4th Sunday of Lent 1 Samuel 16.1-13 Ephesians 5.8-14 John 9
Into Great Silence is an extraordinary film about the Grand Chartreuse, a Cistercian monastery in the French Alps.
The monks live a form of silent, contemplative life that has altered very little in nearly a thousand years. The monastery is a place for those who, like mountaineers, find themselves called to the extreme of human experience. In this case, it is the experience of God.
When, in 2005, Philip Gröning released his unique film about this silent community of seekers after God, it was a huge box office success. There is no commentary. The monks rarely meet and talk. The soundtrack comes from a variety of bells, the clatter of feet on stone, water dripping as snow thaws, some plainsong, and the almost imperceptible movements of a person kneeling in silent prayer.
It is not a short film – 162 minutes – and one is surprised when at the end a monk speaks to the camera. He is blind.
This outbreak of sound from a blind man in a world of silence resonates with much of what we hear in today’s gospel. John plays with our perceptions in ways that challenge our sensory perception and connection with reality.
The man born blind is not a victim of sin, but a precious human being whose blindness distinctively expresses something of the limitation of our identity. In his case the nature of that limitation is sight. For others it might be sound or mobility; for others it is the capacity to believe in God. No human being is without limitation; all of us are limited by death.
Jesus sees this man as a person in whom there is the potential for revelation: “that the works of God should be made manifest in him” (John 9.3 KJV). By the end of the story we discover that the blind man has a capacity for faith that recognises Jesus as the Son of man in whom God is revealed. In one beautiful gesture the man born blind gives simple expression to his grasp of the reality of who Jesus is, “and he worshiped him” (John 9.38).
John’s brilliant telling of this story is set in the context of the Jewish feast of Tabernacles. It was the most popular of the celebrations that centred on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. In origin it seems to have been a harvest festival that was subsequently interpreted as a celebration of God’s provision for Israel in the long years of pilgrimage from Egypt. It was also a festival of the future, the arrival of the end time, judgement, and eternity.
The festival themes found expression in three focal points of celebration: water, light, and the temple itself, going to the East gate and turning East to face the sunrise. These very basic symbols also have a central place in the liturgy of the Christian Church. They form the kernel of our Easter Vigil in which we renew baptism promises, light the paschal candle, and see in the rising of the sun in the sky a metaphor of the rising of Jesus Christ from the dead.
For the early Christians this Holy Saturday Vigil, at which baptism and confirmation enacted the birth of new Christians, was the festival of Jesus Christ who is the light of the world (John 8.12), a light that shines unconquered in darkness (John 1.5). This was liturgy that shaped life. It was “enlightenment”.
In a 4th century sermon, Gregory, the Archbishop of Constantinople, describes this baptismal conversion as enlightenment which is “the splendour of souls, the conversion of life, the pledge of conscience to God...It is the best and most magnificent of God’s gifts.” Gregory’s emphasis is on being a different sort of person as a result of what happens in baptism. To say that it is like recovering your sight would be a good way of putting it.
The desire and capacity to worship God express most fully this experience of enlightenment. Worship is not about aesthetics. It is the summing up of what we are and the offering of it to God in whom we find our life most fully illuminated, seen and understood.
In the film, Into Great Silence, it is no accident that an old man who is blind is the one who speaks. He sees with a clarity that we, the watchers of the film, might struggle to achieve. “Why be afraid of death,” he asks, gently and with a wry smile, “it is the future of all humans. The closer one brings oneself to God, the happier one is.” Like the man born blind whom we meet in today’s gospel, this blind monk receives enlightenment through the worship of God that is the seal and dignity of all the baptised.
There is an irony, perhaps, in the paraphernalia of the camera, and the film crew. They can capture the processes of monastic life: the reality of God, to which those processes bear witness, eludes them. But it is vividly described by an old blind man.
Here is a challenge to our understanding of strength and intellectual enlightenment. Here, as Wordsworth puts it, “we are admonished from another world” (The Prelude, VII.649).
And finally, another extraordinary thing. The hidden but real and powerful work of prayer that sustains the world’s life takes place not only in the ancient monastery of the Grand Chartreuse; it is also happening in the same unseen, potent and silent way here in the middle of Sussex. St Bruno’s Carthusian Monastery, at Parkminster, near Cowfold, sustains this work with joy and determination, enriching us beyond our knowing.