Friday, January 26, 2007

Snow, viruses and 'Die Grosse Stille'

I write today from a snowy, wintry Lyon, peeking out in resignation beneath several layers of extra clothing, and suffering, nonetheless, the sharp stabbing pains of some bloody French virus in the back of my throat.

Oh course, I say it's French, but no virus has a nationality or feels strong national sentiment. They promiscuously mix with any old foreigner who trots by happily minding his own business. So, yes - and this is what I'm driving at - viruses are the original internationalists. The only differences being that real internationalists are harder to swallow, and they can rarely be shifted, not even by a course of diarrhea-inducing antibiotics. We await that particular advance in medical science with, it must be admitted, a mixture of anxiety and not a little excitement. In the meantime, death to all viruses, say I.

Thoughts of the powdery stuff take me back to a film I saw during the holidays, Die Grosse Stille, now released in English as Into Great Silence, a documentary giving an aperçu of the lives of Carthusian monks at the Grande Chartreuse in Savoy. The 'Great Silence' is something of a play on words; there is the magnum silencium of the monastic rule, but also the spiritual peace of souls dedicated to God and which come to maturity in the physical silence of the imposing, Savoyard mountain scenery, broken only by the sound of bells, psalms chanted in the dead-of-night, and the swishing of sandals and robes in the cloister corridors.

There is, however, a remarkable scene near the end of the film where the Carthusians go out for recreation, and set up their own toboggan-run on the side of a steep hill. Then, the Grosse Stille is suddenly rent with screaming, whooping, tobogganing monks, zooming down the mountain with their scapulars flapping in the wind. As I recall the scene, I have to blot out from my memory the gentle, faux-bourdon snores emanating from the friend with whom I was - theoretically - watching the film, and who, being on the better side of a good meal and several glasses of wine, had begun what Carthusians would probably call an 'Apostle's meditation' (cf. the Garden of Olives).

Still, as I recall the scene, I'm persuaded to look with a kindlier eye on the chilly, clear-blue, winter sky and the now crusty, freezing snow along the Lyonnais pavements, knowing that somewhere, some happy monk is probably tobogganing down a Savoyard slope with his scapular flapping in the wind.

I hope he's praying for my virus. It's on death row.

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