There’s a story that when filmmaker Philip Groning wanted to make the film “Into Great Silence”, a documentary about the lives of the Carthusian monks who live in Le Grand Chartreuse in the French Alps, in 1984 he proposed his idea to the monks. 16 years later the Carthusians agreed to the film. Despite the long wait, the film is spectacular, a masterpiece of documentary filmmaking in my books. Though I often wonder what the secular world makes of it because it’s entirely silent, with no artificial lights or sound effects and nothing flashy or noisy. It simply and effectively gives us an idea of what it’s like to live a solitary life in search of God’s silence and stillness – a life of deep prayer and purpose.
I absolutely LOVED the film. It made me long for silence: the deep, peaceful, brilliant, authentic silence full of birdsong and gentle breezes, and the type of silence that restores life, clarity and wonder to a soul, bringing it back to life. It’s the type of silence and stillness that’s becoming increasingly foreign to our society, as it’s becoming more and more rare for people in North America to actually take the time to slow down and quiet themselves.
Because let’s be honest for a moment. Silence can be scary. Many might think they want a few noise- and commotion-free minutes in the midst of a hectic day sure, but when it comes right down to it, deeply quieting our hearts and minds is a different thing altogether. We’re not only quieting our physical surroundings, but we’re calming deeper parts of ourselves, which can often bring all sorts of unpleasantness to the fore: painful wounds and past hurts too awful to deal with alone, negative self-talk, loneliness, unforgiveness and any number of sinful fragments of our personality we’d rather not dwell upon. Deep silence can also betray the obsessive and devious nature we’ve all inherited from our first parents, Adam and Eve, revealing every sort of depravity known to men. The human heart is, frankly, a very scary place.
Yet we can’t live without it – silence and stillness that is. Human beings were not made to constantly, and consistently, go careening through life at one hundred miles an hour with no slowing or stopping. Cars can’t do it and neither can we. We burn out, we shut down, go into swirling depressions and snap at every living creature we meet. A life of not-silence makes us very, VERY unhappy. I’ve heard stories about World War II concentration camp prisoners being “tortured” day and night with discordant “musical noise” that was piped into the camp over loudspeakers. It drove prisoners nuts, literally and figuratively! Constant noise disconnects us from ourselves (we’ve all heard the phrase “it’s so loud in here I can’t hear myself think), it alienates us from those around us, and more importantly, from God our maker. God speaks to us in silent stillness and it’s only when we calm and quiet ourselves that we can truly listen – to hear his voice. The prophet Elijah, in the first book of Kings, went to stand before the Lord and a great wind broke rocks in pieces, an earthquake shook the ground and a fire raged but the Lord was not in any of these terrible happenings. The Lord was in the “still small voice” that came after all the other things subsided. So it is with us. God’s voice is drowned out by every kind of noise, physical or emotional and without it – or rather Him – in our lives, there is no peace, no contentment and especially no joy.
So how does one cultivate a life of silence when we don’t live in a monastery, but when we are rather surrounded with noise, noise and more noise? Catherine DeHueck Doherty, the Foundress of the lay apostolate Madonna House in Northern Ontario in her book on silence and prayer called Poustinia wrote, “Accept first, the solitude of your own heart. Prayer, like silence, is a matter of a journey inward, as are all pilgrimages of the Spirit. I must journey inward to meet the Triune God that dwells within me. …It is vitally important at the outset to emphasize that there is no need for a log cabin, cottages, huts in order to lead a life of prayer. Prayer is interior. The hut, the log cabin, the chapel, is the human heart in which we must learn how to pray.”
We can cultivate silence in the middle of a stadium of screaming sports fans just as we can do so in a quiet church in the woods. All it takes is courage, a bit of practice and of course, the Lord’s help.
First off we can set time aside for prayer. We can wake up a little earlier or stay up a bit later to have even ten minutes of uninterrupted prayer and quiet. We can also carve out moments in our day, “steal” little silences when we’re taking out the trash or scooping the kitty litter to stop, quiet our hearts and recollect God’s love, ask for something needed and listen for his word. Short prayers called “javelin” prayers or “ejaculations” (as they used to be called) can be said at any time or place and can immediately put one in mind of God. Simple prayers such as the following:
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner
Jesus I trust in you.
Sacred Heart of Jesus, I believe in your love for me.
Lord thank you for dying on the cross for my sins.
(And especially during Lent) We adore you O Christ and we bless you. Because by your holy Cross you have redeemed the world.
These are just ideas – there are a thousand beautiful prayers you can confide to the heart of Jesus. “Lord, give me peace”, “Jesus, help me to love my brother” or even just “Jesus, help!” can be better than rote prayers sometimes, especially when they’re heartfelt.
Also needing practice during our day is cultivating interior or emotional stillness. We can (and should) turn off technology a little more often. Put your phone in a drawer away for an hour, turn off the computer, video game, tablet and television for a while to do something intentional and life-giving – even if it’s not praying – because technology, with it’s endless stream of “stuff” bombarding us can easily rob us of our peace, sometimes without our even knowing.
And one of the biggest things we can do to cultivate more silence in our lives is face our fears, especially our interior ones. Seeking help and healing through confession, spiritual direction, counseling and/or medical help is never a waste of time, but it rather frees us from the wounds and sins that tie us up in knots. It also frees up our hearts to hear God more clearly, which allows us to better rest in his peace and tranquility – which is certainly something I crave.
I think that’s why the documentary Into Great Silence was so attractive to me – I could practically feel the peace and tranquility in the silence of Le Grand Chartreuse, even though I was sitting in my living room at home in the middle of a frenzied life. I long for that peace that “surpasses all understanding” – I think many people do. I sometimes forget is that it’s possible for us to attain it. Peace is readily available for each one of us. All we have to do is reach for it.