When I arrived at Harvard Divinity School in the fall of ’06, there was a lot of buzz about the documentary Into Great Silence, which followed the lives of Carthusian monks in their mostly silent, solitary rhythms. I finally saw the documentary this past week. The first thing that struck me was the vast difference between my life and theirs. I didn’t even remain silent through the whole movie, nor could I find the almost-three hours together to watch it all in one sitting.
Yet, looking into the faces of the monks as they stood before the camera for brief, snapshot-like close ups, they didn’t always look so different from me. They looked a little uncomfortable about standing there staring. They looked like they didn’t know what their expressions would show about themselves, and they wanted them to show something good. They looked, sometimes, clear eyed and enlightened. They were striking—but not so separate from my experience as logic says they ought to be.
I was expecting the monks’ lives to be rarified and alien, but I felt in fact that, despite the many, many differences between us, we were ultimately addressing ourselves to the same question. I felt that I was called to this question, though not specifically to this way of life, and I felt gladdened by the connection. (I can’t tell you what the question is, by the way—something about God? Something about me? Something about Jesus, about the planet, about the way the sky looks in the morning and the way the oldest monk’s spine stuck out of his neck while another monk rubbed his skin with lotion? I just know that I’m asking it…)
Throughout the movie, quotes from the Bible and other, unknown sources flashed on the screen in French, German, and English. One of the most frequent I recognized: “You seduced me, O Lord, and I let myself be seduced.” Except I remembered the word as “duped,” because it startled me when I heard it read in church for the first time, for its colloquial-sounding anger and intimate nastiness about God’s behavior and intentions. After the movie, I got down my Bible and started looking through… was it in Psalms? No. Isaiah? Nope. “Duped” was not in the index. Finally I gave up and googled the quote, and found the most vitriolic, aching, bitterly ravaged address to God I’ve ever seen (Jeremiah 20: 7-18). I also found several websites of religious orders taking this verse as a statement of the experience of vocation.
I clicked around on one of those, and ended up at a series of sites connected to Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. This is an Ogala Lakota Reservation, and one of the most staggeringly poor locations within the boundaries of the United States. Statistics vary, but around 80% unemployment persists, the infant mortality rate is about twice the national average, and average life expectancy is about 20 years lower than the national average. I read about the schools there, and the efforts of both teachers and students to learn and sustain the Lakota language. I read about how many people die from heart disease, how many amputations there are due to diabetes. I read the blog of a volunteer at one of the schools, and she talked about how intense and exciting the basketball tournament was. I read about a young woman who was adopted from the reservation and lived outside it, and her words fell over themselves with passion when she described the sufferings of her family who remained behind. I read about the things various organizations working there currently need. I read a lot.
Now, it could be one of those crazy internet things, how you can look up something totally mundane, and the next thing you know you’re learning about the biggest frog contest held at some county fair somewhere, and seeing frogs dressed in funny hats and little feather boas… but I feel something more robust about this connection.
I don’t think it’s a total coincidence that I am left with three impressions from my viewings and wanderings last night: Contemplation and silence matter, following God can seem like a crazy, bumpy, nasty ride, and there is this one place I didn’t know about before, among many places, where justice and human love are fighting an uphill battle like you wouldn’t believe.
I don’t know what to say about those things. I only know to lay them before you, and ask you to pray them with me, and then… be silent, and in silence wait, for whatever will come next.
Rebecca Lynne Fullan lives in New York City, which is a very noisy place, but is trying to make more time for silence.