Psychoanalyst Lucien Israël once said that, unlike popular belief, perversion is on the side of the nun, not the whore. Defining perversion as the blind seizing of one single object of desire, he sees the nun as an exhibitionist of her “perfect love with God,” and the whore as the one who actually takes risks, recreating her object of desire every time. The proof is in Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer, a documentary that takes theologians Dr. Norris J. Chumley and Rev. John A. McGuckin to Egypt, Greece, Romania, Ukraine, and Russia as they attempt to trace the origins of Christian monastic life.
In the name of finding “internal silence,” the monks the duo meets seek the calmness of the desert so they can get in contact with their real selves. The rhetoric of cleansing one’s body from “sins of action” and abolishing one’s own will gets creepier as we are allowed deeper into the small spaces where monks, dead and alive, co-inhabit. The anti-masturbation father in The White Ribbon wishes he had this kind of creativity. And not even the kinkiest of all S&M Berliners could have come up with this kind of mise-en-scène. Consider certain monks in Ukraine who used to be walled up in what looks like a tiny door-less igloo all day and were fed water and breadcrumbs through a hole and you might have a pictorial definition of masochism. In another monastery dungeon we see skeletons piled up on top of one another, and in another one in Kiev, the heads of dead “saints” are kept inside containers that look like cake glass stands. In another cave, which has a similar aesthetic to the Le Depot sex club in Paris, we learn that the “relics,” or skeleton remains, of saints are kept in a container that emits a distinct perfume. When Dr. Norris takes a whiff, all I can think of is poppers, except he says it smells “spicy, and citrus.”
For a film so bent on celebrating the power of silence, Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer has a whole lot of explanatory talking. Its tour guides, who also wrote and directed the film, act as bedazzled fans of the religious icons they meet on the way, listening attentively and asking anodyne questions (“Could you tell us about the new building of this brand new church?”). Justifying age-old institutionalized sexism, the voiceover claims that “though many people perceive that there is inequality between the role of man and women in the church, the nuns don’t seem to see it that way,” since the women apparently see themselves as part of an “essential dichotomy.” They then quickly move on to another monastery to meet another liturgical life superstar that they can gush over.