In January 2013, Islamic terrorists in Algeria took hundreds of hostages, killing several dozen. The carnage recalled the 2010 movie Of Gods and Men;about the kidnapping and murder of French Cistercian monks by Islamic guerillas during the Algerian civil war of the 1990s. Highly acclaimed, the film is now available on DVD.
Certainly, there is much to commend it. Quite apart from the languid cinematography, there is the peaceful co-existence of the nine monks with the local Muslims from the village of Tibhirine in the Atlas mountains, for whom the monks provide counsel and free medical treatment; the sympathetic depictions of the spiritual life of the monastery; the very human reactions over whether to leave, or stay and face the guerillas, who soon invade the cloister; and the tragic denouement, portrayed with admirable restraint.
Furthermore, unlike The Mission (1986), in which the attempt to defend and preserve the Faith in Paraguay becomes a neo-Modernist parable of Liberation Theology [see "A Danger to the State," CO, Jan. 1999], Of Gods and Men is not overtly propagandistic. And yet, ecumenised Catholics and non-Catholics alike are left in interfaith limbo; none the wiser about the absolute claims of Catholicism and its Founder. The following reflection by the Benedictine Abbot of Le Barroux, from the monastery's monthly newsletter Les amis du monastère of 21 March 2011, provides a corrective to the film's unspoken message of 'religious equivalence'; a false and dangerous view reflecting, very sadly, the false understanding preached, in real life, by the murdered Abbot of the Tibhirine monastery.
The Good Seed and the Cockle
The film Of Gods and Men has brought admirably to light the generosity of the community of Tibhirine. Thanks to the exceptional actors (notably Michael Lonsdale), the courage of the monks appears in all its dimensions. Courage full of lucidity: they knew what they were risking. Courage filled with charity: they only remained there to serve. To Father Christian de Chergé who affirmed to a villager that the monks remained perched in Tibhirine like a bird on a branch, the good man replied instantly: "No, the monks are the branch! The villagers, they are the bird." The village owed its stability to the monastery alone.
Virtues and merits
And how can we fail to admire the rich virtues of the Prior of Notre-Dame de l'Atlas: thirst for the absolute, total gift to others, asceticism, power of work, great learning, nimble mind. And what courage! When, a certain Christmas night, members of the GIA [Algerian guerillas] armed to the teeth come looking for Father Luke (a doctor) to treat some of their wounded, the Prior stands up to them and gets them to leave through his firmness alone.
Nor is Father Christian lacking in great perception in certain areas. Thus, he clearly saw the double threat which weighs on the world today. In Poyo, Spain, during a congress of Cistercian Abbots and Abbesses, did he not speak clearly about the threatening invasion of atheism and Islam?
Ambiguities and sophisms
Whatever might be said about all these excellent qualities, however, one cannot follow all Father Christian's initiatives, and still less take him as a theological reference for interreligious dialogue. It is evident that he was not a theologian. In that respect he lacked the philosophical structure necessary for coherent thought. His writing flows well. It is also animated with splendid poetical élan. But poetry is not theology. The reasonings of Father de Chergé are filled with ambiguities and sophisms.
At Poyo, he declares, for example, that Jesus is the only possible Muslim. Elsewhere, he affirms that the Koran is an epiphany of the Word. He establishes a parallel between the Koran and the Gospel according to the following etymology: "Koran" comes from the root "to proclaim" and John the Baptist "proclaims." Voilà a very weak "proof" in order to assure us that Jesus is "the Koran made flesh"!
Another affirmation of Father de Chergé risks fostering plenty of ambiguities: Islam could be another way to the one God. A dangerous affirmation. Is he already so sure that we have the same God as the Muslims?
On this subject, I had, several years ago, a very illuminating experience. I was walking along a dark street. A man of North African origin emerges from his house and sees me. He casts me a dark look and begins to accompany me while looking me up and down from sandals to tonsure. Wishing to relax the atmosphere, I greet him: "Bonjour!" But he responds to me vigorously: "God does not procreate!"
He was alluding clumsily to the mystery of the Holy Trinity. For him, a Christian was not distinguished by his clothing or by an original haircut, but essentially by his faith in God, "Father, Son and Holy Spirit." And he considered this affirmation as a blasphemy. His Koranic faith obliged him to reject the idea that the one God can subsist in Three Persons. His faith claimed to be a fierce negation of my Christian faith on this essential point. The Koran and the Gospel appeared to him contradictory in their message on the identity of God. By recognising in God a Son distinct from the Father, I was introducing a second God. I was a polytheist.
I then looked at my bearded friend and replied that I agreed with him. That troubled him... "That’s right, God does not procreate. He begets. It’s not the same thing." And I left him with that open door on the mystery... We adore a God who is not the Islamic God closed in on Himself. Our God is an abyss of life: eternal generation in the bosom of the Father of a Son like unto Him in all things, and spiration of the Holy Spirit Who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
Dialogue as dhimmitude
Lent approaches. Let us live it in close union with Jesus, the true Son of God. And let us pray to Our Father in Heaven to give us fully His Spirit of fortitude and love so that He protect us from all intellectual and emotional dhimmitude. A badly led interreligious dialogue can become dust in the eyes and serve what Father Christian de Chergé himself called "the invasion of Islam."
The harvest is abundant but the Master lacks workers. Let us insistently ask the Lord for competent ministers, of which the Church has the greatest need: persons of courage and culture gifted with a solid mental structure and enlightened judgement.
Finally, in prayer and fasting let us obtain from the Lord all the strengthening graces needed by our brother Christians in the East. They often pay with their lives for their fidelity to their faith in God, "Father, Son and Holy Spirit."
Translated by Rod Pead and a monk of Le Barroux.