I went to see the film Of Gods and Men last night. Chretien de Chergé has been one of my heroes since his Testament was published. I’d put a link to this remarkable document except that it’s only available in French, for some reason I don’t understand!
The film reminded me of the gentle charming Etre et Avoir in its quiet fragmentary build-up of the relations between characters but the themes are so much darker. The monks of the Atlas Mountain monastery are caught between the violence of terrorists and the aggression of the army – and to this day no-one knows for certain which side killed them.
Dome Donald McGlynn of Nunraw Abbey tells the full story here. He was responsible for publishing a lot of the background information about the monastery, and it was noticeable how close the film kept to this material.
The other thing I noticed about the film was its restraint. There was no taking of sides. There was no glossing over the divisions between the monks as life got more dangerous. They were shown as well-meaning, but not too wise, brave, but not noble, good but perhaps not always right. There was very little violence. There was no way of identifying the killers, whose faces were always in shadow. And at the end we did not see the deaths. Monks and kidnappers quietly disappeared into the snow.
Two shots will always stand out for me. One is the taking of a photograph in the last peaceful days before the end. All the monks are standing together in the sunshine, smiling. I have a copy of the real photo on prayer cards – it is so close to that shot. It must have been a labour of love. And the other is when the monks are singing an Easter liturgy, almost but not quite drowned out by the sound of the helicopter above. Gradually the brothers come together, their arms around each other, proclaiming the persistence of light and hope.
Sometimes the enemy of your enemy is not your friend. Sometimes the way we defend ourselves is more dangerous than the gullibility of being trusting and compassionate.
Yesterday on Facebook the poet Andrew Philip posted this
picture of Christians protecting Muslims at prayer in Liberation Square in Egypt, and reminded us that at Christmas there were Muslims protecting Christian churches during the services. It’s important to realise that this can happen, the value of honouring other people’s beliefs whether we share them or not.
As for the rest of us, we stumble and get up again, stumble and get up again. And learn to forgive ourselves and each other, every time.