattAndJojang

October 2, 2014 at 1:10 pm

Thomas Merton

with 4 comments

Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton was born in Prades, France, to artists, Ruth and Owen Merton. His early years were spent in the south of France; later, he went to private school in England and then to Cambridge. Both of his parents were deceased by the time Merton was a young teen and he eventually moved to his grandparents’ home in the United States to finish his education at Columbia University in New York City. While a student there, he completed a thesis on William Blake who was to remain a lifelong influence on Merton’s thought and writings.

But Merton’s active social and political conscience was also informed by his conversion to Christianity and Catholicism in his early twenties. He worked for a time at Friendship House under the mentorship of Catherine Doherty and then began to sense a vocation in the priesthood. In December 1941, he resigned his teaching post at Bonaventure College, Olean, NY, and journeyed to the Abbey of Gethsemani, near Louisville, Kentucky. There, Merton undertook the life of a scholar and man of letters, in addition to his formation as a Cistercian monk.

The thoroughly secular man was about to undertake a lifelong spiritual journey into monasticism and the pursuit of his own spirituality. The more than 50 books, 2000 poems, and numerous essays, reviews, and lectures that have been recorded and published, now form the canon of Merton’s writings. His importance as a writer in the American literary tradition is becoming clear. His influence as a religious thinker and social critic is taking its place alongside such luminaries as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Flannery O’Connor, and Martin Luther King. His explorations of the religions of the east initiated Merton’s entrance into inter-religious dialogue that puts him in the pioneering forefront of worldwide ecumenical movements. Merton died suddenly, electrocuted by a malfunctioning fan, while he was attending his first international monastic conference near Bangkok, Thailand, in 1968.

~Source: Thomas Merton Society of Canada

Click Here to Watch a Short Documentary about Thomas Merton

Written by MattAndJojang

November 29, 2013 at 10:23 am

Monk Manifesto

with 4 comments

Monk: from the Greek monachos meaning single or solitary, a monk in the world does not live apart but immersed in the everyday with a single-hearted and undivided presence, always  striving for greater wholeness and integrity.

Manifesto: from the Latin for clear, means a public declaration of principles and intentions.

Monk Manifesto: A public expression of your commitment to live a compassionate, contemplative, and creative life.

1. I commit to finding moments each day for silence and solitude, to make space for another voice to be heard, and to resist a culture of noise and constant stimulation.

2. I commit to radical acts of hospitality by welcoming the stranger both without and within. I recognize that when I make space inside my heart for the unclaimed parts of myself, I cultivate compassion and the ability to accept those places in others.

3. I commit to cultivating community by finding kindred spirits along the path, soul friends with whom I can share my deepest longings, and mentors who can offer guidance and wisdom for the journey.

4. I commit to cultivating awareness of my kinship with creation and a healthy asceticism by discerning my use of energy and things, letting go of what does not help nature to flourish.

5. I commit to bringing myself fully present to the work I do, whether paid or unpaid, holding a heart of gratitude for the ability to express my gifts in the world in meaningful ways.

6. I commit to rhythms of rest and renewal through the regular practice of Sabbath and resist a culture of busyness that measures my worth by what I do.

7. I commit to a lifetime of ongoing conversion and transformation, recognizing that I am always on a journey with both gifts and limitations.

© Christine Valters Paintner

Written by MattAndJojang

March 25, 2012 at 9:57 am

Speaking of God

with 2 comments

Photo: TrueLight Expressions/Flickr

As we begin talking about God, I need to sound an important warning: We must be careful how we speak of seeking God. It is not the same as seeking some object, say, a new car or a new house. We must not reduce God to the status of an “object” or a “thing,” as if God were something that could be grasped or possessed in the way we possess riches or knowledge or some other created entity. Nor must we seek God outside ourselves…

For God is not an “object” or “thing.” God’s infinity, as the word implies, knows no boundaries; hence we cannot “define” God as we define things in the world… If we are to line up all the beings that exist or ever have existed, God would not be one of them. This is to say God is not one of the beings God created. Rather God is the Source from which all beings derive and the ground in which they are continually sustained.

In a letter to a young Indian student in Cracow, Poland, Merton writes of the naive atheism of nineteenth-century scientism:

“They think that religious people believe in a God who is simply a ‘being’ among other beings, part of a series of beings, an ‘object’ which can be discovered and demonstrated. This of course is a false notion of God, the Absolute, the source and origin of all Being, beyond all beings and transcending them all and hence not to be sought as one among them.”

As soon as we verify God’s presence as an object of exact knowledge, God eludes us.

Now if God is not to be sought among the beings we know in this life, it follows that we cannot know God as we know created things. This makes sense does it not? Yet at the same time it is true that what we know about God we can know only through created things. For created things, insofar as they are real, participate in a limited way in the qualities and perfections of the One who alone is Absolutely Real. There is, as it were, “something of God” in every creature that exists. In experiencing creatures, we experience that “something of God.”

The words we use to describe creatures, therefore, can serve as metaphors or symbols that enable us to have some knowledge of God. As I write this, I can look out the window of my office and through that window I can get some very limited understanding of the universe. Compared to the immensity of the universe, what I know by looking out that window is practically nothing. Even if I looked through many windows and in different directions, the knowledge of the universe I would attain will be skimpy at best. Modern technology has made it possible for astronauts  to see the earth from out in space. Even that is meager knowledge compared to the entire universe, and while their knowledge increases quantitatively (they see more), it decreases qualitatively (they see less clearly). They cannot from their place in space see the earth in detail that I can see through my window.

The ideas, the concepts, the images, the symbols, the metaphors we use to describe God are like those windows through which we look out through the universe. They are images of created things  which, because there is “something of God” in them, can tell us something about God. Thus, in the image we have of a person we call “father” we can see something of God and hence can speak of God as “father.” (though some people have poor experiences of  “father” and for this reason find it difficult to describe God as “father”). In someone we call “mother” we can also experience “something of God” and, therefore, we can use the name “mother” to describe God. And there are many other images we can use, lover, spouse, guide, helper, to name a few. In a certain sense we can say “the more the merrier,” since each image, each concept, can give a different insight into God we can never know in any total sort of way.

Our language about God, then, is always inadequate. One way of putting this is to say that our experience of God is continually outstripping what we are able to say about the experience. Listen to Merton:

“As soon as we light these small matches which are our concepts: ‘intelligence,’ ‘love,’ ‘power,’ the tremendous reality of God Who infinitely exceeds all concepts suddenly bears down upon us like a dark storm and blows out all their flames.”

At the same time we must not underestimate the value and importance of the rich imagery that the Bible and our culture offer us. The richer the imagery, the more deeply will we be able to know about God through God’s creation. But let us be very clear: there is a huge difference between knowing about God through God’s creation and knowing God as God is in the divine Self. Knowing about God is “mediated” knowledge, that is, we know God through an intermediary. This normally is what we think of when we speak of God. And some would say: This is enough. Short of heaven and the beatific vision, we can only know God through the medium of creatures God made.

But there is a long tradition, the contemplative or mystical tradition – a tradition that was most congenial to Thomas Merton’s approach to spirituality – which claims we can know God immediately. This is to say that we can know the divine reality as It is in Itself, and not simply through the medium of images, metaphors, ideas, concepts. But to do this we have to turn off the lights of our mind, that is, we have to go beyond concepts and ideas. This means going into darkness. For when you turn off light you are in darkness. It also means going beyond words that would try to describe God. But to go beyond words is to go in silence. In darkness and silence the only light we have is faith, whereby we grasp God or rather we are grasped by God. Thus, when all of our concepts and images admit that they cannot truly know God, love cries out: “I know God!”

To put this another way, in contemplation we come to know that our very being is penetrated through and through with God’s love. God is the hidden ground of love in all that is. Hence as Merton puts it:

“Our knowledge of God is paradoxically a knowledge not of God as the object of scrutiny, but of ourselves as utterly dependent on his saving and merciful knowledge of us… We know him in and through ourselves in so far as his truth is the source of our being and his merciful love is the very heart of our life and existence.”

Knowing God in the darkness of a love that goes beyond all that human reason can know is the greatest joy and happiness  possible in this life.

~ William H. Shannon

Written by MattAndJojang

March 12, 2012 at 12:35 pm

Into Great Silence

with 7 comments

The Carthusian monks who are the subjects of Philip Gröning’s documentary “Into Great Silence” do not, as the film’s title suggests, have a great deal to say. Living in a light-filled stone charterhouse (as the order’s monasteries are called) in a picturesque valley in the French Alps, they bind themselves to a vow not of literal silence but of extreme reticence. They pray and sing aloud, alone and together, and once a week the elders take an outdoor stroll during which some chatting is permitted.

Mr. Gröning’s cameras (one of them operated by the pioneering digital videographer Anthony Dod Mantle) observe the brothers from afar, or unobtrusively within their cells, a discreet approach that occasionally gives way to head-on portraiture.

Only one monk, elderly and blind, speaks directly to the camera. Appearing near the end of the film, he muses on the nature of his vocation and the texture of his religious devotion. Past and present are human categories, he says, but “for God, there is no past, only present.” Viewed from this perspective — from the standpoint of eternity — “Into Great Silence,” with a running time of 162 minutes, is absurdly short.

Mr. Gröning, a German filmmaker, waited 16 years for permission to document the Carthusians, and this too seems like a trivial interval. The order was founded by St. Bruno of Cologne in 1084, and it appears that not much has changed in the lives of its adherents since then. A few concessions to modernity are visible: electric lights, a computer for keeping the books, and oranges and bananas in the middle of winter. But the rhythm of work, prayer and reflection —the attitude described as “joyful penitence” — flows in a cycle that feels not so much ancient as timeless.

And the film’s achievement is to capture, within a brief, elliptical span, this slow, delicate rhythm. “Into Great Silence” is not about the Carthusians in the conventional sense that documentaries are about their subjects. It offers no background on the history or theology of the order, nor any information about the biographies of individual monks. Though we do witness the initiation and adaptation of two novices, we learn nothing about their previous lives or their reasons for joining.

The psychology and philosophy of asceticism are not Mr. Gröning’s concern. He is after something more elusive and, from an aesthetic as well as an intellectual point of view, more valuable: a point of contact with the spiritual content of intense religious commitment.

He finds it by means of a visual style and an editing scheme that match the feeling and structure of the days and seasons as they pass through the charterhouse. Snow gives way to greenery, early morning light cycles around to darkness, and the viewer witnesses ordinary moments that add up to a persuasive representation of grace.

Not the thing itself — Mr. Gröning is not so vain as to suppose that a movie can provide a religious experience — but a preliminary understanding of its shape and weight. The sensual beauty of the images is part of this, but the film has more than lovely alpine vistas and arresting compositions of light and shade. Like the monks themselves, it is both humble and exalted.

And, in its way, eloquent. The idea of removing yourself entirely from the world is a radical one, and Mr. Gröning approaches it with fascination and a measure of awe. At first, as your mind adjusts to the film’s contemplative pace, you may experience impatience. Where is the story? Who are these people? But you surrender to “Into Great Silence” as you would to a piece of music, noting the repetitions and variations, encountering surprises just when you think you’ve figured out the pattern. By the end, what you have learned is impossible to sum up, but your sense of the world is nonetheless perceptibly altered.

I hesitate, given the early date and the project’s modesty, to call “Into Great Silence” one of the best films of the year. I prefer to think of it as the antidote to all of the others.

–A.O. Scott

Click Here to Watch the Trailer of the  Film

Written by MattAndJojang

February 25, 2012 at 6:00 pm