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ON FAITH & MEDIA View Comments

Of Gods and Men

By
Sr. Rose Pacatte, F.S.P.
Source: AmericanCatholic.org

Not long after midnight on March 27, 1996, seven Trappist monks were kidnapped from the monastery of Our Lady of Atlas in Tibhirine, Algeria. After two months in captivity, they were beheaded; their bodies were never found.

The monastery was begun in 1934 and located 272 miles south east of the capital of Algiers. The murders of these priests counted among the estimated 150,00-200,000 Algerian people who were killed during the Algerian Civil War (1991-2001), among them nuns, priests, and at least one bishop. The conflict ended with government victory over two Islamic militaristic groups though armed incidents continue even today.

The film, by the prolific French filmmaker Xavier Beauvois, captures the monks’ simple life of work and prayer. Of Gods and Men won the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010. It reminded me of Philip Groning’s fascinating 2005 film Into Great Silenceabout life in the Grande Chartreuse, the main house of the Carthusian Order. Yet in many ways, Of Gods and Men is reminiscent of the style of the famous Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer (1889–1968), especially in his 1955 film Ordet. Dreyer filmed the stark, unadorned fundamentalist Protestant lifestyle of a farming family in a crisis of faith and the possibility of miracles.

The superior, Fr. Christian (Lambert Wilson), even helps people with government paperwork. An elderly monk is a doctor and cares for the people who come to him. The others farm the rough terrain and tend beehives. The people, especially the women and children, genuinely care for the monks. The community will have its crisis and their legacy of faith and charity in utter simplicity is the miracle.

One of the most meaningful and memorable scenes in the film is when the brothers take Christian to task for not including the community in his decision that they will not leave the country or accept government protection. They are also afraid because Christian refused to help guerillas that wanted a doctor and medicine for their injured. For anyone considering religious life, this community meeting is portrayed authentically. It reflects the inner conflicts and tensions of power, the fraternity and love that unites a religious community, and the humility that is essential for wisdom to emerge.

It turns out that some do wish to leave, a few at a time, while others want to stay. Ultimately, they all remain. As Christian explains to Christophe (Olivier Rabourdin), who is strongly inclined to depart: They made their decision to stay when they made their vows to Christ. Death, he implies, is a matter of when and with what interior disposition we embrace it, not geography.

The chapel centers the film and the Divine Office provides a rhythmic framework for the narrative. The soundtrack is haunting and the monk’s chants are other-worldly yet plain. 
A mystical scene toward the end, filled with all the grace and transcendence that cinema can offer, signals that these monks, gathered as a community, are prepared for whatever their love for God will ask of them. It is a promise of a celestial banquet. Their meals are always taken in silence, but here the monks share wine in blithe silence as they listen and move to the dramatic theme of Swan Lake. This is their anointing, joy and music conferring strength when fear hovers just below the surface.

This two-hour film is without violence but taunt with the expectation of what is to come. The acting is fine, and we feel as if we know these ordinary men who have followed a rare call to holiness is the desert of monastic life in a hostile, far-away country.




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Augustine of Canterbury: In the year 596, some 40 monks set out from Rome to evangelize the Anglo-Saxons in England. Leading the group was Augustine, the prior of their monastery in Rome. Hardly had he and his men reached Gaul (France) when they heard stories of the ferocity of the Anglo-Saxons and of the treacherous waters of the English Channel. Augustine returned to Rome and to the pope who had sent them—St. Gregory the Great (September 3 )—only to be assured by him that their fears were groundless. 
<p>Augustine again set out. This time the group crossed the English Channel and landed in the territory of Kent, ruled by King Ethelbert, a pagan married to a Christian, Bertha. Ethelbert received them kindly, set up a residence for them in Canterbury and within the year, on Pentecost Sunday, 597, was himself baptized. After being consecrated a bishop in France, Augustine returned to Canterbury, where he founded his see. He constructed a church and monastery near where the present cathedral, begun in 1070, now stands. As the faith spread, additional sees were established at London and Rochester. </p><p>Work was sometimes slow and Augustine did not always meet with success. Attempts to reconcile the Anglo-Saxon Christians with the original Briton Christians (who had been driven into western England by Anglo-Saxon invaders) ended in dismal failure. Augustine failed to convince the Britons to give up certain Celtic customs at variance with Rome and to forget their bitterness, helping him evangelize their Anglo-Saxon conquerors </p><p>Laboring patiently, Augustine wisely heeded the missionary principles—quite enlightened for the times—suggested by Pope Gregory the Great: purify rather than destroy pagan temples and customs; let pagan rites and festivals be transformed into Christian feasts; retain local customs as far as possible. The limited success Augustine achieved in England before his death in 605, a short eight years after he arrived in England, would eventually bear fruit long after in the conversion of England. Augustine of Canterbury can truly be called the “Apostle of England.”</p> American Catholic Blog A hero isn’t someone born with unconquerable strength and selflessness. Heroes are not formed in a cataclysmic instant. Heroism is developed over time, one decision after another, moment by moment, formed by a deliberate, chosen, and habitual response to life.

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