Of Gods and Men

I said, “You are gods, And all of you are children of the Most High. But you shall die like men… ~Psalm 82: 6,7

It is a film made with an elegant reserve fitted to its subject. An abstract art that invites the viewer to participate in its creation. Wordless scenes. Gesture. Movement. Long, meaningful gazes. Men who have so long lived together that these are enough. A reprieve from our habitually unrestrained verbosity.

We hear the scuff of shoes against wood floors. Crunch of snow. Soft patter of rain. Bleat of sheep. Lap of lake. Earthy scrape of fork against soil. Unburdened with the din of voices. We see the slow work of filling jars with honey. Placing candles in stands. Driving sheep. Dropping seeds in earth.

Still, words have knit them together. And these words will become refuge. Psalms the brothers sing together will be peace and rest and courage when times grow excruciatingly perilous…

Eight Cistercian monks from France dwell in the mountains of Algeria. They and their Muslim neighbors live in and out of one another. Sharing bread, celebrating together, serving one another. Honor, respect, and love have grown up among them over years. When militant Muslim extremists begin a reign of terror, both are horrified. It is suggested, nearly demanded, by the authorities that the monks flee. It is not their war after all.

Or is it?

What does it mean to give your life away? Is it not enough to have given up family, position, possessions? How far is one called to go? Is it reckless to put oneself in harm’s way for another?

As each man, in community and alone, wrestles with these questions, their agony is my agony. Visible. Visceral. Violent.

They ponder the question with the village elders. “We are like birds on a branch. We don’t know if we’ll leave.” One Muslim woman answers, “We are the birds. You are the branch. If you go, we lose our footing.” And this is where, in the end, they will find their answer. They have been called to this place. To this people. You do not leave the people you love because loving them has become difficult.

It will be a costly decision.

Should it ever befall me, and it could happen today, to be a victim of the terrorism swallowing up all foreigners here, I would like my community, my church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to his country. That the Unique Master of all life was no stranger to this brutal departure. And that my death is the same as so many other violent ones, consigned to the apathy of oblivion. I’ve lived enough to know, I am complicit in the evil that, alas, prevails over the world and the evil that will smite me blindly. I could never desire such a death. I could never feel gladdened that these people I love be accused randomly of my murder. I know the contempt felt for the people here, indiscriminately. And I know how Islam is distorted by a certain Islamism. This country, and Islam, for me are something different. They’re a body and a soul. My death, of course, will quickly vindicate those who call me naïve or idealistic, but they must know that I will be freed of a burning curiosity and, God willing, will immerse my gaze in the Father’s and contemplate with him his children of Islam as he sees them. This thank you which encompasses my entire life includes you, of course, friends of yesterday and today, and you too, friend of last minute, who knew not what you were doing. Yes, to you as well I address this thank you and this farewell which you envisaged. May we meet again, happy thieves in Paradise, if it pleases God the Father of us both. Amen. Insha’Allah.

~Penned, in the film, by Christian, leader of the community

This is a remarkable film. I was completely undone by it. It is based on the tragic Tibhirine massacre that took place in Algeria in 1996. It is an heroic story, the sort of which we know far too few. I recommend it for all persons of faith and goodwill everywhere. If you live in Nashville, you can see it through Sunday at the Belcourt. It releases on DVD in July.

*Winner of the Grand Prix, Cannes Film Festival, 2010