“The Monks were “the lungs” of the Church in Algeria, he (Monsignor Duval) liked to say. Their small community in the Atlas Mountains provided spiritual oxygen to Christians and Muslims alike. When he learned that the kidnapped monks had been executed, he told those at his bedside that he felt “crucified” and died a week later. ” John W. Kiser in The Monks of Tibhirine, Faith, Love, and Terror in Algeria
Of Gods and Men is more meditation than entertainment. Loosely based on the book quoted above, it is a story of eight Monks living and working in the Monastery of the Atlas in Tibhirine, Algeria in the early nineties. This group of men with the hearts of servants lived fully among and fully apart from the community they served. Fully engaged in service of medical care, social relief, some food distribution and other work, they lived out their love for the Muslim community surrounding them, but worshiped separately according to their beliefs and vows. The film drew me in through a variety of scenes all seemingly measured to bring the viewer into the pace of life in the monastery. Silence and song of the monks in worship; tilling of fields and sowing seeds; beekeeping and selling honey at local markets;watching an elderly asthmatic monk at work as a physician in a make-shift clinic, first treating the symptoms, then treating the soul; and through daily interactions with those in the community I was transported to a place where time was unimportant and where people and faith were paramount. I was left with a deep longing for the simplicity that comes from knowing exactly who you are and what you are about. These Monks were not trying to save the world, but they were certainly fully vested in their small corner; their deep commitment to people, faith and the land compelling and convicting.
The conflict in the story is the rise of terrorism and the increased fear of the Monks as they heard news of the killing of various foreigners and aid workers. The conversations we are privy to center around their dilemma – do they stay? do they go? “I did not come here to die, but to live” says one emphatically. Another says “To leave is to die. I’m staying”. The fear and confusion was clear showing a refreshing wrestling of the soul and wrestling with each other in a situation that had no easy answers. In a powerful, quite indescribable scene, Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake is building momentum in the background as the monks partake in a type of last supper. Powerful emotions were portrayed without words, but through music and facial expressions. Moments later as they lie in their beds, all but one are abducted by terrorists and their story soon ends.
The early nineties showed Algeria in a civil war between an extreme Islamist insurgency and the government. I don’t remember news reports of the time but archives detail a time of fear where the population was daily hearing of beheadings and massacres carried out by extremists. It was in this climate that the real story played itself out and on May 1st in 1996 seven of the eight monks were executed.
The film was beautiful to watch and served as a reflection on faith, conviction, purpose, and identity. The humanity and obvious fear of the monks gave an image, not of superheroes, but rather Godly men who, while feeling real fear,did not allow the fear to keep them from living out what was true and right.
- “Of Gods and Men”: Christian monks in a Muslim land (salon.com)
- Between Heaven and Earth (movies.nytimes.com)
- Memo From Paris: Films Open French Wounds From Algeria (nytimes.com)