Of Gods and Men – The Monks of Tibhirine

March 16, 2011

We caught two wonderful movies at the Portland International Film Festival this year. We began by standing in the rain outside the Art Museum waiting for rush tickets for Of Gods and Men, a superbly told story of faith, love and sacrifice (unfortunately, I left a window down in the car so the inside was soaked through and through).

Briefly, a small group of Trappist monks live a life of poverty and prayer on a hilltop in Algeria in the 1990’s. They do not live in complete isolation because the monastery is adjacent to some small villages. The monks’ neighbors are not Catholics like themselves, but Muslim peasants, which provides the monks with an opportunity to explore their faith, to reach out to something foreign and find it worthy of respect. Indeed, while the rest of Algeria tears itself apart in civil war, the monks and the peasants peacefully coexist, sharing with one another, helping with the chores of daily existence, and even finding a basis for mutual respect in religious practice. Sadly, the war eventually comes to the monastery and village, and the most of the monks are taken prisoner and killed.

To say that the film is moving hardly does it justice, but it gathers weight in an unusual way. A large chunk of the movie is spent watching the monks: in their meetings, their personal reflections, and their prayers (a great deal of their “inner” conversation is expressed in the words of prayer that they chant; the music is unspeakably beautiful).

Make no mistake. The monks are shown to be human. They know that their situation is precarious. They do not want to be martyrs. Their fear over their fate is tangible. But, as we enter into their life of simplicity and faith, we discover something remarkable: that the monks’ faith in God’s purpose provides them with a way to transcend fear, a way to even discover generosity towards their captors and murderers. In the end, all are made in God’s image, all are the objects of God’s love.

After seeing the movie, (and I’m hoping to see it again soon) I had to learn more about this episode. The public library had a copy of The Monks of Tibhirine by John Kiser and I have spent the last several weeks carefully reading it. The book provides, of course, far greater detail about the monks, their neighbors, and Algerian history than the movie can. I’ve quoted several of my favorite passages below. One area explored only in the book, that is, not at all in the movie, is the complexity of modern Islam. So many in American currently believe that the only way to find security is to put distance between the West and Islam. Kiser provides a brilliant antidote to this kind of mental sickness.

Passages from The Monks of Tibhirine:

  • Page 52. Sufis speaking to brother Christian at one of their early meetings in 1980. “We feel called by God to do something together with you, but we are not interested in theology. Theology raises barriers between people. Let God invent something new between us. Love is what brings people together. And without bonds, there can be no peace.”
  • Page 67. Maurice Borrmans’ thoughts regarding the poor Algerians living around the monastery. “They are people of simple faith, with no pretensions of knowledge. They don’t care about theology. Why did God choose the poor and children to bring his message? The rich don’t think they need God, and the learned think they know better.”
  • Page 133. [brother] “Christian spoke to the question so often posed by visitors from Europe. ” ‘How can you live in a house so insecure?’ they always ask. But how can one really be a contemplative in a house that is too secure and well provided?”
  • Page 156. A reading to the monks by brother Amedee from “The Art of Standing Up” by Milena Jesenska. “The essence of anxiety is not being able to stay put. By simply standing still, I face calmly the unknown … but in order to do that I need strength. And this strength is possessed by an individual only so long as he doesn’t separate his lot from that of the others. He can’t lose sight of the essential thing, that he is an intimate part of a community.”
  • p. 245. From brother Christian’s last testament. “I give thanks to God for this life, completely mine yet completely theirs, too, to God, who wanted it for joint against, and in spite of, all odds. In this Thank You — which says everything about my life — I include you, my friends past and present, and those friends who will be here at the side of my mother and father, of my sisters and brothers — thank you a thousandfold.

    And to you, too, my friend of the last moment, who will not know what you are doing. Yes, for you, to, I wish this thank-you, this “Adieu,” whose image is in you also, that we may meet in heaven, like happy thieves, if it pleases God, our common Father. Amen! Insha Allah!”

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