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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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Mary Magdalene de' Pazzi: Mystical ecstasy is the elevation of the spirit to God in such a way that the person is aware of this union with God while both internal and external senses are detached from the sensible world. Mary Magdalene de' Pazzi was so generously given this special gift of God that she is called the "ecstatic saint." 
<p>She was born into a noble family in Florence in 1566. The normal course would have been for Catherine de' Pazzi to have married wealth and enjoyed comfort, but she chose to follow her own path. At nine she learned to meditate from the family confessor. She made her first Communion at the then-early age of 10 and made a vow of virginity one month later. When 16, she entered the Carmelite convent in Florence because she could receive Communion daily there. </p><p>Catherine had taken the name Mary Magdalene and had been a novice for a year when she became critically ill. Death seemed near so her superiors let her make her profession of vows from a cot in the chapel in a private ceremony. Immediately after, she fell into an ecstasy that lasted about two hours. This was repeated after Communion on the following 40 mornings. These ecstasies were rich experiences of union with God and contained marvelous insights into divine truths. </p><p>As a safeguard against deception and to preserve the revelations, her confessor asked Mary Magdalene to dictate her experiences to sister secretaries. Over the next six years, five large volumes were filled. The first three books record ecstasies from May of 1584 through Pentecost week the following year. This week was a preparation for a severe five-year trial. The fourth book records that trial and the fifth is a collection of letters concerning reform and renewal. Another book, <i>Admonitions</i>, is a collection of her sayings arising from her experiences in the formation of women religious. </p><p>The extraordinary was ordinary for this saint. She read the thoughts of others and predicted future events. During her lifetime, she appeared to several persons in distant places and cured a number of sick people. </p><p>It would be easy to dwell on the ecstasies and pretend that Mary Magdalene only had spiritual highs. This is far from true. It seems that God permitted her this special closeness to prepare her for the five years of desolation that followed when she experienced spiritual dryness. She was plunged into a state of darkness in which she saw nothing but what was horrible in herself and all around her. She had violent temptations and endured great physical suffering. She died in 1607 at 41, and was canonized in 1669.</p> American Catholic Blog Let us never tire, therefore, of seeking the Lord—of letting ourselves be sought by him—of tending over our relationship with him in silence and prayerful listening. Let us keep our gaze fixed on him, the center of time and history; let us make room for his presence within us.

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