Boy, has it been a long time since I have posted something. I’ve had a few things on my mind to write about, but never enough time! Saturday evening I went to see the film Into Great Silence (Die Große Stille), a sort of meditative look at life in the Grande Chartreuse, the motherhouse of the Carthusian Order. The Carthusians are one of the few orders of hermits in the Catholic Church, and their life is lived almost entirely in silence. The film is nearly three hours long, and it is not a documentary, since no one really speaks to the camera or talks about being a Carthusian. Rather, it is simply a series of prolonged camera shots on different moments in their life – watching them at prayer, or feeding the cats, or sawing firewood. While I have no desire to become a Carthusian, the deep symbols and the earthy simplicity of their lives touches something archetypal in me as a religious, and perhaps in me simply as a human being. The film, like the monastery itself, was very much what the Zen tradition would call shibumi – simple, understated elegance, not beauty in the usual “prettiness” sense of the word, but like the Velveteen Rabbit when he becomes “Real” even though he is worn and threadbare. The director switched back and forth between normal film and some grainy old film that looked like the stuff they used in the 1960s, presumably for symbolic reasons that could be elaborated in several ways. Several scenes and shots of certain scripture texts were repeated throughout the whole affair – the same guy at prayer in his cell a few times, the same bowl of fruit on one of the monk’s tables again and again, the monks ringing the bells calling the brothers to prayer. What a marvelous way to symbolize their lives – repetition, pattern, a sense of eternity in the cycles of their lives. Seeing one of the old men shuffling around the halls, knowing that the young monks will one day be like them, making their creaky way through their daily tasks, the sense of timelessness of the place encompasses and transcends the individuals who are there at any one moment. The monastery itself is apparently centuries old, and the cells have been inhabited by generation after generation of monks, so the wood of the floors has that marvelous, lived-in look of worn-down paths where the monks have walked day after day for decades and centuries. Such a thing reminds me that, more than having lives, we are instantiations of Life, members of a pattern that is lived out in us, and it takes a place that old to remind us that we are part of something that was here long before us and will be around long after we are dust. Coming out of the theater was quite a shock, both getting back into the noise of people and highway, but even the next day at the student mass at SLU: beautiful (in a totally different way), but the film drew out how loud even such a well-done mass can be. As much as I talk about silence and enjoy having stretches of silence during my day, and coming home to a quiet house at night, I found the movie challenging because it was so quiet, and so long; I admit I found myself looking at my watch a couple of times, even though I really didn’t want it to be over. Perhaps that was the subtle prophetic message of a film of this kind: we are deliberately making a long, slow movie, we are deliberately going to linger on places and faces longer than you are comfortable with, to make you a little uncomfortable so hopefully you actually look at what you see.
On another topic, I found out about a month ago that Fr. Steve Duffy, my academic mentor from my days as an undergraduate, passed away. I have come back and back to what it means, and I still can’t figure out quite what to say. Duffy continued to be a mentor for me long after I left Loyola; I went to see him just about every time I came back into town, and I would listen to the same stories I had heard the previous time, and I loved them just as much knowing how they were going to end. It’s not exactly that I am numb with mourning – he meant a lot to me, and I regret that we will never get together for dinner and good wine again, but it simply is what it is. He lived well, the way he wanted to, and he never felt the need to play by other people’s rules, and I suspect he died with his boots on, without making a fuss about dying (he never even told me he had cancer or that he was dying – I wonder when he found out). No philosophizing about “not taking things for granted” or “carpe diem” or anything like that – I simply close by remembering a great man. Here’s to you, Duffy.