September 03, 2020
In 1984 Phillip Gröning wrote to a Carthusian monastery in France to ask if he could make a documentary about monastic life. Sixteen years later, after thinking it over, the monks said yes. Gröning spent six months inside the Grand Chartreuse monastery in the Alps, documenting the details of daily living. In 2005 he released his film Into Great Silence.
The movie offers a look into the monks’ lives that few people have seen. They spend most of their time in tiny cells. They have meals delivered to their rooms. (Sound familiar?) They spend most of their days in prayer and study (as we’re hoping our freshmen do). They leave their cells for daily prayer in the chapel. Once a week they eat together and go for a hike. The only time they talk is on the hike. (This might explain why it took them 16 years to decide about allowing the documentary.)
The film is striking, and honestly it’s a little hard to watch, because it is largely silent. The pace is slow. Nothing happens. It’s kind of like the Slowskys on the Xfinity ads. It couldn’t be more unlike the noisy, busy lives we lead in normal times.
But the present moment is anything but normal. COVID-19 has forced us to live differently. It’s imposed a regimen of PPE, social distance, and small gatherings. We might learn a few lessons from the monks about the value of slowing down.
I see the effects of busyness in my life, and those of my colleagues and students. In a world that urges us to get ahead, we have little time to think — about where we’re going, and what we’re doing. For an institution dedicated to the intellectual life, and to forming our students in good habits of reading, study, and prayer, that’s a problem.
There is a tension between living in community and dedicating yourself to intellectual or spiritual endeavors. To read and write and think, you need to close your door and concentrate. To pray, you need quiet and solitude.
Residence life is designed with these ideas in mind. Dining services free you from having to cook, plan meals, go shopping. Community living keeps you balanced. Chapels all around campus give you quiet space to talk to God. It’s a privileged moment in your life. You’ll never have another like it.
But residence life can be a two-edged sword. Busyness has a way of creeping in. Being young and away from home, you want to make friends. Being ambitious for your future, you want to do the things people expect to see on resumes. Leading student groups, organizing events, playing lacrosse, promoting causes, serving the poor — they’re worthy endeavors. But they are also activities that require time and commitment. And when extracurricular activities compete with academics, they often prevail. Our culture, after all, values achievement.
The current regimen of enforced solitude is an unwelcome change from the way we usually begin our academic year. It’s especially so for our freshmen, and for other students who are having to spend time in quarantine. But try to think of it as an opportunity to reflect on what you would like to learn this year . . . as a moment to reassess the balance you have drawn among faith, study, and stuff. It would also be a perfect occasion to spend some time with God, and ask him what He thinks.