In these letters I have often taken you on my holiday journeys: India, California and Venice. This time it is more of an inner journey which I would like to share. I write under the powerful impression of the film Into Great Silence, which depicts life in the Carthusian monastery of the Grande Chartreuse, in the French Alps, where the monks live mostly in solitude and silence. Some of you may well have seen it, so I will not describe the film, rather convey the feelings and reflections which arose out of it for me. Let me only say that I think it is a masterpiece of photography and film making, quite apart from being a profound experience which has transformed my life in many subtle ways.
In a world where strident noise, frenzied activity and constant stimulation are the daily diet, a film in which hardly anything happens for nearly three hours, with no dialogue, no commentary and no music (except Gregorian chant), is a considerable challenge. However, the queue snaking down the road in front of the Playhouse in Norwich on that winter Sunday afternoon was a striking manifestation of the thirst for something different. Everyone was surprised by this unexpected turn-out, not least the Cinema City staff who struggled to cope. And from start to finish you could have heard a pin drop.
A slow pace, images remaining on the screen for what seemed like minutes, a very strong sense of rhythm – the passing seasons made a counterpoint with the regularity of monastic life, its alternation of solitary prayer, study and community, punctuated by bells – created a spell. In the silence, the natural sounds of everyday living: echoing footsteps in stone passages, large wooden doors opening and closing, chopping wood, cutting cloth, drawing water, and plainchant singing, took on a particular poignancy.
I was struck by how unnatural our lives have become; in this monastery, daily activities are still closely connected with nature and all materials are natural: stone, wood and cloth; vessels are made of clay, tin or wood, not a sign of plastic! Walls are bare, objects are starkly simple and few, but there is not a trace of ugliness. I felt that these men, who live enclosed with no possessions of their own and very few choices, were maybe more free than us, who battle daily with a multiplicity of external possibilities (how many brands of biscuits on the supermarket shelves?) and believe that freedom is to have exactly what we want.
And I reflected on the power of silence, emptiness and the space between things. I have often noticed that what makes a great musician is the ability to breathe, to pause, to hold a note suspended. The inexperienced player tends to rush through, to get the notes right. But without the silence, there is no real music, just a dead sequence of sounds. Silence creates rhythm, and cycles, without which there is no life: as the old wise man in the Bible puts it: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven; there is a time to be born and a time to die; a time to break down and a time to build up; a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.” Without the pauses, the breathing space, the in-between times, there is no harmony, no creation, no unfolding of life. It is not by chance that language has the expression “a pregnant pause”. All creative change needs this space for reflection, this empty time when the old way of being is no more, and the new is not yet. We ignore this at our peril, and our culture, which constantly rushes into action, does not seem to be able to produce any viable, durable change, only vacillation between extremes.King of Hearts Centre for people and the Arts in Norwich. Into Great Silence is released on DVD in the UK on May 23, and on October 23 in the US. Now read Aude writing about India.
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