By Bishop George Stack
In the year 2006, the world of cinema was astounded with the success of a film entitled ‘Into Great Silence’. Although the world of silent films was left many years ago, this film was in complete silence, apart from the noise made by people moving around a building and walking in the countryside, the breath of wind and rain, the sound of music in the singing of psalms.
‘Into the Silence’ recorded a journey into a spiritual realm. It took the producer sixteen years to receive permission to enter the monastery of the Grand Chartreuse in the mountains near Grenoble which was built in 1668. He described his film as “A meditation on life, a contemplation of time, silence, rhythm and repetition”. It has become a classic among spiritual people of every religion, and every seeker after meaning in life. In addition to its success amongst cinema audiences, ‘Into Great Silence’ won six major film awards and was nominated for three others.
Unique and challenging
‘No Greater Love’ is likely to have the same impact when it is released to general audiences on 9 April. Premiered at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 2009, it has already been recognised by cinema professionals as a unique and challenging work. Filmed in the Monastery of The Most Holy Trinity, Notting Hill by director/producer Michael Whyte, it interweaves a year in the life of the Sisters of the Notting Hill Carmel in West London. Centred on Holy Week, it follows the course of a year in which a novice is professed and a senior sister dies. In addition to the pattern of the liturgical year, it also follows the pattern of the seasons and the pattern of the day with the rhythm of prayer, work, study, recreation and silence. It is an extraordinary film.
It took Michael Whyte ten years to receive the agreement of the sisters that he should enter their world and film their life. Intrigued by the huge building in the square where he lived in London, he dropped a note through the monastery door in the late 1990’s making remote enquiries about such a project. The reply came that “although it was an interesting idea, it was not the right time”.
In 2008 the invitation came to meet with sisters and discuss the project. “No Greater Love” is the result. When he eventually arrived at the monastery he felt ”a sense of panic. As a film maker it seemed as though nothing was happening except the repetition of prayer.” It was only when he became accustomed to the rhythm of the place and its life that he began to understand the dynamic of the life. One of the sisters says: “Silence is the echo of the eternal word where God can speak and we can listen… It quietens the mind and asks us to look at our thoughts and ask ‘Do I really need to think about that?” Watching this film we are drawn into creative silence. It is like breathing fully with both lungs.
Insights into faith and prayer
The photography is stunning. The hidden beauty of a monastery is haunting. The peace emanating from both the sisters and the holy space they have created is at once inviting and challenging. Although this is an observational film, with much of the time silently contemplating the space, the actions, the care of the sisters for each other, there are also several interviews. Each one is both simple and profound, humble and honest. They share insights into Faith, Doubt, the nature of prayer and its purpose. Each of these, and much else, is calmly and honestly faced. These are not theoretical answers to text book questions.
Speaking of the life of prayer, one of the sisters says: “If you have had a nice experience of prayer, that goes. You are left thinking you are talking to yourself… But the Carmelite tradition teaches that only the externals are changing… There is much more going on at a deeper level”. Another speaks of this as experiencing almost the absence of God.
The teaching of St John of the Cross, so influential in the Carmelite life, is that the believer is being led into a deeper relationship with the real God. By letting go of early concepts, structures and descriptions of God, we are being led into a real relationship with the true God. God wants that relationship and refuses to answer us in a superficial way. These insights come from a lived experience of engaging with the truths they contain. It is a privilege to glimpse them through the eyes of the film-maker’s lens.
No Greater Love is released to selected cinemas on 9 April. These include: April 10, Gate Cinema, Notting Hill, April 12, Renoir Cinema, April 13, Genesis and Rich Mix in East London. For information regarding screening times and venues please go to: www.nogreaterlove.co.uk and click on Festivals/Release news or telephone Soda Pictures on 020 7377 1407