By A.G. Harmon
Fifteen years ago, seven Trappist monks—Luc, Christophe, Michel, Bruno, Célestin, Paul, and their abbot, Christian—were abducted from a monastery in Tibherine, Algeria. They were held captive for two months, with a ransom demanded, but were eventually killed by their abductors. Decapitated, their bodies were never found. Responsibility has always been claimed by the Armed Islamic Group, though recent developments have suggested a larger web of culpability.
Led by a stellar cast (Michael Lonsdale and Lambert Wilson, among others), Of Gods and Men, the winner of the Cannes Film Festival’s Grand Prix award, depicts the turmoil that existed in the time leading up to the monk’s abduction, both inside and outside the monastery.
The drama acutely mirrors the wide range of human discord, and does so on the two planes upon which each person lives: the communal and the individual. For we chafe and vex each other in the coexistence that we must lead, just as our desires pitch and lurch against the walls of the hearts that we must fashion. Neither battle ever flags, and is won only by achieving a peace that transcends the conflict.
Before the war, the monks are shown living among their Muslim neighbors with an easy, quotidian respect. As they honor village rituals, their attendance acts as a tribute to beliefs that are not their own. They also sell their cultivated honey at the local marketplace, doctor the sick and injured without question, and counsel the troubled despite their different creeds.
When the violence erupts, the villagers are as terrified by the Islamists as the monks themselves. All becomes unsettled, including the Trappists’ business there. The army wants them gone, and the government fears that they will be turned into pawns. So should they leave the place to its destruction or stay and endure it?
“We are like birds on a branch, unsure whether to fly or remain,” one brother says. But a villager reminds him of the stability their vows bring to the place: “You are the branch” she says. “We are the birds.”
As is the way of all conflict, the trouble becomes multi-layered and maze-like. Fears multiply, not just of dying, but of dying for no reason. Is staying so unwise that it amounts to collective suicide? And most of all, there is a fear of not being up to the death—a fear of being afraid of it.
It seems our greatest tests have always occurred in a garden. While surrounded by paradise, the dark trial comes. All about the monastery is a fertile world of mountains and loamy fields and animals grazing in serene innocence, ignorance. Nature is oblivious to inner torment, as poets have long remarked: birds sing sweetly and the sun casts a glory road both for the man who marches to his gallows and for the man who manages to escape it.
The poignancy is nearly a temptation, in fact, a testament to the splendor of temporal goods. “Flee” the beauty says; “I am everywhere; you can find me in another place as well as this; the solace you have now I will bring you in another land, in a better circumstance—shed of obligation and duty; just the two of us together, clean of other men. Run away. Flee.”
I venture there is not a person living, caught in daily toils, who does not think such thoughts from time to time, and who does not find such calls hard to resist.
With this same cacophony ringing through his own soul, Father Christian goes for a walk one day. He finds himself in front of a tree, a thick spiral of nature that stands in the solemn, eternal way that trees stand, as though holding up the sky, as though holding down the earth.
Fascinated, he must walk about its trunk, draw his hand against its rough, scaly surface. The experience delights him, and the tree’s permanence, its roots in this land where he and his brothers have lived so long, give him an unspoken courage.
He continues on, ambling among sheep that shepherd boys lead through the forest; the herd moves in its mindless trust, calm and constant—though surely to be sheared, surely to die—a steady part of this place.
Finally, Christian rests at a lake—a flat, placid reflecting glass, and in its surface finds the tranquility he needs, as though God is revealing the balm he will nurse him with, allowing him a picture of the peace he will later find by way of his brethren.
For it is among others, at the communal table, that the great question is put.
Each Trappist is asked what he would do—stay or go? And to the man, the response is: “Je reste.” To translate the expression as “I rest,” would be a literal mistake, as in French the phrase means “I stay.” But it can also mean “I am staying”; “I am not going”; “I will not go,” and perhaps in a larger way, “I am at peace now”; “What comes, comes; I am content. I rest here, in this.”
Though aware of their doom, they have all become “free men,” as Brother Luc remarks—“those who are not afraid to die.” While not seeking death, they have nevertheless lived their lives in preparation for that possibility, and in the end, eventuality. It was, after all, foretold by the Psalmist: “I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High. But ye shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes” (Psalm 82:6-7).
In one of his last letters, Father Christian prayed that all would meet again, old friends and new—a meeting in which we, “happy thieves”—undeserving, in possession of that to which we have no right, are allowed to possess paradise anyhow—through the graces of he who owns the vast, green horde of endless life, who opens it wide to the plunder of those that decide to come in.
So it is that the brothers’ story leaves its audience with one great and lasting impression: that you cannot leave what you love, even if what you love may mean your death.
Perhaps it is in this way that the monks of Tibherine were most like their God in his Gethsemane, who in the midst of his anguish, despite the depths of his anguish, chose in the end to stay.