Cinema as Lenten
Rarely have big screen film images so persistantly returned to mind, not to mention heart, as those seen in the film "Of Gods and Men", directed by Xavier Beauvois. For months we have been reading uniformly fine reviews of in publications like the New York Times, America Magazine and The New Yorker.
The film tells the true story of eight Trappist monks caught in the middle of a brutal and protracted civil war between government forces and an Islamist insurgency in Algeria during the 1990s. The French monks who had come to enjoy an integral and highly respected relationship with the Moslems surrounding them, were ultimately drawn into the violence. In 1996 they were kidnapped and beheaded. The insurgency claimed responsibility at the time but more recent revelations in previously secret documents indicate some governmental involvement.
This film is appropriate material for Lenten meditation. Witnessing the rising level of brutal violence around them and feeling pressure from both Islamist extremists who suspect all foreigners and local military presence resentful of care given to members of the insurgency in the monastery clinic, the monks must decide whether to heed official warnings and leave the country or to remain and continue to give witness to the Christian message of God's love. Particularly affecting is depiction of the interior process of each man reconsidering the meaning of his call and that of the web of relationship and commitment which creates and sustains the monatsic community. Each monk has to come to grips with the decision to remain in place, living in the charity taught by Jesus Christ or leaving in order to escape almost certain death. The passage through faith of each man is imaged on the screen as he moves even deeper into the Passion of Jesus.
Beneath the surface features of a life played out among 'the other' (Algerian Muslim culture) and later in the presence of unpredictable and horrible violence, there excisted the unchageable, the essential, the law of love embodied in the person of Jesus Christ. This was love for the self, their small monastic community and the people among whom they lived. The monks are seen discussing matters of faith and ethics with local Muslim teachers; healing children and treating the elderly in their clinic; and celebrating cultural rites of passage with their Moslem neighbors. Neither hardship nor harsh reality could sway them because they are able in prayer and in discussion with each other to move once again to the deeper place within; the place where ultimate truth, ultimate love reside.
One last observation from one who lives in monastic community. The film is particularly effective in communicating subtle interactions between community members, those non-verbal looks, gestures and actions which express fraternal love and respect, the quality of inter-relationship that should typify the monastic community. Watch for these expressions of love among men who have lived together for a long time in the day to day of contemplative life.