Yesterday, I watched Of Gods and Men, a French film that tells the story of a tiny monastery in the mountains of Algeria that got caught between a corrupt government and Islamic fundamentalists, the two sides of the Algerian civil war of the 1990's. For a theological meditation on this movie, see this post on my theology blog.
I cannot recommend this movie highly enough. Even if you're not into religious themes or monks or foreign films, you might like it too. It has much to say to creative folks.
You might scoff at the idea that monks and artists are similar. Yet they are. Both groups live in larger societies that don't understand what they do; if they're lucky, their communities do appreciate what they do, even if they don't fully understand. This movie shows that monks and artists may not be so lucky, that any of us at any time could get caught between societal forces we can't control. But our mission is to continue living our lives with as much integrity as we can muster.
Kathleen Norris is one writer who has perhaps done the most to help demystify monasticism for regular readers. In The Cloister Walk she says:
"Poets and monks do have a communal role in American culture, which alternately ignores, romanticizes, and despises them. In our relentlessly utilitarian society, structuring a life around writing is as crazy as structuring a life around prayer, yet that is what writers and monks do. Deep down, people seem glad to know that monks are praying, that poets are writing poems. This is what others want and expect of us, because if we do our job right, we will express things that others may feel or know, but can't or won't say" (page 145).
The movie gives us a fascinating view of the life of a monk, a life structured around work, study, and prayer. I truly believed I was watching a monastery in action.
But of course, I wasn't. I was watching actors. How did they pull this off?
The Wikipedia article on the movie explains: "As preparation for their roles, the actors who were to play monks had a month of professional training in the Cistercian and Gregorian chants. Each actor also spent a week living as a monk at the Tamié Abbey. The actors used different approaches to their individual roles. Lambert Wilson primarily used Christian de Chergé's writings to develop a subjective perception of the monk's personality. Xavier Maly, a non-Catholic, prepared himself by praying every day for a month. Jean-Marie Frin based his interpretation partially on a home video from Paul Favre-Miville's vow. Michael Lonsdale on the other hand preferred to rely on instinct, and did not prepare much at all."
I love that the actors took such different approaches--and each one worked!
This morning, I'm thinking about what we do for our art. What are we willing to do? How might we still stretch our talents and capacities? What haven't we tried yet? What does the work call us to do?
What does the world call us to do as artists? What does the world need from us?
And the question that most interests me these days: how do we live integrated lives? I want the work that I do for money to nurture the creative work that doesn't pay enough to live on. I want poetry to be honored. I want time to consider manuscripts of longer works. I want to have time to exercise and to cook nourishing food. I want to be able to identify that which kills my soul and to shuck off those activities and situations.
I wish I could conclude with a pithy sentence or two that tells you my secret--but these questions interest me because I still haven't answered them.
Monastics point the way to an answer. Monastics don't spend their whole day in prayer--but by stopping to pray every several hours, they live more balanced lives. Monastic communities long ago figured out what's important, and to my outsider eyes, they don't waste time rehashing these old arguments. They just go about living their beliefs.
What roots our creative practices? How can we provide more of that soil?
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