In March 1996, an Islamic terrorist group kidnapped seven French Trappist monks from their remote monastery in Tibhirine, Algeria. They were held for two months, then beheaded.
At the heart of this atrocity is a tale of heroic faith, steadfastness, and love, captured in the sublime film Of Gods and Men. It is perhaps the best movie on Christian commitment ever made.
The life of a Trappist monk, devoted to prayer, study, and labor, is not natural cinematic material. Seven times a day he performs the Liturgy of the Hours, singing psalms. At Tibhirine, the monks tended a garden, sold their honey (“Trappist gold”), and served with their Muslim neighbors.
The abbot, Christian de Chergé, felt especially called to the latter. John Kiser recounts in his book The Monks of Tibhirine that the brilliant, strong-willed Christian could have become a bishop in France. Instead, he went to the monastery tucked away in the Atlas Mountains, “a beggar of love.”
The little band stood as a living Christian witness in an increasingly inhospitable land. “In all Algeria, only in the ultra-traditional Medea,” Kiser writes of the monastery’s vicinity, “did church bells still ring without offending people.”
As Algeria descended into a brutish war between the government and Islamist guerrillas in the 1990s, Tibhirine found itself a fragile oasis in a sea of menace. A terrorist group declared war on foreigners. Just two miles from the monastery, extremists slit the throats of foreign workers.
As Kiser writes, Psalm 44 had “acquired an awful reality”: “It is for You that we are being massacred all day long, that we are counted as sheep for the slaughter. Awake! Why do you sleep, O Lord?”
A local official offered police protection to the monks. They refused — no weapons were allowed in the monastery. He offered to put them up in a hotel. They refused. Failing that, he recommended a long vacation. They refused.
Common sense said, “Go,” but their devotion to their faith, to their Muslim neighbors, and to one another said, “Stay.” They stayed. They revisited their decision together every six months. It never changed, but not without agony: “How far does one go to save his skin without running the risk of losing his soul?” one monk asked in a letter.
“They saw that they had to go forward in their faith, together, a step at a time,” Kiser writes. “It was slow, deliberate, and real, this walking together, each bearing alone the reality of his own faith and his own suffering. They developed a powerful sense of inspiration, of not being alone. Yet the awareness of danger was always with them.”
Christian wrote a last testament well in advance: “If the day comes, and it could be today, that I am a victim of the terrorism that seems to be engulfing all foreigners living in Algeria, I would like my community, my Church, and my family to remember that I have dedicated my life to God and Algeria.
“That they accept that the Lord of all life was not a stranger to this savage kind of departure; that they pray for me, wondering how I found myself worthy of such a sacrifice; that they link in their memory this death of mine with all the other deaths equally violent but forgotten in their anonymity.”
He thanked everyone, even his prospective murderer: “And to you, too, my friend of the last moment, who will not know what you are doing. Yes, for you, too, I wish this thank-you, this ‘A-Dieu,’ whose image is in you also, that we may meet in heaven, like happy thieves, if it pleases God, our common Father.”
There’s no higher praise of Of Gods and Men than that it does justice to the faith of these men. In a scene near the end, the monks listen to Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake,” laughing and crying together. A terrible fate awaits them. And it feels like victory.
— Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2011 by King Features Syndicate.