Not many people would know that there is an enclosed monastery of contemplative nuns in a fashionable district of west London. Michael Whyte has just finished a documentary film about life in Notting Hill Carmel and, remarkably, it is getting a national cinematic release in April. You can visit the monastery site here; and the site of the film here (with some beautiful images, and an online trailer).
After ten years of correspondence, Michael Whyte was given unprecedented access to the monastery of the Most Holy Trinity, in London’s Notting Hill. The monastery, which was founded in 1878, is home to the Discalced Order of Carmelite Nuns. The nuns lead a cloistered life dedicated to prayer and contemplation, rarely leaving the monastery except to visit a doctor or dentist. Silence is maintained throughout the day with the exception of two periods of recreation.
No Greater Love gives a unique insight into this closed world where the modern world’s materialism is rejected; they have no television, radio or newspapers. The film interweaves a year in the life of the monastery with the daily rhythms of Divine Office and work. Centred in Holy Week, it follows a year in which a novice is professed and one of the senior nuns dies. Though mainly an observational film there are several interviews, which offer insights into their life, faith, moments of doubt and their belief in the power of prayer in the heart of the community.
I was lucky enough to go to a screening this week. I’ve known the community for a few years because they have links with the seminary where I work. A key part of the Carmelite vocation is to pray for priests, and the sisters at Notting Hill pray each day for the priests and seminarians of Westminster Diocese. We visit them once a year in small groups, and chat in the ‘parlour’. So it was a real eye-opener to see what goes on ‘behind-the-scenes’ after all this time.I was struck, perhaps inevitably, by the silence; but also by the noises that emerge from this silence. One of the sisters explained that they don’t feel disconnected from the city, because they are there to pray for the city, and to live at its heart. And you could see and hear these very connections in the background: the sound of a siren, of a train pulling out of Paddington Station; the sight of a police helicopter flying over, seen above the arms of a wooden crucifix in the garden.
Some of the sisters talked about their vocations, and about the struggles of prayer. It was very real. Moments of joy; moments of darkness and boredom — sometimes lasting for years. You had a sense, throughout the film, that they knew who they were and what they were doing. Simple things: cooking, cleaning, gardening, caring for the sick, swapping news and stories (in the time of recreation each evening), kneeling in the chapel. Simple things that add up to a huge commitment of life.
One sister took evident delight in taking a chainsaw to an overgrown tree; and the director seemed to take an equal delight in cutting abruptly to this scene from the silence of the Chapel.
The final shot was breathtaking. Only at the very end, after following the sisters within the confines of the monastery walls for what amounted to a year, did the director use an aerial shot and pan back from the monastery to the surrounding streets and housing estates — and to the whole of west London. You realised that this monastery, so hidden away and unacknowledged, is truly part of the beating heart of London.
I’ll post again when I hear details about when and where the film is showing.