The Best Monastic Documentaries: Eastern Edition

A few months ago, I published a post entitled “The Best Monastic Documentaries.” It was quickly pointed out to me that, although I had covered several good features, they were all about Western monks. So I decided that, once I had the time, I would assemble a review of the best documentaries covering Eastern Monasticism. That time has finally arrived! So buckle up, get out your chotki, and watch some of these films.

60 Minutes Goes to Mount Athos

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Simonopetra Monastery, Mount Athos, one of the monasteries profiled by 60 Minutes. (Source)

In 2011, viewers who tuned into the Christmas episode of CBS’s popular weekly news-documentary series, 60 Minutes, were greeted with an extraordinarily rare treat. For the first time in thirty years, the monks of Mount Athos had opened up their peninsula to a television crew. I remember when it premiered; this was one of my earliest encounters with the monastic tradition of the East. Bob Simon layers on the journalistic smarm, clearly stunned by and slightly distasteful at the various sacrifices and remnants of Medieval life on the Holy Mountain. Nevertheless, the holy simplicity of the monks that he interviews nevertheless shines through. I’m particularly impressed with the testimony to perpetual prayer – the prayer of the heart – given in this film. And luckily enough for us, both Part 1 and Part 2 can both be found online.

One Day in the Life of a Men’s Monastery

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The sound of the wooden doaca awakens the monks from their sleep and calls them to prayer. (Source)

This quiet, reverent film covers the daily routine of a monastery in Georgia. There is no dialogue and no plot, per se. We don’t follow the actions of any single monk. But the viewer does gain an insight into the feeling of the monastic rhythm in this little, faraway community of Abkhazia. Viewers who have seen Into Great Silence will recognize a very similar style in this film. My only criticism is that there’s rather too much focus on the work of the monks, and not enough on their prayer. Still, those moments of prayer we do see are also noteworthy for clearly showing the larger lay community that depends upon the monastery for spiritual sustenance. This short film is thus perhaps the most poetic production on our list.

The Brethren

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They’re pretty hard core. (Source)

Monks have always sought “the desert,” though sometimes that desert takes the form of tundra. The monks of Trifonov Pechengsky monastery, Kolsky Peninsula, Russia, must be some of the northernmost monastics on earth. This intimate portrait of the community  gives insight not only into the externals of ascetic life at the edge of the world, but also the reasons why men become and remain monks. It also shows, in a more explicit way than One Day in the Life of a Men’s Monastery, that the monks play an important role in their small town’s life and history.

“Hermits of Our Times – Orthodox Christian Monasticism (Hesychasm)”

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Monastic wisdom. (Source)

To be fair, this isn’t really a documentary. It seems to be footage from a Romanian Orthodox news service taken in the late 1990’s. But it does shine a helpful spotlight on modern anchorites (then) living in the Romanian forest. Anchorites are not monks per se; at least, they are not cenobites, living in cells within a larger community. They are hermits who may once have been attached to a community but now seek God in solitude. I always find myself deeply impressed by the simplicity and manifest wisdom of these holy men whenever I return to this clip. I am reminded of the sayings of the Optina Elders, the Desert Fathers, or even my good St. Philip Neri.

“The Motorbike Rider Who Became a Monk”

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The basics of monastic life, as communicated by a monk in Israel. (Source)

Again, I’m not sure this technically counts as a documentary. But it’s a good interview with a Cypriot who became a monk in Israel, at St. Gerasimos Monastery. One of the great strengths of this film, besides relating a vocation story, is the emphasis it places on the role of the Elder or Spiritual Father. For the Eastern Orthodox, and especially for monks, there is a spiritual lineage passed on from one old monk to younger ones (or to those in the world). In the West, we have mostly lost the sense of Spiritual Fatherhood by dividing its roles between the confessor and the spiritual director, neither of which carries the same weight as the Spiritual Father. But this short and helpful film is a good reminder of what still persists in the monastic tradition.

Behind the Monastery Walls

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Inside a Romanian monastery. (Source)

This 2011 documentary looks at the personal stories of various monks and nuns in Romania. It’s an artfully made piece, with a very good choral track throughout. But I admire its spiritual insights more than its aesthetic notes. Although the filmmaker does not seem to take a definitively Christian standpoint, she allows the monastics to speak for themselves. They provide a remarkable testimony to the strength of Orthodox traditions in the wake of Communism. We see not only the monks and nuns themselves, but  also the devotional practices of ordinary believers who come to the monasteries. There are, for instance, many prostrations before icons. I also enjoyed the film for my own personal reasons. Romanian monasticism will always hold a special place in my heart, as it was a trip to a Transylvanian monastery that started my conversion, about seven years ago.

I’m sure there are other examples one could point to, but for now, these are some good places to start. They cover a wide range of Orthodox practices and values, all refracted through the lens of its monastic tradition.

 

 

The Seven Sacraments in Flannery O’Connor

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Flannery O’Connor at her farm, Andalusia, with one of her beloved peacocks. (Source).

Flannery O’Connor’s name is synonymous with the American short story tradition. What sets her apart from her peers, besides her mastery of plot and her succinct, grotesque style, is the deep concern for issues of faith and grace that animates all of her stories. As O’Connor once put it, “All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless, brutal, etc.” There is a certain delicious cruelty to her work. The nasty fates she metes out to children, let alone the adults who deserve what they get, rank her with the best of the gothic writers (and a humorous one at that—we can only imagine the hysterical laughter that something like Der Struwwelpeter would have provoked in her).

Yet O’Connor never show us violence for its own sake, nor for mere moralizing, nor as a ploy for cheap entertainment. Violence is the only outlet for grace in a fallen, “Christ-haunted” world. Her pages are choked and sodden with the precious blood that flows from the Cross.

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The Seven Sacraments, Rogier van der Weyden, c. 1448. O’Connor provides us with a (southern) gothic view of the sacraments. (Source)

It is a commonplace among critics that O’Connor’s writing is deeply sacramental. But to my knowledge, no author who has made that claim has also tried to find the fullness of the sacramental system present in her work.

I maintain that all seven sacraments appear in her fiction under different guises. Very often, we are given only implicit or twisted versions. It is common in O’Connor’s dark narratives to find flashes of grace in the inverse of sacraments; the truth emerges through its own negationhence her heavy use of violence. But all seven are all there, for those who “hath ears to hear” (Matt. 13:9 KJV).

In giving short descriptions of the following stories, my effort is not to justify my choices so much as to provoke further reading. As such, I will keep my descriptions succinct and relatively spoiler-free. Those who have read them may be able to see where I’m coming from. Those who haven’there’s some summer reading for you.

Baptism“The River”

This is one of O’Connor’s more overtly sacramental stories. The young son of irreligious parents accidentally gets himself baptized by a preacher in a Southern riverwith lethal consequences.

Honorable mention: The Violent Bear It Away. O’Connor thought about baptism a lot, probably because, as a rite of initiation, it is so centrally connected with questions of faith.

Confirmation“The Enduring Chill”

A sick and snobbish intellectual. A garrulous Jesuit. An overt reference to “A Simple Life” by Flaubert. Sometimes, the descent of the Holy Spirit doesn’t feel quite the way we expect.

Eucharist“A Temple of the Holy Ghost”

The only short story I know by any author that quotes the Tantum Ergo at length. There’s a good example of the “Red, Eucharistic Sun” motif that O’Connor was so fond of using. And lovers of the weird O’Connor will find her incarnational vision at a particularly grotesque note in this story.

The thinkpiece that uses “Temple” to discuss contemporary gender identity issues, sadly, has yet to be written.

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O’Connor knew how to use a Protestant idiom to communicate Catholic doctrine. (Source).

Confession“The Lame Shall Enter First”

At one point, the liberal main character’s office is compared to a confessional. In confession, however, you hope that a good priest will comfort those who need comfort and afflict those who need affliction, for the edification and sanctification of all. Not so in Sheppard’s benevolently atheist bubble.

Marriage“Parker’s Back”

In this remarkable narrative, one of O’Connor’s most Catholic stories, we read the story of a marriage broken apart by a dramatically visible expression of extraordinary grace. Theological and moral Puritans won’t be pleased by the implications.

Holy OrdersWise Blood

What happens when you really, really, really don’t want to accept your vocation? You end up like Hazel Motes, and chase after a “Holy Church of Christ Without Christ.” The last chapter can be read as a meditation on the Imago Dei.

Unction“A Good Man is Hard to Find”

If only for that incredible, climactic line spoken by the Misfit, “She would of been a good woman…”

I may try to expand this list into a real academic work some day. For now, take this list for what it isa few reading suggestions for those of you who, like me, enjoy O’Connor, Southern Lit generally, and Catholicism.

Also peacocks.

Lots of peacocks.

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Cover of The Complete Stories. (Source).