Sunday, April 22, 2007

Into Great Silence

I’ve struggled to post anything in the past few days – in fact, I’ve struggled to write at all. The tragedy in Virginia has left me lost for any sort of words, much less those I feel like throwing out in to the ether of the net. The Anglo-Saxon world, so remote, suddenly seems more awful (and awe-ful) than it did a few days ago. There’s so much violence, so much vengeance in the world these texts show us. And, in fragments that shatter the surface of the poetry upon their impact, moments of mourning that break through the violence to remind me (and us?) that 1000 years ago people must have still felt pain, pain so deep it moves them to words.

But often enough, pain only moves me to silence.

I saw, last Monday, a movie that has become something of a surprise hit in the past few weeks -- Into Great Silence, a film about the monks who reside in the Grand Chartreuse in France. It’s a deeply ascetic order – they take a vow of silence, and do not speak except to sing, or if the work they do requires it. The film says that they do this so that they might spend their lives in “uninterrupted prayer” – a communion with God unbroken by thoughts of time. Reading on the website for the film, found here , the director explains at one point that living life in that way – so structured and still – creates a different relationship to time.

Once you accept the fact that when the bell rings - you just don't think about it - you just get up and go and do whatever that bell requires you to do, then, every moment that you have is a pretty permanently present moment," he says. "You don't have to sort of plan, like 'What do I do in two years?... Where do I want my career to be in 15 years?' And the absence of language makes something - the moment itself becomes very, very strong.

An obsession of mine is the way language means – or, in some cases, stops meaning. In a place like the Grand Chartreuse, all words fall away – they cease to mean, but not in the tragic, horrific way you imagine that the personnage of Munch’s The Scream must feel when confronted with his eternal silence (funny, I hear his scream as a silence – I’d never noticed that before). Rather, in the silence of the Chartreuse, there is a deeper stillness that comes from living according to the bells, following the simple routine that defies all natural patterns except its own. One monk says that “In God there is no past. There is only the present.” Admittedly, as a lapsed Catholic, it is difficult for me to let go of a concept of “God” – and when I noted to my friend LJS that I wondered if our clamor in the modern world was, in fact, due to our fear of what we might hear in the silence, his response surprised me. I don’t think we should fear that silence, he said – it's the peace that the old monk spoke of when he spoke of God. Regardless of whether or not there’s a higher being. It doesn’t matter. What else is a concept of God, if it isn’t such stillness and peace.

I’ve pondered those words for a few days now, with the knowledge that my only way to think is always – always – in language. And if the city I inhabit is noisy, my own clamor (clamor meus ad te veniat, we sing in our weekly compline services) is deafening. In the stillness of the Chartreuse, something other moves. It isn’t simply that these monks withdraw from the world to contemplate God more perfectly. Rather, it’s that in the space that they create a place where something beyond our human clamor can touch them.

It isn’t viable in this world. The silence isn’t viable, and that’s why the monks of the Chartreuse are, as it says somewhere, in some Gospel (godspell -- the good story), in the world but not of it. Their contemplation, their withdrawal, is a luxury in this world, where too many people are condemned to die by our silences. I know that I thirst for that kind of silence – a place to be alone, to be quiet, to just be in a world that is too loud, too full of noise and sorrow. The reason I know I could never do it is because I wouldn’t withdraw out of love – for God or anything else. I would withdraw out of fear. It’s like King Arthur at the end of T.H. White’s The Once and Future King -- I’d withdraw because of the fear, “of a Doing that might lead to woe.”

But silence must be overcome, must be broken. I was moved by the words I read at different blogs this week, and moreover found that thinking had to keep going, regardless – and for this I must thank Dr. V (Quod She), ‏ JJC (In the Middle), Ancrene Wiseass, and Eileen (also ITM). Because – and I think Dr. V’s post speaks to this particularly, as do the comments appended to it – although the classroom is its own world, it is not a world in isolation from what goes on outside it. Teaching has to go on, despite the tragedies that overwhelm us. This year was my first year teaching my own classroom – and if there’s anything I’ve learned it’s that the classroom is the reason for my work. Reading the post and comments by Eileen & JJC over at In The Middle, I realized that a part of what happens when you read is that you gain the ability to break out of your own inner monologue. Part of what we teach is, I suppose, conversation – what it means to allow your voice to be inflected by other voices. It seems to require a sureness of self that – in moments now – I think I begin to possess. A sureness of self that allows you to be wrong, to see the world as though from eyes that are not your own – a sureness of self that allows self doubt which is not conflated with annihilation. Of course we only reach the students who would have eventually learned it anyway -- but it seems like that's how most things are in the world. When nothing will change things or help -- then nothing will ever help.

Looking back at Into Great Silence -- and the tragic events of this week – I can only wonder about the monks. I don't want to dramatize their choice – but I wonder if they truly live in silence.