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Monday, November 14, 2005
Songs of Experience and Innocence

Today was one of those days where you feel like you were busy all day but accomplished nothing. The bureaucracy and hierarchy around here are inpenetrable. I spent all day trying to gain access to an archive -- the archive I came here to see. I have been assured for two weeks that I'd be able to get in, no problem. Not so! Everywhere I turn there is another form to fill out, another person to talk to, another meeting, another website to look at for further information. Every person I talk to has "only been in this job for a few weeks" or "is recovering from a long illness and not up on the latest procedures." Either that or the person I need to talk to is "very important to the organization" and "usually does not speak to researchers."

I think I found a way to circumvent this system, but involves a lot of charm on my part. Let's hope I can muster the charm early tomorrow morning, and in a foreign language.


There's a German film out in Europe now called Die Grosse Stille (roughly, The Great Silence). It's a film about the Grande Chartreuse, a strict monastery in the French Alps. For many years, the producer yearned to make a film about this place and the men who spent their lives there, praying, and he asked them for permission: 16 years ago! They finally, after almost two decades, allowed him to film them, and the resulting movie is a cinematic masterpiece.

The monks in the Grande Chartreuse are not allowed to speak, except for a brief period on Sundays or during religious holidays, when they are also allowed to take long walks outside the monastery walls. The film follows them through a year, and the audience watches them work and pray. There is no background music in the film. There is no climax or conclusion. There are only the monks, reading and studying their manuscripts, washing the floors, shaving each others' heads, sewing new cloaks, repairing their shoes, planting and harvesting their gardens. The film is startling for both its careful re-creation of monastery life and its beauty: the French Alps are the backdrop for the film, and so the shots of nature are truly breathtaking.

Now I want to learn more about this monastery, and learn more about religious life in general. I've done a bit of reading about convents and the nuns who live in them and have had many nuns for teachers in elementary and middle school. On some simple level, I can understand why some women choose to become nuns. I cannot understand, however, why these men chose to become monks at this remote, strict monastery. They have no contact with the outside world. They do not teach, they do not sell anything, they do not perform any "service" for the outside world. They live for themselves and they live for God -- to me, they are either completely selfless and holy, or a bit egotistical and selfish. I consider myself a prayerful and religious person, but I think that part of my religious "purpose" is to serve others -- to improve the world. I don't understand what the "purpose" of the monastic life is at the Grande Chartreuse. Perhaps their mediations are, without anyone knowing, improving life for the rest of us?

(Bright Star, I thought of you as I was watching this. You would have really enjoyed this film, both for its religious aspects and the gorgeous nature photography.)
Posted with care by Prof. Me @ 11/14/2005 03:27:00 PM  
3 Words of Wisdom:
  • At 11:56 AM, Blogger Rhonda said…

    I feel for you on the European bureaucracy. Luckily, I never had to do research in Austria, because I gave up trying to gain access to the English library in town. We were told we were very lucky to have gotten our phone hooked up within a month--colleagues reported waiting more than a year!

    I loved living in Europe, but it started to make sense that people only worked 35 hours a week--I figure they spend the rest of their time standing in line and filling out forms.

    But you're right about charming your way in: a little bit of effort to make a human connection was often rewarded tenfold.

  • At 12:53 PM, Anonymous New Kid on the Hallway said…

    My students have the same kind of reaction to monasticism. I think that the presence of a monastery was seen to be a benefit to the community at large - even if that community was not immediately close - in the sense that the more monasteries there were, the more holiness there was in the world. Plus, I think monasticism draws on the idea of the contemplative life - there's the active life, and the contemplative life, and theologically both are equally valid (the whole Mary/Martha thing). I think that there are a whole lot of other modern ideas that get introduced along the way that make the monastic life seem selfish in the modern context, which weren't in place at the time it developed. (Sorry, history professor-itis here!)

  • At 11:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Part of the reason for the monastic life is the total belief that it is God - and not us, however busy or useful we think we are at times - who acts in the world.

    It is God who acts through people who go about doing good in the world. A monk or nun takes the leap of faith one step further, by placing all his or her trust in that God will act. "Others reap what you sow, and it is not for you to know how and why". The monk or nun places all their trust in God through a specific way of life, and by doing that witnesses to this great virtues of trusting in God. That great act of faith is one which God hears.

    You may think that living in a monastery is a sweet life. But I know from speaking to monks that it can also be hard. When you have a disagreement, you can not just decide to go down to the pub. The monk or nun will be called to work through the disagreement through love.

    Best wishes,

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