Actual photo of the monks behind the story
Advent: Belmont Conventual Mass 2011
“You never know when the time will come.”
One of the outstanding films of this last year was a French film called “Of Gods and Men.” It tells the story of the monks of a tiny Cistercian monastery of Tibhirine in the Atlas Mountains of Algeria caught up in a vicious civil war between Islamist Extremists and the Algerian government. On March 27, 1996, seven of the monks were kidnapped and on May 21 of that year they were executed. I have said to you: ‘You are gods and all of you, sons of the Most High.' And yet, you shall die like men, you shall fall like any of the princes.’ Psalm 81
What the film explores is not the tragic ending of these monks – their quiet martyrdom. We don’t actually see their execution, just their heading off into the winter’s snow to meet their destiny. For the film is not about how these monks died. It is about how they lived and why they were willing to die.
There is so much I would like to say about the film: about faith, community, martyrdom, Eucharist. I can’t think of a film that communicates so powerfully the beauty and attractiveness of a lived Christian faith, or a drama that is so richly theological and liturgical. But I would like to focus just on one aspect, appropriate to this first Sunday of Advent.
Our Advent begins with a cry to stay awake, to be on our guard, to stand ready. We are asked to be on the look-out for the Christ who comes: evening, midnight, cockcrow, dawn.
This film is about how these men lived in anticipation (for they knew not what). It is about how they lived their advent, their waiting by immersing themselves in the mystery of Christ, particularly in their experience of his Incarnation. It is a question for us, this frist Sunday of Advent. How do we live this time of waiting? How does our longing bear fruit in the here and now.
On Christmas Eve 1993 an armed Islamist groups invaded the monastery and demanded medical care and supplies. The prior Brother Christian refuses. He will not give them preference over the poor. That moment of tension is resolved, but it leaves that small community with anxiety over its future. “Tonight is different from other nights” says Br Christian. “Why?” asks the guerrilla leader. “It’s Christmas. We celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace.” The monks stood firm against the fighters.
In real life we know that the Christmas of 1993 marked a turning point in the lives of the monks. The real Br Christophe, the 45 year old subprior and novice master wrote in his journal: “This Christmas was not like others. It was charged with significance. Like Mary we keep all these things that have happened. We continue to ask ourselves what has been initiated in our hearts. Like a sword the significance has pierced us.”
The film prompts us to reflect on the true meaning of Christmas. What does it mean that Christ came in the flesh all those years ago? And how do we live this mystery in faith? How do we wrestle with our own fears? In their Refectory reading they hear Carlo Caretto reflect on “The God who is Coming.” “Often throughout my life I have wondered about how God can act so strangely, why does he stay silent so long. Why is faith so bitter?”
And yet into that doubt a monk sings their Christmas hymn, as he decorates the Church. “nothing exists except love. This is the night of beginnings; God has prepared the earth like a cradle, for his coming from above. By taking flesh of our flesh God our desert did refresh and made a land of boundless spring.” As they laid the baby in the crib, in their fears, they sung of the love that stands at the root of all reality – revealed to us in the Incarnation of Christ.
Later Br Christian reflected: We welcomed that Child who was born for us, absolutely helpless, and already so threatened. Afterwards we found salvation in undertaking our daily tasks: the kitchen, garden, the prayers, the bells. Day after day. We had to resist the violence. And day after day, I think each of us discovered that to which Jesus Christ beckons us. It’s to be born… And from birth to birth, we’ll each end up bringing to the world the child of God that we are. The mystery of Incarnation remains what we are going to live.
The monks were faced with a dilemma. Should they flee in the face of threats? Were they being foolish in risking death? How far should they take this dedication, their vow of stability, not just to the place but to the people they served? Shouldn’t they just be brave and continue to live the daily round and their mission to be brothers to all. None of them wanted to die.
They decided to stay and hold on to their ideal of love and fidelity. If the Incarnation is about anything it is about God’s solidarity us, God’s compelling love for humanity. In this they wanted to share. They wanted the Christ who was born in Bethlehem to be born in them. They wanted Christ to love the world through them. “God so loved the world” in Christ. Christ would not walk away from those he loved, and they would not desert the people that depended on them for food, for clothing, for medical care, for friendship, for love. Foolish they might be, but God too was an utter fool when it comes to love.
So they lived a certain Advent, waiting for the unknown. In Advent 1993, Br Christian wrote a Testament to be opened in the event of his death by Islamic extremists. In effect he forgave his potential murderer, his “friend” “And also you, the friend of my final moment, who would not be aware of what you were doing.— yes, I also say this THANK YOU and this A-DIEU to you, in whom I see the face of God. And may we find each other, happy “good thieves” in Paradise, if it pleases God, the Father of us both. Amen. In sha ‘Allah.”
We wait in Advent for that moment that will come like “a thief in the night.” We are challenged to live these moments well. Br Christian, had been given the grace to see God’s face in his potential assassin. At Mass on 31st December old Br Luke made this bidding prayer: “Lord grant us the grace to die without hatred in our hearts.”
In Advent we too ponder the mystery of Christ’s coming in the flesh. Perhaps we too can find new ways of living the Incarnation, of living in fidelity to those we belong, and love to all we meet. Perhaps it is about being open to the unexpected – allowing Christ to use us as he will. Perhaps it is about being a little foolish in love.
Advent too, is not merely about our ultimate end, but how that prospect shapes our present existence. How we choose to live? And what do I choose to cherish? The monks of Tibhirine chose to stay. They cherished their Moslem brothers and sisters. They prayed, they sang, they made jam. They chose love and fidelity.
If they had to die, they wanted to do it right. Br Luc, the lovely old doctor had one request for his funeral, Edith Piaf’s Je ne regretted rien.