“Our use is that we are here. For many people the fact that we’re here is a very clear signal…that God remains alive in this society. He is not to be stored away or hidden, because he is still here. To be nothing more than a sign that God is here is already enough for me”.
-Brother Alberic, Abbot, Sion Monastery
I love the quiet surprise. You know, the one that you least expect yet desperately need, without even realizing it. One such surprise came to me in the form of an unassuming documentary that scrolled by on Amazon. It was called The Island of the Monks, directed by Anna Christine Giradot. Three Cistercian monks in their familiar black and white were pictured slowly walking along a wild and lonely beach together. That was all. But my finger instinctively – or providentially – clicked play, and I entered a quiet, God-filled space.
On the surface, the movie centered around eight Cistercian monks living in a beautiful Monastery named Sion that had been built in 1890 to house 120 monks. It was set in the Netherlands, in a place called Deipenveen, Deventer. The monks go about their duties of prayer and work: practicing chants, cooking, book binding, gardening. You are given a wonderful glimpse of the stunning beauty of their Monastic home in the background. Slowly, however, it begins to dawn on you how small they are, this little group of faithful men, rattling around in this place that echoes like a tomb, and dwarfs their little island of tables in a refectory eighteen times too large for them. In very fact, they are facing a serious, stressful dilemma. Must they leave? They cannot take care of the buildings anymore. The guest house has long been closed, no vocations have come in years. The order is financially strapped with maintaining this beautiful, but massive place. The monks decide they must go in search of a smaller, more economically viable, spiritual home – or cease to exist.
It is heart rending to hear their stories, their fears, their doubts about making this new foundation. Three of them are old, the others middle-aged. They are very attached to the place, to the people who have become friends over the years, to the fact that they are one of the only signs of the Divine in an ever-increasing secular Netherlands. The townspeople love them being there. Many come for Mass every Sunday, some are even unbelievers who say that the place has a peace they cannot find anywhere else in their lives. Will they be abandoning these people? It is a turmoil the monks have not had to deal with in their otherwise clockwork, steady lives. Slowly, as the movie progresses, you see the hand of God in their deliberations and the peace that descends upon each one. They decide to move to a remote island called “The Island of the Gray Monks.” It is not a strange place, for it was named after them. In much earlier times, before the reformation, their novices who wore gray habits, worked on the island helping with farming and the digging of dikes. It is wild and beautiful and lonely. This island from the past will now hold their future. A future with a smaller, humbler Church surrounded by cells for the monks. The people living on the island will now become their people.
Woven throughout the movie, are the personal thoughts and stories set forth by each monk in turn as we find them packing up the most necessary things or as they carry on with their daily lives. How they came to be there, why they stayed, how they came to peace about the decision to move. I found myself an intimate guest listening to the mind of God in each of their lives. These were not picture-perfect vocation stories. These were real, and because of that reality, most shocking in their providential beauty. Not so much their own choices, but the tender “pluckings” by God. These men each came from a modern, secular society where the idea of religion was passe, presumably dead. But gloriously, as it turns out, not quite dead.
Brother Alberic, the Abbot, says of his youth: “I saw the demise of the Church when I was a young man. I saw it when I decided I wanted to study Theology. One day our instructor asked my class, ‘who of you still believes in God? Only one hand went up’. I saw how it (the faith) was all drifting away and that no one was picking it up. I felt a treasure was being lost, even if I didn’t quite know what that treasure was. I had a kind of Treasure Keeper’s calling. And decided to devote myself to God.” Another quiet, kind eyed monk named Brother Vincentius mused that he had a crisis of identity when he realized that farming with his brother just didn’t seem a fit for him, and he was troubled and isolated in this discontent for a long time until, he “went in search of the happiness I experienced as a child, as it were. Faith, the simple life. And as a child I also liked to draw and paint. One day I started drawing again, and that affected me very deeply. And I discovered that in isolation, or in loneliness, God gets the chance to talk to you. Slowly he told me to be a monk.” Brother Vincentius said this smiling as he serenely painted an icon on his work table. Brother Jelke was by all admissions a “…complete heathen…a bit of a punker. I didn’t believe in God at all. I considered believing in God a weakness. I didn’t want to get married. But the meaning of life? THAT is what interested me. I said, ‘Everything or NOTHING’. And a wife could not be everything to me, that I knew. In the Gospel it says that God can make children of Abraham out of these stones. That’s just what happened to me. I was a stone, with a heart of stone. And yet I came to believe in Him. I don’t know how, but I did.” And then this renegade, this free spirit, was called to live the monastic life and never looked back.
As I heard each story, I slowly began to understand more clearly the mystery of a vocation. But not a mystery only. Vocations are preserved and tended by other people’s charity and insight. Brother Paulus loved his life as a monk for many years. He became the guest house porter at one point and started meeting lay people. He met a woman at one point and fell in love with her. He decided to leave the Monastery and was gone for six years; but he could not ever rest in that decision. It troubled him and nagged him and finally his girlfriend said, “I am willing to give you up if I have to. I will drive you back if you say so.” And like the prodigal son he screwed up his courage and humility and approached the Abbot of Sion and asked to enter there. The monks joyfully and gladly accepted him, this wayward sheep. When asked by the interviewer if he felt judged by them for his six year departure or his unfaithfulness, he said, “No. I never felt judged. The Abbot was nothing but kind to me.” This humble admission from that peaceful, childlike face was only possible through the exquisite forgiveness and understanding of his spiritual father, the Abbot. His peace seeped into my own heart at that moment. And finally, there is Brother Columba, one of the older monks. He was destined to study medicine, but when he finally began to do surgeries and procedures, he found that he could not perform them. He lacked the confidence and quick mindedness to succeed. He felt the failure keenly and called it his “big flop.” He felt lost, and somehow you get the impression that he had been deeply depressed and filled with anxiety. He came to the monks and desperately said that he didn’t have a vocation nor did he believe in all this stuff, but he wanted to live a peaceful, healthy life. Would they let him come for that? And the Abbot said yes. He probably knew this poor man was on the edge of a breakdown and he just simply loved him. He put him to work on the farm and told him that he had to come up to the Monastery for Sunday High Mass each week. Eventually he slowly began to live their life. He grew in his faith and offered himself to God as a monk in the end. Real vocations are messy and maze-like. They don’t unfold like they do in badly written, saccharine saint books. These men were all hopelessly flawed, some most unlikely to ever set foot in a house of God, or ready to abandon their vocation to run off with a woman only to come back overwhelmed with the God who would not let go. One received his vocation because his Abbot decided to think outside the box and let this complete unbeliever in, simply because that is what Jesus would do. These were the men God had chosen to be the beginning of a new foundation to his glory, on a remote island. Middle-aged and elderly, they were being asked to live a young man’s adventure, fraught with the unknown. They each said their simple but profound fiat.
I finished this movie in silence. I suddenly felt a – kinship – with these men. I am a wife and mother trying to live an authentic Catholic life in a world that does not understand. I admit that I have felt despair at times. How do I, with my very small life, face a “post Christian” world where so much of our faith has been thrown out, where scoffers laugh at religion, and much treasure seems irretrievably lost. Do I believe in the providence of God enough to have faith that He can do something with it all? That my life even matters in this overwhelming darkness? Eight gentle monks with their simple, trusting lives seem to chide me gently: why yes, you matter most profoundly. You matter because your life faithfully lived says God is here to a world that wants so much to hate him, but longs for him so desperately. I don’t have to be loud, famous, or dramatic. I just have to be. We are ever united now, these monks and I. I pray for them each by name, and I know they are praying for me and for us all on their island that was named for them.
This was my quiet surprise on a day I needed to hear it most. Anna Christine Giradot brought me to this place of peace and understanding through her sensitive, beautiful film. I owe her much. As an artist, she discovered this bit of heaven at Sion Monastery, perhaps a story many other film makers had overlooked or deemed irrelevant. She SAW something there and she brought it to us. She ,too, matters profoundly. All Catholic writers, poets, actors, film makers – not only the famous ones – but the ones who continue to SEE the world and gather in the Divine beauty others might have overlooked – they may feel small, unheard, irrelevant. They, too, might say what’s the use, no one is listening. They must not give up, for they are the keepers of the quiet surprises that some unsuspecting souls will come upon suddenly one day when they least expect it, and find the courage to BE for God.
Denise Trull lives in St. Louis, MO with her husband Tony. She is the artistic director of a small but mighty theater company and loves the written word in all its forms.