Today I received a book in the mail from Powell’s: C Christine Fair and Sumit Ganguly‘s Treading on Hallowed Ground: Counterinsurgency operations in Sacred Spaces. That covers the spread of my interests pretty concisely. I’m reminded that Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who was complicit in several attempts to assassinate Hitler, once said, “Only he who cries out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chants” – again, the intersection of the sacred and harsh “facts on the ground”.
I am interested in this intersection partly because my father was a warrior and my mentor a priest and peace-maker, and partly because that mentor, Fr. Trevor Huddleston CR, taught me to anchor my life in the contemplative and sacramental side of things, then reach out into world with a view to being of service – an idea that he movingly expressed in this key paragraph from his great book, Naught for your comfort:
On Maundy Thursday, in the Liturgy of the Catholic Church, when the Mass of the day is ended, the priest takes a towel and girds himself with it; he takes a basin in his hands, and kneeling in front of those who have been chosen, he washes their feet and wipes them, kissing them also one by one. So he takes, momentarily, the place of his Master. The centuries are swept away, the Upper Room in the stillness of the night is all around him: “If I, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, ye ought also to wash one another’s feet.” I have knelt in the sanctuary of our lovely church in Rosettenville and washed the feet of African students, stooping to kiss them. In this also I have known the meaning of identification. The difficulty is to carry the truth out into Johannesberg, into South Africa, into the world.
A few days ago I saw a film that encompasses that same range – from the contemplative to the brutal – telling the story of the Cistercian (Trappist) monks of Tibhirine in the Atlas mountains of Algeria, the warmth of affection that existed between them and their Muslim neighbors, the mortal threat they came under from Muslim “rebels” whose wounded they had cared for, their individual and group decisions to stay there in Tibhirine under those threats, and their eventual deaths.
It is an astonishing story, and my copy of John Kiser‘s book, The Monks of Tibhirine: Faith, Love and Terror in Algeria, which also tells that story, already has more tabs in it noting phrases and whole paragraphs I’ll want to return to than any altar missal – and I’m only two-thirds of the way through it.
I don’t wish to retell the story – I’d rather you saw the film, Of Gods and Men, in the theater if possible, on DVD if not, or read the book, or both – but a few of those book-marked passages stand out for me.
First, Algeria – in the words of Albert Camus:
Algeria is land and sun. Algeria is a mother, cruel and yet adored, suffering and passionate, hard and nourishing. More than in our temperate zones, she is proof of the mix of good and evil, the inseparable dialectic of love and hate, the fusion of opposites that constitute mankind
That sets the scene – and I am inescapably reminded of that comment of Solzhenitsyn, which I quoted at the end of my first response to Abu Walid:
Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart – and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains … an uprooted small corner of evil.
Algeria brings that separation into sharp relief – the monks of Tibhirine knew and acted on their knowledge that it passes through each and every human heart.
Next, the Qur’an. When the monks first meet the militants, their prior, Fr. Christian de Chergé, begins to quote from Sura 5, and the militant leader completes the verse:
The nearest to the faithful are those who say “We are Christians.” That is because there are priests and monks among them and because they are free of pride
The view I wish to present here in describing the monks of Tibhirine is not a view from left or right but from a contemplative perspective — and while I do not believe it the only perspective to be considered, I think we do well to heed the insights of Christian monks — a group to whom even the Muslim scriptures give praise.
Then, the Rule of St Benedict:
Just as there is the zeal of bitterness that is evil and separates us from God and leads to hell, so also there is a good zeal which removes vices and leads to God and eternal life.
This, then, was the spirit in which the monks of Tibhirine served and loved their God – and their neighbors as themselves.
And finally, the Bible, from the book of Job:
My face is flushed from weeping and on my eyelids is the shadow of death; although no violence is in my hands and my prayer is pure.
It was with that shadow playing on his eyelids that Fr. de Chergé penned these words of immense generosity:
Facing a GOODBYE …
If it should happen one day — and it could be today — that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to engulf all the foreigners living in Algeria, I would like my community, my Church and my family to remember that my life was GIVEN to God and to this country.
I ask them to accept the fact that the One Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure.
I would ask them to pray for me: for how could I be found worthy of such an offering?
I ask them to associate this death with so many other equally violent ones which are forgotten through indifference or anonymity.
My life has no more value than any other. Nor any less value. In any case, it has not the innocence of childhood.
I have lived long enough to know that I am an accomplice in the evil which seems to prevail so terribly in the world, even in the evil which might blindly strike me down.
I should like, when the time comes, to have a moment of spiritual clarity which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God and of my fellow human beings, and at the same time forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me down.
I could not desire such a death. It seems to me important to state this.
I do not see, in fact, how I could rejoice if the people I love were indiscriminately accused of my murder.
It would be too high a price to pay for what will perhaps be called, the “grace of martyrdom” to owe it to an Algerian, whoever he might be, especially if he says he is acting in fidelity to what he believes to be Islam.
I am aware of the scorn which can be heaped on the Algerians indiscriminately.
I am also aware of the caricatures of Islam which a certain Islamism fosters.
It is too easy to soothe one’s conscience by identifying this religious way with the fundamentalist ideology of its extremists.
For me, Algeria and Islam are something different: it is a body and a soul.
I have proclaimed this often enough, I think, in the light of what I have received from it.
I so often find there that true strand of the Gospel which I learned at my mother’s knee, my very first Church, precisely in Algeria, and already inspired with respect for Muslim believers.
Obviously, my death will appear to confirm those who hastily judged me naive or idealistic:
“Let him tell us now what he thinks of his ideals!”
But these persons should know that finally my most avid curiosity will be set free.
This is what I shall be able to do, God willing: immerse my gaze in that of the Father to contemplate with him His children of Islam just as He sees them, all shining with the glory of Christ, the fruit of His Passion, filled with the Gift of the Spirit whose secret joy will always be to establish communion and restore the likeness, playing with the differences.
For this life lost, totally mine and totally theirs, I thank God, who seems to have willed it entirely for the sake of that JOY in everything and in spite of everything.
In this THANK YOU, which is said for everything in my life from now on, I certainly include you, friends of yesterday and today, and you, my friends of this place, along with my mother and father, my sisters and brothers and their families — you are the hundredfold granted as was promised!
And also you, my last-minute friend, who will not have known what you were doing:
Yes, I want this THANK YOU and this GOODBYE to be a “GOD BLESS” for you, too, because in God’s face I see yours.
May we meet again as happy thieves in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both.
Algiers, 1st December 1993
Tibhirine, 1st January 1994
I note with sadness today the death of Tim Hetherington, photo-journalist and co-director of the film Restrepo, together with that of his colleague Chris Hondros, in Misrata, Libya. Their cameras, and those of others like them, brought and will bring the grimness of war home, into the living rooms of peace.