I usually try to keep away from documentaries and biopics in my Religion and Film course, but the 2010 film No Greater Love deserves an exception.
No Greater Love, directed by Michael Whyte, gives us an intimate peek into the year of the Carmelite Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity, nestled within London’s bustling Notting Hill district, yet so removed from the chaos of modern life.
The film, with its beautiful, yet never overwhelming visuals, honors the contemplative life as one of service, devotion, and, above all, love. The cinematography has been called “Vermeer-like,” a very useful term, but this film is no museum piece. Rather, it is a cinematic, painterly portrait of the intimacy of a communal life given to prayer. As such, it depicts the life of the nuns of Most Holy Trinity without a lot of commentary, preferring, instead, to attend to monastery life in itself—no easy feat, since much of the nuns’ time is spent in silence.
To accentuate this aesthetic of contemplation, the moments depicting the silence of the contemplative life (ora) are juxtaposed with the often harsh loudness of the work (labora) in which some of the sisters are commissioned: running a press making communion wafers, using a chain saw to trim trees in the monastery garden. The sounds strike the observer as incredibly invasive, and cause one to wonder what effects the constant barrage of sounds we subject ourselves to have on our souls. There is no soundtrack, and not until fourteen minutes into the film do we hear an individual human voice.
The individual voices come through Whyte’s interviews with some of the sisters carefully sprinkled throughout the film. Due to my combined scholarly and personal interest in prayer and contemplation, I find these some of the most compelling moments in the film. “‘Silence, somebody says,” announces Sister Christine Marie of the Holy Trinity in the first individual utterance we encounter, “is the echo of eternal word.’ It’s a place where God can come and speak, and we can listen to him….And then silence becomes music.”
But, apparently, it’s not all music. Some of the sisters speak about their struggles with spiritual dryness—some lasting as long as eighteen years. They likewise point to the Carmelite tradition and St. John of the Cross’s poem and meditations on “The Dark Night of the Soul” as ways to understand and work through these periods when God seems to be excruciatingly absent. The monastery’s insightful and delightfully plucky prioress, Sister Mary of St. Philip, confesses that, through the Dark Night, “You get to a much deeper level of self-knowledge—which is very painful: none of us really like ourselves very much when we get close to ourselves.” She further observes compares the experience of dryness to one “when you’ve actually been in the desert, and there’s just no horizons.” This hardly sounds like an escape from the world.
But the monastery also offers unseen, spiritual benefits for all humanity. As Sister Mary of St. Joseph tells us, contemplative life can “actually generate a love right in the heart of humanity.” Watching this film, the viewer can begin to see the reality of her words.
Spero columnist Michael Martin PhD teaches English at Marygrove College. Follow him on Twitter: @pater_familiar.