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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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John of Capistrano: It has been said the Christian saints are the world’s greatest optimists. Not blind to the existence and consequences of evil, they base their confidence on the power of Christ’s redemption. The power of conversion through Christ extends not only to sinful people but also to calamitous events. 
<p>Imagine being born in the 14th century. One-third of the population and nearly 40 percent of the clergy were wiped out by the bubonic plague. The Western Schism split the Church with two or three claimants to the Holy See at one time. England and France were at war. The city-states of Italy were constantly in conflict. No wonder that gloom dominated the spirit of the culture and the times. </p><p>John Capistrano was born in 1386. His education was thorough. His talents and success were great. When he was 26 he was made governor of Perugia. Imprisoned after a battle against the Malatestas, he resolved to change his way of life completely. At the age of 30 he entered the Franciscan novitiate and was ordained a priest four years later. </p><p>His preaching attracted great throngs at a time of religious apathy and confusion. He and 12 Franciscan brethren were received in the countries of central Europe as angels of God. They were instrumental in reviving a dying faith and devotion. </p><p>The Franciscan Order itself was in turmoil over the interpretation and observance of the Rule of St. Francis. Through John’s tireless efforts and his expertise in law, the heretical Fraticelli were suppressed and the "Spirituals" were freed from interference in their stricter observance. </p><p>He helped bring about a reunion with the Greek and Armenian Churches, unfortunately only a brief arrangement. </p><p>When the Turks captured Constantinople in 1453, he was commissioned to preach a crusade for the defense of Europe. Gaining little response in Bavaria and Austria, he decided to concentrate his efforts in Hungary. He led the army to Belgrade. Under the great General John Hunyadi, they gained an overwhelming victory, and the siege of Belgrade was lifted. Worn out by his superhuman efforts, Capistrano was an easy prey to an infection after the battle. He died October 23, 1456.</p> American Catholic Blog When we are linked by the power of prayer, we as it were, hold each other’s hand as we walk side by side along a slippery path; and thus by the bounteous disposition of charity, it comes about that the harder each one leans on the other, the more firmly we are riveted together in brotherly love. —St. Gregory the Great

 
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