If you’re interested in seeing good men doing good work on behalf of the whole world, I can highly recommend a film which for some reason had skipped my notice until last evening, “The Watchmen of the Night”. I was made aware of it through a tweet posted by my friend Sister Veronica Young, a member of the Sisters of Faith who lives in solitude in Utah, but whom I’ve come to know through social media. [N.B. Incidentally, if you are on Twitter, Sister Veronica should be on your follow list, Catholic or not, as she regularly posts words of encouragement, prayer, and comfort for those who need it.]
No, this isn’t a review of the superhero movie “The Watchmen”, which in fact I debated about with someone the other day. Instead, this film is about a Benedictine monastery in the south of France, the Abbey of St. Mary Magdalene in Le Barroux, a town in Provence. The movie examines the day-to-day lives of the monks, as well as allowing us to get to know some of the monks themselves, and why they chose to enter the religious life. And fortunately, you can watch the entire one-hour documentary on YouTube by following this link.
If this sounds somewhat like another film about cloistered French monks, the German documentary “Into Great Silence”, you’d be forgiven for thinking they were rather similar. Yet while that piece goes through a year in the lives of the Carthusian monks who reside in the Grand Chartreuse in the French Alps, this film is not only shorter and somewhat lighter in tone, it reflects on a slightly different kind of spirituality. The German film has no narration, very little dialogue, and an overwhelming sense of the mortality of man preparing to enter God’s eternity, whereas the well-narrated French film touches upon these subjects, but presents a more upbeat, joyful tone about the life shared by the brothers in Provence.
Whereas outside of the Divine Office or Mass, the Carthusians spend the vast majority of their day in total silence and rarely if ever see anyone from the outside world, the Benedictines spend a significant portion of their day working in their community and receiving visitors. This could be overnight visitors making pilgrimages to the monastery for religious services, or interacting with patrons at the monastery shop which helps support the needs of the poor and the monks themselves. The Benedictines have their own periods of silence, particularly at night, but theirs is not the near-total isolation of their brethren in the Alps.
Yet like the Carthusians, the Benedictines in this film respond to the suggestion that what they are doing has no purpose by pointing out that they do not work for a purpose. They work for God. As such, they have no need for the secular materialist justifications of this world. So as the saying goes, put that in your pipe and smoke it.
What I found particularly interesting about Le Barroux was the fact that these Benedictines are not the hippy-dippy sort which one sometimes associates with the Order here in the U.S. In fact, this monastery was only founded in the 1980’s, although the complex itself looks like it was built 1000 years earlier. Originally, the monks here were aligned with the traditionalist schismatic movement which was spearheaded by the late Archbishop Lefebvre, but they eventually reconciled with Rome, and their monastic community was elevated to an Abbey in 1989. To see how the monks live and how they worship is to see traditional Roman Catholicism at its most beautiful.
No doubt the lifestyle of the monks is not for everyone – particularly for those of us who could not bring ourselves to become vegetarians. Yet it would be hard for anyone to look at the lives these men lead, and walk away unimpressed by the faith and the joy which radiates from them, as they go about following the great command of St. Benedict himself: ora et labora – pray and labor. Particularly for those of you who are curious about traditional Catholicism, or what it’s like to be a member of a cloistered religious Order, or who want a very watchable film to show your children or students about Catholic spiritual life, this would be a fine addition to your film library.