On Saturday afternoon I found myself pushing through the crowds of London’s Notting Hill to make it in time for the preview showing of No Greater Love at Notting Hill Gate cinema.
The film follows the lives of nuns living in an enclosed Carmelite monastery also in Notting Hill – the monastery of the Most Holy Trinity – and included at Q & A with the Director, Michael Whyte.
It seemed a shame on such a nice day to be indoors watching a rather sombre film about nuns in a monastery, but the film really interested me – two of my retreats so far this year have been in monastic settings. One was an enclosed Poor Clares convent in West Sussex and the other a Anglican convent in Richmond.
The film is a fascinating insight into the lives of these nuns, who take vows of Poverty, Obedience and Chastity and never go out of the confines of the monastery except when they really need to, maybe for a dentist or doctor’s appointment.
Michael Whyte, who came across as really down to earth and thoughtful in the Q&A, spent ten years trying to film in the monastery – he sent a letter to the nuns every year asking for permission, until finally one day they agreed to meet with him (he was interviewed by a panel of nuns) and let him in to film.
Almost every detail of the nuns lives are captured by Whyte. We see the nuns praying, meditating, gardening, scrubbing floors, having recreation time, sewing together habits and even doing some country dancing.
There are poignant moments – the death of an elderly nun and her burial in the grounds of the monastery, and some really funny, unexpected ones – a nun wielding a chainsaw in the garden in an attempt to cut back some trees.
A few of the nuns are interviewed by Michael Whyte and give fascinating insights into their thoughts on things like solitude and silence, praying, death and doubt.
One nun confessed that she spent 18 years in a state of doubt while in the monastery – a ‘dark night of the soul’ she called it. Another, who had a delightful twinkle in her eye, talked about how she came into the monastery, as a 21-year-old who had recently graduated from Cambridge university, and was attracted to the austerity of the enclosed Catholic order.
They came across as witty, sharp and fascinating, sharing insights on self-sacrifice, devotion to God, prayer and many other aspects of their lives.
The film is really artful and meditative with brilliant photography.
I got the impression Whyte filmed purely out of curiosity, as a filmmaker who lived in the same vicinity as the monastery and became fascinated by its existence in the midst of a big city like London.
There is a great closing shot – the camera pans out from the monastery grounds to the wider city in which it sits, a speck of calm and other-worldliness in the middle of it all.