The famous Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky once said, “beauty will save the world”.
The line is found in his novel The Idiot and is attributed to the book’s main character, Prince Myskin. The statement may appear overly romantic and naive. After all, how might beauty be able to save a world steeped in war, evil and conflict at every level, be it political or in in the lives of individual human beings?
At a time when the world has been struck by fear of the coronavirus, and people hide their beautiful faces behind masks to protect against contamination and beautiful churches have been closed to worshipers, how dare we trust beauty to save the world?
In such a time of crisis when things look ever grimmer end ever uglier, along comes the premiere of the documentary “New Men”, which is like a gentle rain from Heaven.
It will convince anyone who sees it that beauty is indeed the only thing that can save us and that this beauty comes from inside the human heart by virtue of the soul’s union with Jesus Christ.
Film creator Sam Cox has a keen eye for beauty. His camera work convey sublime images over the course of one year leading up to Pascha in the life of a Russian Orthodox monastery in rural West Virginia. The monastery of The Holy Cross Hermitage is the home of 25 monks.
When Sam Cox shows the monks going bout their daily business, feeding chickens, mending beehives, mending fences or making incense while they address Jesus in the prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me”, or are in deep prayer and worship during the Liturgies, it offers a glimpse into Paradise. Everything is beautiful. Everything is in harmony. Everything is like coming home.
A couple of the monks are interviewed, and they both tell the viewers why they chose to join the monastery, and the substance of their faith. The essence is that “the goal of the Christian life is union with Christ in this life not only in the next.
The monks’ daily spiritual exercise is “dying to yourself”. This means dying from one’s ego in order to become united with God, which is the ultimate aim of the Christian life. Not merely in the eternal life to come but starting already in this life. The monks do this also by doing their labor in submission and obedience. If a monk has agreed to produce incense or feed chicken, he will do so in complete obedience to the best of his ability. This firm structure sets his mind free to concentrate completely on praying the Prayer of the Heart.
“The Kingdom of God is within you”, one of the monks explains. “The road to this kingdom winds its way through the human heart. Not through the intellect nor the emotions,” an elderly monk says.
“The entire focus is on praying with the heart and achieving contact with the heart. This is where we encounter God. Yet we often experience that there is a wall inside us that separates us from the heart,” he explains.
As the film unfolds, the viewer becomes aware that the beautiful images are not achieved merely because Sam Cox is skillful with his camera and the cutting in post-production. The beauty proceeds from the hearts of the monks. The Kingdom of God within them is what makes this world so beautiful. It endows everything around them with beauty as they seek unity with God. Even the animals around them seem happy and influenced by the beauty they radiate.
Changing the world starts in the secluded chamber as we are changed by God through prayer.
The film is nothing less than a monument to beauty, a masterpiece that will speak direct to the restless heart of modern human beings. Sam Cox tells me that, before he conceived the idea and recorded the film, he had himself sought the monastery because he needed more meaning to life than what a number of “competitive professional years in New York City”, smartphones and the desire for prosperity could offer him. He sought a reality outside himself. An objective reality that he was not compelled to invent and define himself. He found this with the monks of Holy Cross Hermitage.
Interview by Iben Thranholm with Sam Cox
Even those who are not able themselves to become a monk at the monastery can learn much from the monks about finding the way to heart and become a “new man”. It is this transformation or transfiguration that is at the core of all Orthodox spirituality. Even those who have been believers for many years may find inspiration here. The heart has infinite capacity and room for beauty and love.
Seeing how the monks can transform even the physical environment into a more beautiful version of itself by following the simple way of the heart is liberating at a time when much of Christianity pursues social justice to the exclusion of other aspects of the life of faith. This trend focuses on tolerance toward various political and secular trends that are often antithetical to traditional Biblical values. Society demands tolerance because it does not share the Christian faith. Political ideologies are driven by the notion that beauty comes from external social reforms. Earthly utopias have created a wasteland of ugliness and sadness. Therefore “New Men” is a very important film at this time when new and tectonic change will take place in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. The monks’ simple life reminds us that the beauty that saves the world proceeds from the Kingdom of God within us. In days of social distancing when we are separated from our loved ones, it also reminds us that we can find the greatest beauty and meaning through the Kingdom of God within us.
Watch New Men on Vimeo on demand here.