Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: Silence and Culture at a Carthusian Monastery

When the film Into Great Silence came out in American theatres back in 2007, a student of mine, who is a high school religion teacher, took some of his students to see it. They had to leave about half way through. The students, accustomed to fast paced entertainment, couldn’t handle the presentation of the life of the Carthusian monks of the monastery of the Grand Chartreuse in France. I don’t think this is an indication of the quality of the film. Rather, I think it has to do with our inability to appreciate monastic life and culture. It reminds me of a family member’s remark about my retreat at a Benedictine monastery: that sounds like hell. Indeed, in our culture it would seem like hell for many of us to enter into prolonged periods of silence without distraction or entertainment.

Into Silence MovieFor my money, Into Great Silence is the best modern, artistic presentation of monastic culture. The film is superbly contemplative, lacing the life of monks with their beautiful setting in the Alps, taking the viewer through a year of their life with the four seasons as a backdrop. Not only was I struck by the use of the monastery grounds in the film, but also the camera’s focus on the faces of the monks, or hermits, at prayer and also during still shots, profiling each of the monks. You truly get a sense of the silence at the monastery, as you can perceive each small sound, while entering into the prayer of the monks, in their cells and at chapel during the night. From the cosmic sense of the seasons to the small shots of minute details, the film is a tour de force of monastic culture.

There is a scene in the film where the prior is sitting at his desk buried in paperwork. The camera zooms in on one particular paper and it is possible to see the writing on it. It is a receipt for the candies and liqueur, Chartreuse, made by the monastery. In these lives completely dedicated to prayer and silence, the business of the world enters, though almost imperceptibly. They must still provide for their livelihood, but in the process they also make a serious contribution to the culture of the world at large. A few lay brothers are shown working hard in the garden and the kitchen, but the majority of the monks dedicate their lives exclusively to prayer as hermits, forgoing common meals (except on Sunday) and even most of the divine office in common, so as to enter more exclusively into holy silence and solitude. And yet that silence is supported by the products of the monastery, which those of us outside should be happy to consume (think of it as part of your tithe!).

chartreuse-green-yellow-V.E.P.-liqueurThe reader will have to forgive my title’s use of Clinton’s now abandoned policy on homosexuality in the military. It seemed apropos in light of the cheeky line on the bottle of Chartreuse describing their recipe: “Protected by vows of silence” (I say cheeky, because no such vow actually exists). Indeed, only two monks know the recipe, composed of 130 Alpine herbs. There are two main varieties, Green (110° proof), which gives its name to the color chartreuse, and Yellow (80° proof), which has less alcohol and is a little sweeter. The monks are serious about its production, having specially designed fermentation tanks and the largest liqueur aging cellar in the world. Chartreuse, with its unique and even “beguiling” taste, could be one of the best drinks on the face of the earth—a sheer ecstasy of taste. It is worth the high price tag, if sipped over prolonged periods. I think it must be a sin to mix it with other liquids, though the label recommends it on the rocks (as it should be consumed cold), with tonic, or even in a cocktail.

Cave-de-la-ChartreuseNot all of us can enter into the silence of the monastery. Some of us, indeed, wrongly consider it akin to eternal torment. The film Into Great Silence is an important witness to genuine monastic culture, although the reaction that many have toward it may be just as significant. This reaction shows us that we cannot live without the constant distractions in our perpetual rat race. Real life, the contemplative life, our eternal vocation, is scorned. Silence enables us to pull back and offers the possibility to see things more clearly. It heightens our perception and awareness of reality. This fact hits home at the end of Into Great Silence, when the silence is finally broken as a blind, old monk offers his reflections on death. His words hit hard and profoundly as it seems that the silence has prepared the viewer to hear them as the culmination of the film.

Ironically, the silent life nestled in the French Alps is also the source of a great cultural achievement, the outstanding liqueur, Chartreuse. In the Bud Light culture of less calories and less taste, where everything is mass produced and devoid of distinctive culture, the monastery of the Grand Chartreuse is also a witness to doing things right on the human level. At the end of the day, it may take their life of silence to really help figure out the human thing too. Silence and culture: do tell!

R. Jared Staudt

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R. Jared Staudt, PhD is associate superintendent for Mission and Formation in the Archdiocese of Denver and visiting professor for the Augustine Institute. He is author, most recently, of Restoring Humanity: Essays on the Evangelization of Culture (Divine Providence Press, 2020) and editor of Renewing Catholic Schools (Catholic Education Press, 2020).

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