Tuesday, April 26, 2011

"Of Gods and Men"

It was a glorious Easter Sunday. After a wonderful Holy Week, we celebrated the resurrection on Sunday morning in a packed church with all the solemnity suitable to the occasion. The church was beautifully decorated - highlighted by the return of the original baptismal font to our semi-restored Baptistery. Nothing makes a church look more festive, however, than a capacity crowd. It's an amazing feeling one gets when one celebrates Mass in a full church - the way the church was intended to be and the way it likely was for so much of its past history. As for the Baptistery, once the restored gates are ready, then we will be ready to dedicate it and restore it to its original and proper purpose.

Home alone on Easter Sunday afternoon, watching the Pope's Urbi et Orbi on TV and reading the Sunday New York Times, I was feeling very grateful for such a fine first Easter in my new parish!

For Easter Monday, I decided to take an unaccustomed day off . Monday afternoon I went as planned to see the film Of Gods and Men, Xavier Beauvois' intense film, based on the story of the Trappist monks of Tibhirine, Algeria, who were abducted from their monastery and murdered in 1996. I don't know how exactly the film follows the actual events leading up to the monks' martyrdom, but I presume its accuracy in its essential details. The fact that it is a true story, of course, adds enormously to its power. As the oft-used saying goes, You just can't make this stuff up.

The film focuses on the daily life of the 8 Trappist monks, whose monastery is in a village near the Atlas mountains. (Presumably, the village had grown up around the monastery - thus replicating in Muslim North africa a not-uncommon pattern in medieval Europe). In the first part of the film, before things begin to become scary, the monks are portrayed doing what monks do - praying night and day, reading and studying. In addition, they operate a medical clinic for the local population, and interact with the locals at the market and in other less scripted ways. Obviously, the movie wants to highlight the very good relations between the French monks and the local Algerian Muslim population - as a contrast, no doubt, to Islamist terrorism soon to be visited upon the country and its people (and the monks).

The good rapport between the monks and their Muslim neighbors is edifying, of course, especially for its naturalness. The monks and the villagers seem to coexist comfortably - naturally - in a somewhat symbiotic relationship, each group benefiting from their day-to-day interaction. It is refreshing to see ordinary Muslims portrayed with ordinary concerns (medicine for their children, celebrating a daughter's birthday, communicating with emigre relatives, etc.), enjoying genuine community with the Catholic monks in their midst. Likewise, it is refreshing to see the monks portrayed as so normal in so many ways - deeply religious men who nonetheless value normal human relationships and thrive accordingly.

The heart and soul of the monks' life, however, and what ultimately enriches all their external relationships and interactions is their prayer. The monks are portrayed at Night Office, at mass, etc. The images are touchingly affecting, the chants stirring, but above all again it is all so apparently un-self-conscious. The monks are not putting on a show - for themselves or anyone else. This is not liturgy as performance. Or liturgy as a stage for some other ministry. It is simply liturgy - the monastic life of prayer, permeating all aspects of day and night, including all the mundane "maintenance" activities that are the less glamorous side of religious life.

The portrayal of the monks' life prior to the onset of the crisis is essential. Once the crisis comes, it disrupts the ordinary pattern and challenges each monk to recommit himself to his vocation under more challenging circumstances. In the end, however, what the crisis calls each monk to do is to live out - albeit to a more heroic degree - the community life each of them has been living already, under more "normal" conditions.

The crisis comes when some Croatian workers are killed by a rebel group, and the assumption seems to be that sooner or alter they will target the foreign monks as well. If the movie has one weakness it is how incompletely it presents the context of the conflict. Exactly who the rebels are, why they are rebelling, etc., are not completely clear. It is implied that they are going after locals who seem less observant - or is it that they are somehow seen as corrupted by and/or collaborating with the foreigners? Also background to the monks' deteriorating relationship with the government is less than fully explained.

These are side issues, however. The central action during this crisis period is not the monks' difficult relations with government and military officials or even their even more frightening, first-hand experience of terrorist violence when the rebels attack the monastery for the first time (on Christmas Eve). These scenes produce some significant drama, but they are basically background for the soul-searching of each individual monk, played out in the process of the community's collective discernment of whether to flee or to remain. The Superior makes the initial decision not to accept government protection. In the end, the entire community will follow him in deciding to stay. At first, however, he seems somewhat high-handed and ideological and is rightly challenged by some of the other monks who express their fears and anxieties quite openly. It only adds to the edifying end that the monks are not seeking martyrdom, that they all recognize that there may be more then one option, and that some of them are so frightened that it seems they have to re-examine everything. And re-examine everything they do. The way the crisis forces them to articulate what their lives are all about - putting into words what they have already been living in their prayer and service - might make this movie a good vocational discernment film.

The first incursion of the terrorists came on Christmas and was followed by the celebration of Midnight Mass. The final attack comes on an unspecified date later on, but is preceded by a kind of "Last Supper." An air of anxiety and feeling of foreboding surrounds the supper - not unlike the original Last Supper - but there is also a sense of peace. The monks know who they are and what their lives have been about, and they are prepared to continue - even if that means being killed. Being killed isn't the point. Two monks manage to hide and escape capture and so survive. The point is not to get killed, but to stay - to be faithful to their vocation, come what may.

What a great way to observe Easter Monday!

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