[Editor’s note: On Saturday, December 8, 19 men and women martyred in Algeria between 1994 and 1996 were beatified during a Mass in Oran. Among them were seven Trappist monks from Tibhirine, who were the subject of the 2010 film Of Gods and Men. The essay below was originally written at the time of the film’s American release.]
You’ve given your life to Christ.
Handed it over.
Of Gods and Men is about several things, but I think in the end, it is about that.
I’m not a Trappist, I don’t live in Algeria, I don’t live in an environment in which my life is threatened, but as I sat in the theater late afternoon on Good Friday watching this film, that is what I thought of, that is how I entered the story of these martyrs.
There is so much cultural cotton candy, so much bubble-gum flavored penicillin marketed to Christians these days, so many prescriptive, leaden, paint-by-numbers books and movies, that the really good stuff that honestly attempts to bring life-as-it-is in conversation with God-as-He-is is either ignored or shunned.
I went to see Of Gods and Men knowing the story and ready to appreciate it, but my expectations were confounded because I ended up blown away.
It’s a beautiful film, filled with unique, gorgeous faces, striking images, and simple moments, resounding.
The story is compelling enough in itself, just on the surface.
But the gift of the film is to take the question—do we stay or do we go?—and to present it to the audience in all of its complexity.
For the question is just that—do the monks, threatened by Islamist violence, stay or go? It would be so easy to leave. So easy. To just go back across the sea to France.
But would it, really? Be so easy?
Each of the monks must work it out. They each begin from a different place. Some determined to stay, others ready to leave, still others not so sure. They talk, they pray, they think it over.
Here’s the thing about Of Gods and Men: the life of the disciple of Jesus Christ is presented with great care, respect, and truth. As a Facebook friend wrote, “It is amazing to me that such a theologically pitch-perfect movie could ever get made.”
For me, the pitch-perfect note that sounded the most strongly were the very intense conversations about death. About how a Christian faces death. They say: We have given our lives to Christ. They are already his. And the statements of one of the monks that no, he was not afraid of death for, “I am a free man.”
(Read Galatians if you don’t get it.)
Of Gods and Men is also a lesson in liturgical prayer.
I think that anyone who is involved in spiritual formation or liturgy should see this film and reflect on it. Anyone who talks or thinks about prayer. Which is most of us.
These men in Tibhirine, they are monks. Which means, of course, that they pray the Hours, they celebrate Mass, and they chant.
The chant, the formal communal prayer permeates the film. Each of these men struggle with a decision and a direction. They wash dishes, they talk, they bind wounds, they plant seeds, and all the time they are thinking over this pressing question. And then several times a day, they put down their hoes, lay aside their instruments, close their books, and then quietly vest in white robes, gather in their small, plain chapel. A bell is rung, their leader—Father Christian—raps the wood of a bench, they bow deeply, and together, they begin to chant. This chapel isn’t a place of escape. It’s a place where they enter even more deeply into the struggle at hand, consciously entering into it, they would say, rooted in the body of Christ, there in the Algerian hills. I’ve never seen this connection—between prayer and life—expressed so profoundly on film.
So here’s what they don’t do: they don’t sit in a circle and extemporize. Their “authentic” prayer is not prayer that they make up on the spot in their own style of speaking referencing only the specific issues at hand. They pray the prayer of the Church, which they accept as their own prayer.
St. Paul wrote we do not know how to pray as we ought. What that means is that we don’t know what to pray for. We don’t know what is best for us. He follows that by assuring us…but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings.
That Spirit lives in the Church. We do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit, through the prayer of the Church, leads us, guides us, gives us the words.
Flannery O’Connor wrote in a letter: So many prayer books are so awful, but if you stick with the liturgy, you are safe.
I always take that to mean safe from yourself, from your solipsism and short-sightedness.
Safe in the arms of God, guiding you where you need to be.
Strengthening you to suffer with those who suffer. With the crucified.
Do you know what that means?
I will stay.
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