A line of monks walk past a sink where some water trickles and extend their fingers to catch some drops. Some of them don’t. Those who do dry their fingers on a large cloth which hangs close by. A scene in the film Into great silence, which I saw some days ago, a two and a half hour movie which tries to capture fragments of the life in what is called ‘the most austere monastery in Europe’, the French monastery Grande Chartreuse. The Chartusian monks live a large part of their day in individual cells and speak only occasionally, on Sundays, and when they go out for their weekly walk. Well, there is this one monk who speaks when he feeds the monastery-cats, who are kept to catch rodents, and who, obviously, don’t live by the rule of silence.
I was fascinated by the scene with the water and by what happened afterward in the film. An anthropologist would see a cleansing ritual. It is no real wash. A muslim’s cleansing ritual before prayer comes closer to a real wash, although it’s intention is also not hygienic but religious. The drops in Grande Chartreuse look like survivals of a religious past where more water was used. And they know it. On one of their walks out into the open, you hear the monks discuss that moment. They wonder why they do it. ‘To clean yourself’ is the obvious answer of one. ‘I don’t get the chance to get myself dirty before’ is the humorous response of another. When the next one speaks, the viewer wonders whether the monks have been reading postmodern philosophy: ‘It is a metaphor. Our entire life is metaphorical.’ I think he refers to their special, secluded and highly ritualized life, and not to human life in general. That would make one think and soon get lost on some ‘Holzweg’.
But even if he referred to their own life, what would he mean? Of what was it a metaphor? And of what the tiny wash? The wash of cleaning, not of hygienic cleaning of course, that would be stupid, to metaphorize that. Of inner cleaning, what is called in Christian religious language the turning of the heart, away from the ‘dirt’ of egoistic desires, and towards charity, towards the needs of others, and thus – to God. But what would the need be to metaphorize that? To remember, I suppose. To not forget to do this spiritual act, like one leaves an object on the table at night, in order to remember to do something with it the next day. By analogy the entire monasterial life would then be a memorial object for humanity to not forget that it has a spiritual goal by living, and not just a material one. That we are ‘owned’ by God, one could phrase it, again, religiously.
Water is the key element in human existence, we consist largely of it, we can not survive very long without it. We love to play in it, when we have enough of it. We love to drink it, or when we are rich, to experiment by making all kinds of ‘dressed’ beverages out of it: coffee, tea, soda. Or we press it out of grapes or oranges or apples, as they have transformed this element of the earth and added their taste to it. We love to wash. A home with a bath or a shower is nowadays the normal standard of luxury that should be attainable to everyone. Although throwing water over your head as most people in the world know as bathing, is as enjoyable, or perhaps even more so, than sitting passively in a tub or standing under a shower. It is done in religions and spiritual movements all over the world. As a metaphor? Actually I don’t think so. I think the monks themselves forgot what they are doing, although they see their act as a reminder. We touch water to honour and remain in contact with one of our main life forces. To reach for the spirit of the water, which we do not understand, but need. That there is a force behind the water, and behind our being here, a creative force, how we might address it -as the Laws of Nature, as God, as the Great Spirit – does not matter so much, since we all know it is there, but we do not know very much about it. We are earth dwellers that know they need water, and who need to stay in touch with it.
Into Great Silence, a 2005 film by director Gröning, has its own wikipedia page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Into_Great_Silence
My thoughts on water are a playful moment in a long process, which also inspired my academic research into Spinoza, the metaphor of Nature, and Spirits/Ghosts in Modernity (the themes of three of my books). It probably expresses my wish to recapture lost ‘shamanistic’ (for lack of a better word) meanings in the present time: in modern religious life as well as in the secular orientation of the sciences.