I just watched Of Gods and Men, which is something I’ve been meaning to do since it came out two years ago.
It’s a film about a community of Trappist monks living in Algeria in the last months before they were kidnapped and killed in 1996, during the Algerian Civil War. I know, cheerful Christmas viewing. And yet… there is a certain joy in it (Oh, and if you haven’t read Zadie Smith on the pain of joy, you should).
The film has a fairly simple approach to faith - but one of the appeals of monastic life is that it seems simple in faith. But the film (which is, of course, fictional) shows that the choices involved in sustaining such a simple, faithful life aren’t simple at all. It shows the monks questioning whether to stay in their community, or to return to France, considering the question of martyrdom - whether staying is something they ought to do in faith or is something they think they should do in, but is also something rooted in their own sense of self-respect and pride, their decision to stay expressed in this exchanged, between one monk who thinks they should probably leave and their Abbot, who thinks they probably ought to stay:
Br. Christophe – I don’t know if it’s true any more. I don’t get it. Why be martyrs? For God? To be heroes? To prove we’re the best?
Br. Christian – We’re martyrs of love, out of fidelity. If death… overtakes us, despite ourselves, because up to the end, up to the end we’ll try to avoid it, our mission here is to be brothers to all. Remember that love… is eternal hope. Love endures everything.
Christian may be right - he may not. The monks may, unintentionally, come to symbolise something as fearful and fundamental as those who who threaten them - as Luc quotes a pensee of Pascal:
Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.
But Luc and his brothers do - at least - question what they do, and make their decision in good faith - to live in and serve - and love - the community they are a part of and who haven’t the freedom to leave. And their decision to stay is presented very powerfully, showing their conviction and their faith as well well as their fear, in their last supper, as they listen Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake in a moment that is one of joy. (If you’re not inclined to be empathetic to the monks, you will probably find the scene overwrought - if you’re tipping the other way, along with the film, you’ll probably end up a shuddering, sobbinbg mess).
It’s a challenging film (and probably a marmite one). But it’s still Christmas, and this is the thought I was struck by in the film today. It comes from Brother Christian, reflecting on the monks’ first encounter with those who threaten them, which came on Christmas Eve:
Once they were gone, all we had left to do was to live. And the first thing we did was… two hours later. We celebrated the Christmas Vigil and Mass. It’s what we had to do. It’s what we did. And we sang the Mass. We welcomed that Child who was born for us absolutely helpless and… and already so threatened.
Afterwards, we found salvation in undertaking our daily tasks. The kitchen, the garden, the prayers, the bells. Day after day. We had to resist the violence. And day after day, I…. I think each of us discovered that to which Jesus Christ beckons us.
It’s … to be born. Our identities as men go from one birth to another. And from birth to birth, we’ll each end up bringing to the world the child of God that we are.
The Incarnation, for us, is to allow the filial reality of Jesus to embody itself in our humanity. The mystery of Incarnation remains what we are going to live. In this way what we’ve already lived here takes root as well as… what we’re going to live in the future.
Now there’s something to take into the new year.