Take a London fashion photographer away from his world of luxuriously designed perfection and set him to make a documentary film within the enclosed contemplative monasteries of the Tyburn Benedictines around the world, with their focus on the transcendent, and their daily routine of silence and inwardness with all wearing the same simple black habit, all in black footwear, all under the veil, what kind of documentary will result?
"Is it just nuns singing?", asked one lady nervously, as she considered a purchase. Another, a busy mother, delayed watching her copy, fearing the worst: the nuns' home-videos with ninety minutes of processions and sung church services.
But thereafter, she phoned the nuns in astonished awe exclaiming that it was "fantastic!" and wanting them to change the words on the DVD's front cover which read, "An unique inside portrait of the world of Tyburn Nuns written, narrated and co-produced by the Tyburn Nuns".
She urged the following endorsement: "Prepare to be blown away! This is the most visually compelling documentary on the monastic life as lived by the Tyburn Nuns. You will find yourself transformed to another world of beauty and peace, and be so disappointed when it ends that you'll want to re-watch it straight away! Recommended for those with anxiety, high blood pressure, unresolved rage, disenchantment, etc."
What is it that makes Tyburn Convent Gloria Deo such a compellingly beautiful and religious film?
Michael Luke Davies, the former West End fashion and beauty photographer, himself had proposed the idea of the documentary to the nuns. Luke had previously developed an interest in virtual reality photography and was a pioneer of 360 degree panoramic images, which he used for the first time on the websites he created for the Benedictine St Michael's Abbey, Farnborough and other Abbeys, and his work received international acclaim.
Because of the exceptional quality of his work in designing religious websites, Luke was commissioned to create the Tyburn Website which has brought an amazing response from internet users from all around the world.
The Tyburn Nuns finally accepted his urgings to produce a film about their Congregation worldwide, and knowing that he was an exceptionally creative and dedicated artist as well as being gifted with a high degree of religious sensitivity, they decided that he should be given a free hand to film, edit and direct this film according to his own knowledge of Tyburn monastic life and its place in the larger world.
"Of course," remarked the Congregation's Mother General, Mother Mary Xavier, "Luke really had no idea what he was letting himself in for! - the five months of filming in the diverse locations of the monasteries with quite different time zones, climates, languages and food was often quite challenging, especially in the heat of Peru and the high altitudes of Ecuador and Colombia - but Luke has portrayed the message he dreamt of capturing in image and sound in a way that surpassed expectations. He has captured and conveyed for the wider public, without any fuss or artificiality, the essence and praxis of what it is to be a Tyburn Nun."
The film begins in London, with the infamous "Black map" which traces the route along which scores of Catholic martyrs were "drawn" to the Tyburn Tree to be executed during the Protestant Reformation, and then introduces a French nun, Marie Adele Garnier, who fulfilled a prophecy, made amid the frenzy of the persecution, of how a religious house would stand at Tyburn in honour of the ultimate sacrifices made by Catholics during the Reformation.
Moving beyond the walls of Tyburn Convent, London, the film takes the viewer on a unique and fascinating round-the-world tour of the other eight monasteries: to Cork Harbour, Ireland, to the fishing community of Sechura, Peru, to Riverstone, Sydney, to Largs on the west coast of Scotland, to rural South Auckland, New Zealand, to Vilcabamba, Ecuador, and Guatapé, Colombia, both high in the Andes, and finally to the Eternal City, Rome.
The film celebrates the mystery and utter beauty of the silence, simplicity, joy, and ora et labora ("pray and work!") the daily round of activities within these monasteries where normally outsiders do not enter. It offers a vivid and authentic insight into the spirituality of the nuns as they glorify the Most Blessed Trinity, through the Holy Mass, the choral celebration of the Divine Office, Eucharistic Adoration, and in daily prayer for the Holy Father, the Church, and the entire human family.
The film features a young girl receiving the habit of a Novice and that extraordinary moment in the life of a young nun as she vows her life irrevocably into the hands of God, making her final monastic vows and becoming a 'Spiritual Mother'. The film also portrays with great warmth how the monasteries both benefit and are supported by the communities in which they flourish, all against a backdrop of extraordinary natural beauty.
This remarkable film shows that the monastic contemplative life is one of vibrant, joyous and holy dedication to God, a life well worth living - not only for the nuns themselves, but for all those who are touched by glimpsing something of this life of hidden, godly dedication.
Copies of Tyburn Convent Gloria Deo c an be purchased for $25 (cheque or money order payable to Tyburn Priory, sent to 325 Garfield Road East, Riverstone, NSW 2765) or online at www.tyburnconvent.org.uk