Of Gods and Men

The Monastery Notre-Dame de l'Atlas of Tibhirine, Algeria

The Monastery Notre-Dame de l’Atlas of Tibhirine, Algeria

The other night, I finally watched Of Gods and Men (Des hommes et des dieux) – a French film based on the true story of seven Trappist monks who lived in the Algerian mountains in 1996, when religious violence was overtaking the country. The monks were threatened and eventually killed by Islamic fundamentalists.

That might not seem like exciting or uplifting movie material to most people, but I was riveted by the film and its depiction of how religion can both divide and unite others. For me, it was also a valuable glimpse of life in one of the forgotten places of the world.

The Monastery Notre-Dame de l’Atlas, revered by both Christians and Muslims, was the center of the village of Tibhirine. The monks lived a simple life tending to the needs of the villagers – providing medicine, medical care, clothes, and other necessities. This peaceful synergy, something that is so lacking in our own modern communities, was refreshing and fascinating to see. Even more interesting was the interreligious dialogue that occurred between some of the Christians and Muslims in Tibhirine, who met as part of a group called the Ribât es Salâm, “the bond of peace.”

In the film, the Muslim members of the Ribât are the first to voice their fear and anger about the terrorism that is sweeping the country.

In the United States, it’s not easy to fathom the kind of solitary existence led by the monks and the people of Tibhirine, and it’s even more eye-opening to see how different Christianity looks in this context. Luke and I have been talking lately about how difficult it is, as privileged Americans, to really understand the God of the poor – the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 53) who says He is with the downtrodden so consummately that looking into the face of the poor is the same as looking into the face of God.

It makes me wonder if our ability to perceive God is directly proportionate to our need. For many Americans (myself included), “need” is not something we are familiar with – or, maybe, it’s not something we’re always willing to recognize in ourselves. Of course, this is the main appeal of the monastic life. By renouncing all of the traditional comforts of home – family, financial stability, materialism – you are faced with your true self and your deep need, nothing more and nothing less. By deliberately living a life of poverty, you learn to depend solely on God for fulfillment.

In the film, the monks’ dependence on (and understanding of) God is tested when the Islamic terrorists arrive at their doorstep. The first time this occurs, the leader of the Islamic group – Ali Fayattia – asks the monks for medicine to help three of their wounded soldiers. Christian states that they cannot spare any medicine, because the villagers need it. Fayattia tells him, “You have no choice.” Christian certainly looks braced for the worst when he says: “Yes. I do.”

Something very interesting happens then: instead of just standing there in defiance, Christian reaches out and attempts to find common ground between himself and Fayattia. He quotes the Qur’an to explain who they are:

Nearest among them in love to the Believers you will find those who say, “We are Christians”: because amongst these are men devoted to learning and men who have renounced the world, and they are not arrogant. (5:85 AYA/82 MP)

Christian also explains that he and his fellow monks are celebrating the birth of the Prince of Peace that night. Fayattia knows full well that he speaks of Jesus, but instead of choosing to interpret this statement as incendiary, he simply replies: “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.” He offers his hand to Christian, who takes it in surprise.

Later, the Islamic soldiers do end up bringing their wounded to the monastery, and Brother Luc tends to their wounds. This in turn angers the Algerian military, who believe the monks are being “overindulgent” with the terrorists.

In fact, when Christian learns that Fayattia has been killed, he prays over the man’s dead body in the presence of the military, who are so disgusted by Christian’s show of affection for the terrorist that they ask him to leave.

It is stunning whenever you see someone truly imitate Christ. It’s stunning because it’s so rare. And that’s tragic. Jesus tells us to love our enemies, but we’d rather lament about an injustice that’s been done to us than pray for the perpetrator. Jesus tells us that no sin is so awful it is not covered by God’s grace, but how many of us are willing to forgive murderers?

It makes me think of Lydia Tillman, the woman from Fort Collins who was beaten so badly (and then left for dead) by her attacker that she had to re-learn the ability to speak through language therapy. But as soon as she was conscious again in the hospital, she wrote out the simple statement she would make in court: “Travis Forbes, you caused me no harm. My spirit, my soul and my mind remain untouched. May you find peace in this life.”

How many of us would have the strength to say such a thing? I believe it is a strength only God can give.

With Fayattia dead, the tentative peace between the monks and the Islamic terrorists is shattered. The next time the group appears, they capture the monks and take them away in the woods to be executed.

The monks are well aware that this will be their fate. In the days leading up to the soldiers’ return, they each do some intense individual soul-searching about whether to stay or leave. In the end, they all choose to stay.

Christian writes a beautiful farewell that is it is recited in voiceover at the end of the film:

The unique Master of all life was no stranger to this brutal departure. My death is the same as so many other violent ones, consigned to the apathy of oblivion. I’ve lived enough to know I am complicit in the evil that, alas, prevails over the world, and the evil that will smite me blindly… I know how Islam is distorted by certain Islamism. This country, and Islam, for me are something different. They’re a body and a soul.

My death, of course, will quickly vindicate those who call me naïve or idealistic, but they must know that I will be freed of a burning curiosity and, God willing, will immerse my gaze in the Father’s and contemplate with him his children of Islam as he sees them.

This thank you which encompasses my entire life includes you, of course, friends of yesterday and today, and you too, friends of the last minute, who knew not what you were doing. Yes, to you as well I address this thank you and this farewell which you envisaged. May we meet again, happy thieves in Paradise, if it pleases God the Father of us both. Amen. Insha’Allah. (God willing.)

His words nearly brought me to tears. I, too, want to immerse my gaze in the Father’s and see His children – many of whom may be my enemies – as He sees them, with unconditional love. If it pleases God the Father of us both, I’d like to meet them as happy thieves in Paradise.

I can only pray that my heart is daily changed to want this the way God wants it, and wills it. Amen.

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