Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Of Gods and Men

Last week I watched the DVD of the French movie “Of Gods and Men” twice in 36 hours.  Tonight, the last night of our retreat, I will go to adoration at 7:30 and afterwards watch it again.

The movie is based on John Kiser’s excellent book, The Monks of Tibhirine, that reads like both a novel and a detailed but smoothly written history of the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Algeria.  It recounts the events leading up to the 1996 murder of seven monks of the Trappist Monastery of Our Lady of Atlas in Algeria, a slaughter carried out by Muslim fundamentalists.  While the monks’ deaths received little publicity in the U.S. the story galvanized France. 

The director allowed the movie to develop slowly, beginning with scenes of the monks’ and villagers’ interdependent and entwined daily lives.  There was little dialogue.  There is no emotionally manipulative soundtrack.  With one notable exception that forms one of the most touching and heart-wrenching scenes in the movie, the music is the monks’ chanting of the office and singing hymns in choir.  The scene in which the men chanted the Salve Regina at the end of compline is stunning in its beauty and simplicity.  The use of light, shadow and tight close-ups of the men’s faces adds to the power of the movie.  Cinematography, however, only accounts for part of the impact of this astonishing movie that was filmed in Morocco.  The true story rests in the dedication of the men to their religious vocation, their commitment to their Muslim neighbors with whom they had lived for decades, and their fraternal bond as Cistercians, the formal name for Trappists.   

Trappists, like Jesuits and all other religious, pronounce vows for life.  Unlike the highly mobile Jesuits, Trappists, who represent a reform of the Benedictine order in the late 11th century,  pronounce the unique Benedictine vow of stability, to remain in a particular monastery for life.  While a Cistercian monk or nun can transfer his or her stability to another monastery it is not common to do so.

What does it mean to die for one’s most deeply held beliefs?  To die for one’s faith, to stay rather than to run?  I’m can’t answer the question as I’ve never been confronted with it.  The men of Our Lady of Atlas saw their deaths coming for a long time.  Some considered leaving, even leaving surreptitiously under the cover of night.  But in the end they voted to remain, each for his own reasons, each after his own struggle. 

Looking back on fourteen years in religious life (on 24 August), the struggle that the small band of Trappists enacted around their table in the chapter room—a table on which was centered a lighted candle to symbolize the presence of Jesus, Light of the World, a very troubled world—is a struggle each man or woman in religious vows faces at some point.  That struggle does not usually involve the question of martyrdom but the more private struggle with one’s commitment to the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, the struggle with the choice to cast one’s lot with this particular monastery, community, congregation or order for life.  It is to consider the meaning of having chosen to labor under the Standard of Christ (to use Ignatian imagery) in a particular way.  

I can’t help recalling the words of Edith Stein from the homily of 9 August.  She refused the chance to escape from the Carmel of Echt just before she was taken to her death in Auschwitz. “Do not do it.  Why should I be spared?  Is it not right that I should gain no advantage from my baptism?  If I cannot share the lot of my brothers and sisters; my life, in a certain sense, is destroyed.”  Like Stein these men shared the lives of their brothers and sisters.  Had the men abandoned their neighbors and friends their lives would have been over as well.  That was apparent in the details of the deliberations in the book as well as in the movie. 

“Of Gods and Men” is not an easy movie to watch.  There are a few bloody execution scenes early on. The final scene, in which the monks are marched up a hill in the snow, is haunting.  The end of Poulenc’s great opera Dialogues of the Carmelites comes to mind.  And then it is finished.   Quietly.  The men are thought to have been killed two months after they were abducted from the monastery.  Only their heads were recovered.  They were buried in the monastic graveyard in Tibhirine. 
The photos may be large.  I've been editing, discarding and copying the master files of everything I've taken since leaving the U.S. in December.  I will mail the copies on USB to 
D.C. before heading to Viet Nam on Saturday.  I don't think I changed the size before moving these into the file.   They are presented in rough temporal sequence. 

The first is a plant in the dark narrow hallway leading to the dining room at the retreat house in Sevenhill. 
The next shows a gathering storm at Sevenhill.  Was on the way up to Mass with the camera when I turned around.  Good move. 
This next is a flower.  I had no idea it would turn out this way but like the result. 
This was sunset returning from Mass and dinner at Sevenhill. 
I was walking along the Reisling Trail early one morning around sunrise.  The web was about ten feet above the road bed.  It caught the sun's rays and turned into a spectrum.  The colors and contrast have been enhanced and the photo has been cropped to eliminate a few distracting elements.
The black swan in Adelaide on the way home from Sevenhill.  It does not look happy.
This is one of the most tranquil scenes I've ever stumbled across.  It is in Warrnambool on a lake close to the bay.  It was taken late on a cloudy (there were rarely any other kind in Warrnambool) day.
+Fr. Jack, S.J.

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