Of Gods and Men
It is difficult to convey the spiritual life in a film, since so much of what goes on is in a realm that is not seen or heard. And usually, although it may seem dramatic to the person who is living it, there is not a lot of action for an onlooker. However, the French film, “Of Gods and Men” succeeds in making the audience see the way that monastic life shaped the choices and development of a community of men, and led them to give their lives to the people they lived with. And the fact that their lives were under threat makes it gripping on both a spiritual and a physical level.
It is the story of the seven monks from the Trappist monastery in Tibhirine, Algeria who were kidnapped in March of 1996, and never seen again until they were killed in May. They were caught up in a civil war between the government and Islamic fundamentalists, but it is not clear who was responsible for their deaths. On Christmas Eve in 1995, terrorists came to the monastery and demanded that Brother Luc, who was a doctor, come with them to take care of a wounded member of their band. The abbot, Fr. Christian, told them that they were welcome to come to Br. Luke’s clinic during the day, but refused to allow them to take him.
The terrorists left, but the monks knew their lives were in danger. They debated whether they should leave, and the film shows the tension that wracked the community as they thought about the consequences of their decision. The two monks that had been in Algeria the longest wanted to stay. Luc had been running a clinic for the local people for fifty years, and he was so close to the community that he said that for him to leave would be to die. Christian had also been in Algeria for many years and loved the people of the local community. The monks who had been there the least time had the most trouble with the idea of staying. They talked about it together and agonized over the decision, and in the end they all decided to stay. During this process, one of the younger monks told Christian that he could not feel God speaking to him in any way. Once he made the leap and decided to stay, he felt God’s presence enveloping him with comfort and love.
The beauty and simplicity of their monastic life is a calm contrast to the drama that surrounds them. Once they make the decision, they live their ordinary lives as they always had, but with a greater intensity. The chants and hymns they sang at liturgies resonate with deeper significance for them, and they hum and sing them as they go about their work. (It is an advantage to have subtitles, because the words are printed clearly on the screen and so the connections are clear). They go on making honey, working in the fields and in the clinic, doing cooking and maintenance, but they draw closer to each other as the violence in the area escalates and they realize the seriousness of their position.
They did not wish to be martyrs. However, St. John of the Cross said that it is the nature of the lover to want to become like the beloved. They loved Christ, who died a brutal death, and the people who lived near them who were not able to escape the violence. And so they chose to stay with them. Christian wrote an open letter to his community, family and friends about why he chose to stay. He said:
“If something should happen to me, and it could happen today, my life was given to God and to this country. The unique Master of all Life was no stranger to this brutal departure, and my death is the same as so many others, consigned to the apathy of oblivion.
My life has no more value than any other, but no less than any other, either. I have lived long enough to know that I am complicit in the evil that, alas, prevails over the world, and the evil that will smite me blindly.
I could never have wished for such a death. I could never feel gladdened that these people I love be accused randomly of my murder. I know the contempt felt for the people here indiscriminately, and I know how Islam is distorted by a certain Islamism. This country, and Islam for me, are something different. They are body and 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, friend of the last minute who do not know what you are doing, I wish for you too the mercy and the ending that you envisage. I trust that we will be reunited as blessed sinners in heaven, if God our father so wishes. Amen. Inshallah. “
Long before he decided not to flee the violence, Christian’s life was given to God and to Algeria. The monks made their decision as free men shaped by a lifetime of prayer and love of God. A few months before they were taken, Brother Luc wrote to his nephew, ‘Being an old man is only miserable if your soul is not rejoicing.’
In the film, he tells Christian that he is a free man because he is not afraid of death. After sixty years of monastic life his trust in God was so deep that he was able face any future with equanimity. A Cistercian visitator who went to see them a few months before their kidnappping wrote a report in which he said that he did not think any of them wished to have a violent death, but that they faced that possiblility with serenity and calm. I wept several times during the film, but not from sadness. I was moved by the beauty of their lives and their love for one another and the people around them, and inspired by their unique blend of heroism and ordinariness.
Reviewed by Sr Ceil McGowan
Available in DVD