For those who believe that the world is in the throes of a “clash of civilizations” (Muslim and European/Christian), I propose the film Of Gods and Men (Fr. Des hommes et des dieux), by Xavier Beauvois. It is sufficiently well-known, having won a raft of awards in Europe, including the Grand Prix at Cannes 2010 (surprisingly, it was not a finalist for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2010 Academy Awards). The film tells, with considerable fidelity, the true story of a group of Trappist monks who were kidnapped from the monastery of Tibhirine in the Atlas Mountains of Algeria and killed by militants, in 1996 at the height of the Algerian Civil War.
The central figure of this unusual drama of spiritual and moral sensibility is the Prior, Fr. Christian de Chergé. He responds to the initial threats of violence against the community with naive defiance, unable at first to understand how the others could react otherwise. Then, his courage and depth are central to the agonized process by which the group comes around to understanding and accepting their call.
Fr. de Chergé’s real life substantiates this depiction. He grew up in Algeria in a military family and served as an army officer stationed there during the Algerian War of Independence. The story goes that his life was saved by an Algerian man named Mohamed, a devout Muslim. de Chergé promised to pray for his friend, who answered, “I know you will pray for me. But you see, Christians don’t know how to pray!” Mohamed was murdered shortly afterward. This shock set de Chergé on his lifelong mission of friendship and understanding between Christians and Muslims. He was trained at the Vatican’s Institute for Arab and Islamic Studies, learned Arabic, and began his study of the Quran and Islamic spirituality. As Prior of the Monastery of Tibhirine, one of his undertakings was to found the Islamic study group Ribat-el-Salam, “Bond of Peace,” which met at the monastery and drew members from the Sufi brotherhood of Alawiya. Fr. de Chergé takes up the challenge of his old friend Mohamed, and tries to learn about prayer from the Muslim masters.
As depicted in the film, the monastery engaged the surrounding community not only in the framework of spiritual understanding and prayer, but also through service (especially medical care) and ordinary friendship. This was hardly a “missionary” undertaking in the conventional sense. In the film, when the monks are shaken by the acts of violence becoming more frequent around them, and begin to contemplate leaving, the elders of the village are genuinely distressed. One monk says, “We are like birds on a branch. We don’t know if we will stay or fly away.” A woman responds, “You are the branch, and we are the birds.”
The monks are afraid and unsure that there is any reason for them to stay and face death. (The local army commander and even the government in Algiers warn them repeatedly that the danger is real and imminent.) Why should they not continue their work in some other, safer location? Some respond to the danger with simple defiance: why would we run away? We did not become monks to benefit ourselves, but for another reason. Others have a much harder time working out the nature of their call. One particularly frightened brother spends nights in anguished prayer, disturbing the others with his cries.
Ultimately, the realization emerges that they will not leave, because this is their place. The resolution is very much about place, understood in the broad sense: not just physical place, but place with its personalities, its history, the work and the emotions with which it imbued, the language, the rituals of everyday life. The monks are not just doing a job in one place rather than another; they are French, living in Algeria, penitents for the bloody colonial history whose consequences still play out around them; they are the friends of families whose children have grown up in and around the monastery precincts, some loyal enough to stand with them and stare down the army, when it comes to clear the monks out of there.
One by one, they each realize that their lives are not portable, they consist of ties, bonds, and the bonds all lead back to this time, this place, these people. When it happens, their realization is strangely devoid of religious pathos; it is personal and prosaic.
Then, place is also place, the physical landscape. This is a film of heartbreaking landscapes. Many of us associate Algeria with camels in the desert, but the Atlas Mountains are majestic, green, snow-capped. Fr. de Chergé works through his fears and doubts on hikes through rolling forests and fields, amid pristine lakes. It is easy to believe that they love this land. One monk pauses his work in the garden and becomes lost in admiration of the countryside, to the sympathetic amusement of the Arab girl from town working alongside him.
The people seem to absorb this beauty of the landscape as a beauty and simplicity of soul. In one scene, the monks’ old car breaks down on a narrow road through the hills, just as a group of women and children are passing by on foot. The action is filmed from a distance, keeping all the breadth of the surrounding country. The monks raise the hood but are perplexed, without knowledge of mechanics. The women, wearing traditional long garments, surround the engine in a hum of spirited conversation, and a moment later it comes to life. Good wishes are exchanged, and they go their different ways.
This film is in love with its setting and with its people, and it is hard not to share in the film’s inebriation of love.
Fr. de Chergé left a written “Testament” of his thoughts and feelings at the point where he felt that his fate was upon him. This is where the crunch comes. For a proponent of Christian/Islamic “culture clash,” it is pure Stockholm syndrome. His one wish is, at the moment of death, for lucidity to pray for forgiveness, from God and from his brothers in humanity, then to forgive his murderer. He resists the pathos of martyrdom, seeing that it would be at the Algerian’s expense. He sums his death together with those of countless others in the bloody history consuming him. As he well knows, martyrdom cannot be sought. Yet there is undeniable joy in his moment of acceptance, when all, without exception, appear as his friends, “in the light of Christ’s glory.” The final words of the testament are an ecstasy of communion and reconciliation:
In this thanks that says everything, henceforth in my life I include you, friends of yesterday and today of course, and you, oh my friends of this place, next to my mother and my father, my sisters and my brothers and their sisters and brothers, repaid a hundredfold, according to the promise! And you as well, friend of my last minute, who know not what you do. Yes, for you also I wish this thanks [or "mercy," merci], and this “Unto God” [À Dieu, "farewell"] that you have dreamt. Let the two of us, fortunate thieves, be blessed to find ourselves together in Paradise, if it so please God, who is Father to us both.
The reconciliation with his murderer (“friend of my last minute”) is particularly interesting, and dialectical in his characteristic way. Martyrdom appears as a devil’s bargain, gaining his own soul at the expense of someone else’s, especially, as he notes, if the other saw himself equally as a martyr, obeying the dictates of faith. One martyrdom undoes the other, as it is unconsciously the other’s instrument (“who know not what you do”). He rejects Christian exclusivity: God’s “children of Islam” appear bathed in Christ’s glory, fruits of Christ’s passion, full of the joys of the Holy Spirit, which, he claims, takes secret joy in confounding the distinctions drawn by men.
There is a subversive idea hidden here that salvation and grace, even specifically Christian salvation, is fundmentally indifferent to the cultural constructs of religion. In other words, Muslims may be, through God’s all-power and as Muslims, subject to salvation by Christ. This is akin to the people’s prayers which intercede for the baptised of the universal Church as well as “those whose faith is known to God alone.”