Some lessons in spiritual life

By  Fr. Tom Ryan, CSP, Catholic Register Special
  • April 17, 2007

At the beginning of March, Philip Groning’s film Into Great Silence came into a theatre in New York that specializes in foreign films. It was advertised as having a two-week run. But when each of the three daily showings continued to sell out, the theatre owners put “Held Over” up on the marquis. Now, at month’s end, it’s still playing to full houses. The DVD went on sale in Canada April 3.

Could there be a stronger statement of how starved our souls are for quiet, introspection, contemplation, prayer? For over the first two hours of this two hour and 40 minute film shot in the Grande Chartreuse Carthusian monastery in France, the loudest sounds are of rain falling, birds chirping, an axe splitting wood and the monastery bell ringing.

It is so quiet that when the fellow in front of me folded up his popcorn bag, heads all around turned in his direction as if to say, “Who’s making that noise?”

You don’t even get into the “smells and the bells” of monastery life until past the two-hour mark in the film. Then, with benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, there is a short procession with candles, clouds of incense and chanting.

About five times in the course of the film, the same three scriptural verses are put up on the screen, though not all three at the same time. One of them is: “You seduced me, Lord, and I was seduced.” 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.

{sa B000MX7UE4}Eating. Working. Praying. Getting your hair cut. Repairing work boots. Shovelling snow. Planting the garden. Scenes that fix upon a glass of water. An apple cut in half. Ice melting.

The film puts across some important lessons in the spiritual life. The first is that union with God is found in the ordinariness of daily life. 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.

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’s and Anna’s recognition of the child Jesus in the temple.

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.

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 analysed, but a mystery to be plumbed.

But honing our “sense of God” takes practice. It requires prayer. And that is a powerful second message in the film. 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.

In our culture today we squeeze out silence by multitasking for stimulation. We jog and listen to music on our iPods. We walk with our cellphones glued to our ears.

In the pre-industrial period, the noises people heard were largely natural sounds. In our modern era, the sounds of machinery and technology are commonplace and dominant. Noise now seems normal and even good. It is quiet that is suspect, foreign and threatening.

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. Its appeal develops with growth in awareness and attentiveness.

Yet, silence 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 30-minute trip home by sidewalk and subway passed without a word being spoken.

(Fr. Ryan works for the Paulist Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in New York.)

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