The Sound of Silence-- by Dr. Gareth Higgins
In the midst of the election slow fever that had not really gripped northern Irish people in Spring 2007, amidst the static noise filled with the competing slogans and propaganda, I found myself in the presence of three pop culture texts that proved to me how artists and politicians should probably switch roles from time to time. We would surely learn something from each other. And these three works lead me to reflect today on words John spoke to so many of us about living from our best selves.
“[S]ilence is one of the great victims of modern culture. . . . One of the reasons so many people are suffering from stress is not that they are doing stressful things but that they allow so little time for silence.” (Anam Cara)
'Into Great Silence' is a genuinely unique film – a three hour long documentary record reflecting a year in the life of mostly silent Carthusian monks. The director first asked the monastery authorities for permission to film there in the mid-1980s; in a perfect example of why you should never expect a monk to arrive early for anything, they answered 17 years later that they felt that now the time was right. The film is a long, soft look at one thing only; and it takes its time, without commentary, complaint, or extraneous music. The rhythms of the cloistered life, the contemplative spirit of these men, and the supreme natural beauty of their surroundings are so vivid that an hour into the film I considered taking a vow of silence myself. (Note to my gentle critics: no such luck, I'm afraid.) At the same time, there's something about being shut away from the rest of the world in silence that makes me feel ambivalent – I can't help thinking that what these guys are doing is, as well as being amazing, a profound waste of time. What benefit does their life have for the rest of us? As soon as I ask that question, however, I am bound to reflect on how watching the film about them has changed me for the better. As John reminds us in Anam Cara, “Meister Eckhart said that there is nothing in the world that resembles God so much as silence.” The scenes alone of the monks sledging in fresh fallen snow reveal a far heightened ecstasy being taken in the ordinary than urbanites like me may ever feel. These men understand the reality of the presence of God infusing all of life.
After 'Into Great Silence' I re-visited one of the guilty pleasures of my childhood – the 1981 sci-fi thriller 'Looker', starring Albert Finney as a charismatic plastic surgeon who uncovers a plot to clone supermodels into robots who will hypnotise us through advertising. It's a pretty terrible film, but it does raise the spectre of a world so wedded to the consumerist ideal that it becomes a space in which, as the author Philip K. Dick wrote, 'we all sell the same McDonalds' hamburger back and forward to each other'. Our choices are prescribed by the myths we worship – about fashion, about property, about money in general. 'Looker' suggests that this will lead to the end of us, and regrettably suggests that there's not much we can do about it.
Finally, I got around to watching the last episode of the television drama 'Six Feet Under', a show about funeral directors and the meaning of death, which, of course, is just another way of talking about all of us and the meaning of life. I'd lived with the characters in this show for five seasons, and they were so well written and acted that I felt like I knew them. They were, at the very least, reflective of parts of me. Their spiritual struggles had helped to nurture my own pilgrimage, which is saying a lot for a TV show. Without giving too much away, the show ends with a vision of what is possible in one human life, and invites us to take our own lives far more seriously than we perhaps do.
'Into Great Silence', 'Looker', and 'Six Feet Under' all ask how to face the future with confidence – in silent contemplation, in avoidance, or in embracing the vast range of potential that is one human existence. John often said that when you enter into freedom, possibility comes to meet you. I wonder what that freedom would look like for me. Or for you. Or for all of us seeking to make sense of what it means to be human. When I think about the love of money at the root of 'Looker' – and perhaps the way we live now; and compare it with the delighted yelps of otherwise silent monks sliding down a snowy mountain, I wonder if we really understand what freedom looks like at all.