It’s a discussion for another day as to why those entrusted with the delivery of news so stubbornly refuse to cover the very deadly war being waged at this very moment against Christianity in the Middle East. The aggressors are radical Islamists, the victims Christians, especially those wearing the cloth. Every week another report detailing another attack seeps through the wall of non-information, of men condemned to death in Saudi Arabia for the crime of conversion, of Catholic churches bombed in Baghdad on Christmas Day, of Coptic congregations slaughtered in Egypt, and the like.
Sad and troubling to be sure, but it’s over there…over there. Do you have any recollection of the story fifteen years ago of the small community of Trappist monks in Algeria kidnapped in a prisoner-exchange plot, and then murdered? To the extent I was aware of the brutal story it was something I quickly filed away in the memory banks under, “Oh, dear.” Nothing more.
French filmmaker Xavier Beauvais challenges us to remember. He has delivered the hauntingly beautiful “Of Gods and Men,” winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. “Schindler’s List” was aimed at your heart; “Of Gods and Men” captures your soul.
The movie tells the story of Brother Christian and his half-dozen fellow monks, mostly elderly as so many monastic congregations are, living the simplest of lives in impoverished and violent Algeria in 1996. Their Trappist vows mandated a life providing basic medical needs to the Muslim peasants in the village Tibhirine; of producing and marketing simple produce like honey for their own sustenance; of prayer and song in their little chapel; of contemplation and of silence.
But that world is shattered by Islamic terrorism. In the one and only grisly scene, a few Croatians are repairing a local road when a convoy of jeeps, with engines roaring and tires squealing, emerge. The terrorists dismount, grab the foreigners, innocent and unarmed, and viciously slit their throats.
The news reaches the monks. They know that as “infidels” they are now marked men. They know the government, corrupt and murderous in its own right, is equally threatening. If they stay it is only a matter of time. They will be killed. The villagers plead for them to leave.
On Christmas Eve the monastery is assaulted by these killers. The defenseless monks are ordered to surrender their medical supplies. But Brother Christian refuses to do so, citing the need to provide it for the children and the elderly. It is a war of nerves and the terrorist leader blinks. He turns to leave but Brother Christian stops him and, quoting from the Koran, admonishes him not to disturb the sanctity of God’s house on this holy night. The message resonates. Chagrined, the Muslim terrorist apologizes.
The monks know they will return and this time there will be finality. They meet to discuss their future. Initially the brothers are divided; after much prayer, contemplation and consultation the community embraces the will of God: it was their calling to minister to these villagers and with these villagers they will remain. The terrorists return. At gunpoint the monks are kidnapped. In the final heart-breaking scene these holy men are silently led away, to their execution.
There is a riveting exchange in Nearer My God, William F. Buckley Jr.’s magnificent opus on his Catholic faith, wherein he attempts to capture the essence of the monastic experience. He poses a series of questions to Father Michael, a cloistered Benedictine monk in France, the final one regarding the “manifest tendentiousness” of monastic life. Father Michael’s answer is prescient.
“Men who are drawn to be monks are radicals by temperament; there are other ways to ‘put on Christ,’” he explains. “The monk feels a huge tug to go it the whole way, to climb to the very summit, and to dedicate his life to that and that alone… I like to think of the metaphor of a road winding its way up a mountain, encircling it as it rises. The man on the road is conscious mostly of the never-ending series of obstacles and difficulties, which change but little in nature. Yet from time to time he can gaze out on the expanse below him and judge… the distance he has travelled. The monk’s life is a continuous striving, a daily battle, and the prize, the summit of the mountain, is Christ.”
Brother Christian and his fellow martyrs reached the summit. Perhaps it would be appropriate in this Lenten season to pray for all men of the cloth, of all vocations, so many in such danger in a world where evil rages, or just simply mocked by a secularist society that rejects their faith. I reserve special intentions for Father Michael, my brother Michael, who began his own ascent, and the daily battle, thirty-two years ago.