02 April 2011

"Of Gods and Men" and the Commitment to Stability

Last year (maybe even the year before that) I read the story of the Cistercian Monks who were living in Algeria and eventually were martyred for their faith. This last week I had a chance to see the movie made of this story with a couple of friends from my parish.

There are a number of wonderful aspects to this movie. It paints a beautiful portrait of monastic life and the centrality of liturgy in the life of the Trappist monk, but especially it makes clear the place of the psalms/Scripture in that life. The chanting was excellent and moving (not professional!) and the lyrics of the psalms mirrored the lives of these monks -- particularly as the crisis which enveloped the countryside also increasingly threatened the monks' own lives. The film clearly demonstrated the simplicity of the life, the silence and solitude, but also the community and the presence to others as the monastery becomes an integral part of the fabric of the local region --- trusted and beloved by the local residents. Especially wonderful (and deserving of a post all its own!) was the monk's ecumenical presence and sensitivity which is part of genuine Christianity. Scenes showed the Prior studying the Koran, a number of the monks celebrating Muslim festivities with local families, and of course, the monastery "doctor" was the doctor everyone -- including Muslim women -- turned to in need.

The aspect that was most moving to me was reflected in this last ecumenical dimension and bond; it was the struggle by the individual monks to determine how monastic stability would shape their lives as they, and everyone around them, undeniably came under threat and remained under threat. The threat to the monks grows. One knows that the alternatives are "stay and die" or "leave and live." Over the length of the film several monastic chapters are held --- periods where the monks meet (in this case) around a table and are given a brief lesson by the prior. (Chapters are a regular (daily or weekly, etc) part of monastic life and the prior or prioress is ordinarily the one who gives a lesson; in his or her absence monks and nuns might, for instance, listen to a series of tapes on the Rule or some other dimension of their lives.) Afterward there is a discussion and in Of Gods and Men the monks state honestly what their own feelings and discernment are regarding staying or returning to France in the face of the danger that accompanies their lives and grows evermore critical.

Initially several monks want to leave and return to France and monastic life there, but as days and weeks go by each man comes to terms with his fear and his commitment to remain here in this monastery and among these people --- all of whom are as threatened and terrified as the monks themselves. The psalms prayed during Office take on a sharper poignancy and striking relevance. Individual prayer in chapel or in their cells at night show them wrestling with their fear -- and with their commitment both to their brother monks and to the people they serve and rightly call "neighbor". At the final chapter shown in the movie, each man expresses his discernment that he is called to stay here. The choices are made in complete freedom, but they are anguished as well. The film flinches from neither the profound faith nor the abject fear which co-exist in this process of discernment and commitment.

Soon after, there is a scene where a military helicopter flies right up to the windows of the chapel, machine guns seemingly ready to annihilate the little community who prays within. The monks stand together in their cowls, hands around waists or on shoulders in affection, support, and solidarity, as they sing a hymn which grows in power and expression of conviction. It is almost a perfect portrait of the peace of Christ -- the peace the world cannot give, and of course the peace which is not without pain, fear, or struggle. As one of the monks summed up at the last chapter: "I am not afraid of death; I am a free man." These men know who they are most fundamentally, and why they are as well. They remain in Christ, and so too, they remain committed to one another and to all around them. They come to possess themselves completely in giving themselves over to that which is outside their control. Soon after, the monastery is broken into in the middle of the night and all but two of the monks (one of whom crawls under a bed and is missed) are taken further into the mountains where they are executed.

In the past weeks I have been reflecting on and writing about stability -- not merely for this blog, but for my own Rule which I am revising some. Some of the impetus for this reflection involved the recent questions on the relationship between struggle and the peace of Christ in authentic vocations, and this movie would certainly illustrate some of what I said in reply in my last post. For that matter, Lent also has been a stimulus to this reflection as the stories of Jesus lead into the increasing tension between Jesus and the religious authorities of his day -- and to a sense that there is an inevitable and apparently senseless execution in the offing unless Jesus chooses another course. But of course, Jesus does not move on or away; he chooses to cast his lot in with sinful humanity -- and with God's own purposes. And so too with these Trappists. They cast their lots in with one another in THIS monastery and with the Muslim people of this area of Algeria, and they lose (and find!!) their lives in the process.

Here again is part of Charles Cummings', OCSO, description of stability which I posted several entries ago: [[ Stability is the promise to stay here with Christ and with these others, and to stay awake to support each other during the struggle. The interior aspect refers to the heart awakened to the needs and feelings of others, to the will and the word of God in our midst. The contrary attitude is to stay on in monastic [or eremitical] life with increasing hardness of heart and dullness of hearing, until the sparkle goes out of our eyes and we only hang around waiting for the evening paper.]] (Cummings, Monastic Practices, p 173.)

In today's highly mobile society where convenience often wins out over commitment and we live among others we generally allow to remain strangers -- who, that is, we never make neighbors (much less truly love as we love ourselves!), where we parish shop to find the perfect faith community which best serves us, and where sometimes even our own spiritual sojourning is less a journey in Christ than it is a search for the next spiritual high or a way to fulfill our own wholly selfish desires, we need the story of these monks. Martyrdom is not merely an ancient reality but a contemporary one, while stability is not merely a monastic discipline and value, but a human one --- necessary for finding and claiming ourselves, necessary for truly loving others. It is, as I noted recently, the quintessentially Christian value --- the commitment to remain with (and in) Christ in this place and with these people so that we may all grow to fullness of humanity together.

Addendum: Last Will and Testament of Father Christian (Prior)

If it should happen one day - and it could be today - that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to engulf all the foreigners living in Algeria, I would like my community, my Church and my family to remember that my life was GIVEN to God and to this country.

I ask them to accept the fact that the One Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure. I would ask them to pray for me: for how could I be found worthy of such an offering? I ask them to associate this death with so many other equally violent ones which are forgotten through indifference or anonymity.

My life has no more value than any other. Nor any less value. In any case, it has not the innocence of childhood. I have lived long enough to know that I am an accomplice in the evil which seems to prevail so terribly in the world, even in the evil which might blindly strike me down.

I should like, when the time comes, to have a moment of spiritual clarity which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God and of my fellow human beings, and at the same time forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me down. I could not desire such a death. It seems to me important to state this. I do not see, in fact, how I could rejoice if the people I love were indiscriminately accused of my murder. It would be too high a price to pay for what will perhaps be called, the "grace of martyrdom" to owe it to an Algerian, whoever he might be, especially if he says he is acting in fidelity to what he believes to be Islam.

I am aware of the scorn which can be heaped on the Algerians indiscriminately. I am also aware of the caricatures of Islam which a certain Islamism fosters. It is too easy to soothe one's conscience by identifying this religious way with the fundamentalist ideology of its extremists. For me, Algeria and Islam are something different: it is a body and a soul. I have proclaimed this often enough, I think, in the light of what I have received from it. I so often find there that true strand of the Gospel which I learned at my mother's knee, my very first Church, precisely in Algeria, and already inspired with respect for Muslim believers.

Obviously, my death will appear to confirm those who hastily judged me naïve or idealistic: "Let him tell us now what he thinks of his ideals!" But these persons should know that finally my most avid curiosity will be set free. This is what I shall be able to do, God willing: immerse my gaze in that of the Father to contemplate with him His children of Islam just as He sees them, all shining with the glory of Christ, the fruit of His Passion, filled with the Gift of the Spirit whose secret joy will always be to establish communion and restore the likeness, playing with the differences.

For this life lost, totally mine and totally theirs, I thank God, who seems to have willed it entirely for the sake of that JOY in everything and in spite of everything. In this THANK YOU, which is said for everything in my life from now on, I certainly include you, friends of yesterday and today, and you, my friends of this place, along with my mother and father, my sisters and brothers and their families,

You are the hundredfold granted as was promised! And also you, my last-minute friend, who will not have known what you were doing: Yes, I want this THANK YOU and this GOODBYE to be a "GOD-BLESS" for you, too, because in God's face I see yours.

May we meet again as happy thieves in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both.


Postscript: Despite winning a number of international awards, "Of Gods and Men" is not playing at many theaters and it will probably not be out much longer, but I sincerely recommend you see it if you can. It is perfect for Lent, of course, but is simply wonderful generally.