“The Father of us both”: Fr. Christian’s last testament

19 years ago today, in the Atlas mountains of Algeria, seven Trappist monks where kidnapped from their rural monastery. Eventually murdered along with many thousands of Algerians and foreigners in the mid-1990s, the French monks had decided to stay in their African home despite the country’s civil war. The story of these men, and the two other monks who managed to avoid capture, is told in The Monks of Tibhirine and “Of Gods and Men,” a book and film which recount the monks’ common life of prayer, work, and service.

On this anniversary, I’d like to share a letter written by Fr. Christian de Cherge, the prior of the monastery and a scholar whose theological writings were deeply influenced by his lived experience among Muslims. Fr. Christian’s theology of dialogue has deeply impacted my own, and much of it comes through in this letter. Fr. Christian’s voice is one we desperately need to hear today–in a world which is still marred by violence, state terrorism, prejudice, and persistent inequality. I hope you find his words as powerful as I do.

The Last Testament of Christian de Cherge

“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, my family,
to remember that my life was GIVEN to God and to this country.
I ask them to accept that the Sole Master of all life
was not a stranger to this brutal departure.
I ask them to pray for me—
for how could I be found worthy of such an offering?
I ask them to be able to link this death with the many other deaths which were just as violent, but forgotten through indifference and 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, alas, to prevail in the world,
even in that which would strike me blindly.
I should like, when the time comes, to have the moment of lucidity
which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God
and of my fellow human beings,
and at the same time to forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me down.

I could not desire such a death.
It seems important to state this.
I do not see, in fact, how I could rejoice
if the people I love were to be accused indiscriminately of my murder.
To owe it to an Algerian, whoever he may be,
would be too high a price to pay for what will, perhaps, be called, the ‘grace of martyrdom,’
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 Algerians indiscriminately.
I am also aware of the caricatures of Islam which a certain Islamism encourages.
It is too easy to salve one’s conscience
by identifying this religious way with the fundamentalist ideologies of the extremists.

For me, Algeria and Islam are something different: they are a body and a soul.
I have proclaimed this often enough, I believe, in the sure knowledge of what I have received from it,
finding there so often that true strand of the Gospel,
learnt at my mother’s knee, my very first Church,
already in Algeria itself, in the respect of believing Muslims.

My death, clearly, will appear to justify
those who hastily judged me naïve, or idealistic:
‘Let him tell us now what he thinks of it!’
But these people must realize that my avid curiosity will then be satisfied.
This is what I shall be able to do, if God wills—
immerse my gaze in that of the Father,
and contemplate with him his children of Islam just as he sees them,
all shining with the glory of Christ,
the fruit of His Passion, and filled with the Gift of the Spirit,
whose secret joy will always be to establish communion
and to refashion the likeness, playfully delighting in 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 sums up my whole life to this moment,
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,
the hundredfold granted as was promised!

And also you, the friend of my final moment, who would not be aware of what you were doing.
Yes, I also say this THANK YOU and this A-DIEU to you, in whom I see the face of God.
And may we find each other, happy good thieves, in Paradise, if it pleases God, the Father of us both. Ameen. In sha ‘Allah.”

-Christian de Cherge

Algiers, December 1, 1993 – Tibhirine, January 1, 1994.

Reflecting on Rahmah: Thoughts for Eid al-Adha

Written October 4, 2014.

This year’s Eid al-Adha, the Islamic feast of sacrifice[i], comes at a challenging time. Debates over Islam’s true nature rage like the battles fought in the deserts of Iraq and Syria. For many, the only images of Islam today are slender knives, black flags, and hooded faces. For me, these are daily images, too. But they aren’t the only ones.

In these recent months, I have encountered new ideas and truths in the religion of Islam which have enriched my own understanding of God, and that have provided me with new perspectives about what it means to be a believer. These “rays of Truth” in Islam have helped me reflect on my own tradition, and they point out similarities among the Abrahamic traditions. Given the tragedy of world events, it seems imperative that I now share them. I hope these brief reflections can not only shed light onto a religion that is still unknown to many, but also spark inward, personal conversations about humans’ relationship with the Divine.

God’s Greatest Attribute

Muslims begin prayer, meals, and most tasks by invoking God using the phrase, Bismillah ir-Rahman ar-Rahim, which means “In the name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful.” This invocation also introduces nearly every chapter of the Qur’an, and points to God’s chief attribute in Islamic theology: rahmah, mercy.

In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.

In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.

In the Qur’an, which Muslims believe is the revealed Word of God, God speaks constantly about His mercy for humanity. These are only a few examples:[ii]

-“Whoever does evil, or wrongs himself, then seeks the forgiveness of God, will find God Forgiving, Merciful.” (4:110)

-“Your Lord has prescribed mercy for Himself.” (6:12)

-“My Mercy encompasses all things.” (7:156)

-“God is of infinite grace.” (8:29)

As I grew more and more aware of the importance of God’s mercy in Islam, I began to notice its central place in Christianity. The theme of mercy is inescapable in the psalms for daily Mass, in the parables of Jesus on Sundays, and in Pope Francis’ homilies about the need for a “Church of mercy.” This belief in a merciful God is a core similarity between Christians and Muslims, and it was highlighted in the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on other religions, which reads: “Together with us, [Muslims] adore the one, merciful God.”

A painting by me, featuring the word, "rahman" in the womb of Mary, Mother of Jesus.

A painting by me, featuring the word, “rahman” in the womb of Mary, Mother of Jesus.

This common conception of God became even clearer and more meaningful to me upon delving into the Arabic word, rahmah. Rahmah comes from the word “womb” (rahm), and its connection to motherhood is not lost to Arabic speakers. Rahmah is not a feeling of pity, or the disposition of a distant king who pardons prisoners. It is a visceral, gutsy parental love that creates and sustains. Scholars of comparative religion (both Christian and Muslim) have argued that rahmah should then not be translated as mercy, but as agape, the Greek word used by Christians to describe God’s unconditional and expansive love for humanity. When St. John writes in his epistle that “God is agape,” he could have as easily said, “God is rahmah.”

St. Francis and Sultan Malik al-Kamil.

St. Francis and Sultan Malik al-Kamil.

St. Francis of Assisi, the saint whose life Catholics celebrate on this day, recognized the value in Islam’s conception of God, too, and found in it similarities with his own Christian faith. Shortly after his days-long dialogue with the leader of Egypt, Sultan Malik al-Kamil, whom he initially sought to convert to end the fighting between the Crusaders and Muslims, Francis wrote a litany, celebrating God’s many attributes. Unsurprisingly, it resembles the Islamic litany of God’s 99 names. The first attribute in the Islamic litany, and the last in Francis’, is “merciful.” This is no coincidence, as scholars of Francis’ life have noted.

Today is also an important day in Judaism. This evening, Jews are concluding their celebration of Yom Kippur, a solemn celebration of God’s mercy on humanity, despite our constant failures. On this special day, Christians, Muslims and Jews invoke our common God in their own ways. But those of each tradition can confidently call to God using this moving description I encountered in a Melkite (Greek Catholic) service in Jordan last Holy Week: “You, You whose mercy has no measure.”

Worship as gratitude; Shukr v. Kufr

A second theme in Islamic theology that has prompted much reflection is the Qur’an’s surprising and “radical contrast” between shukr and kufr. Shukr is “gratitude” or “thanksgiving,” while kufr is often defined as “denial” or “unbelief.” This may seem like a strange, illogical set of opposites at first, so let’s dig deeper.

Over the centuries, Islamic scholars and ordinary Muslims have used the term kufr to describe the lack of belief in the Islamic truth claims. The term has been used to draw a line between the Muslim community and non-Muslims. But, as contemporary scholars have noted, this interpretation often does to acknowledge the full meaning of the word as its used in the Qur’an. Kufr at its most basic level means to “cover”—the word even sounds like the English translation! In the Qur’an, kufr is used not as an opposite to iman (belief) but to shukr. One of many examples is Qur’an 2: 152: “And be grateful to Me and do not deny (takfiruna) Me.”

One of the places I'm grateful for.

One of the places I’m grateful for.

Eminent Anglican scholar Kenneth Cragg describes kufr as the “willful concealment” of the blessings of God, who creates and sustains humanity and all of His creation. God has imbued the world with many signs (ayat) meant to “alert us to reverence and thanksgiving,”[iii] and when we ignore these blessings and our God-createdness—often by disregarding the dignity of God’s creatures—we become kuffar (ungrateful disbelievers).

Thus, the Qur’an speaks of gratitude as worship: “You must worship God and be among the thankful” (Q.39:66).[iv] The Catholic Mass echoes this idea when, at the beginning of the most important ritual, the priest says: “It is right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks…”

Being grateful and worshiping God don’t just mean saying thank you and acknowledging God’s existence, but in caring for humanity and working to establish social justice. God says in the Qur’an: “Worship is…(showing) kindness to parents and to the near of kin, and orphans, and the needy, and the neighbor who is a kinsman and the neighbor who is not kinsman, and the fellow traveler and the wayfarer.” (Q. 4:36) The Qur’an, like the teaching of Jesus in the New Testament, measures a person’s religiosity not only by their beliefs but by the way they respect all of God’s creation.

The center of my life

The last bit of Islamic theology I’d like to highlight is one that a new friend, Scott Alexander, a Catholic scholar of Muslim-Christian relations, brought up during a recent conversation. Islam, like Christianity, is a monotheistic religion. This monotheism, which is distinct from that of Christianity by its rejection of the Incarnation and the Trinity, is described by the Arabic word tawhid. This word is sort of an umbrella term for a larger theological discussion about the nature of God, but what I want to focus on is a bit different. Again, we look to the Arabic language.

"There is no god but God." Did you know this is the same phrase that is one the flags of many Muslim-majority countries? And the flag of ISIS?

“There is no god but God.” Did you know this is the same phrase that is one the flags of many Muslim-majority countries? And the flag of ISIS?

The Arabic root of tawhid, w-h-d, means “one,” or “single.” But when put in this construction, (with a ta- prefix and a long “e” sound between the last two root letters) the meaning is affected. This construction, which students of Arabic will recognize as a Form II masdar, means “making one” or “unifying.” It is not a passive state of “being one” but something we do to God— making God one.

"The One." One of God's 99 names in the Islamic tradition.

“The One.” One of God’s 99 names in the Islamic tradition.

Monotheism isn’t just about acknowledging God’s oneness, but about putting God at the center of our lives. It is about living out this popular Catholic hymn: “You Lord, are the center of my life/I will always praise you, I will always bless you/ I will always keep you in my sight.” Tawhid is not so much a belief but something we undertake. Yom Kippur, Judaism’s most important feast, is a celebration of the Hebrew people’s turning away from—repenting—the worship of the golden calf, and fixing their eyes again on God.

Coming closer

Today’s feast of celebration and sacrifice for Jews, Christians, and Muslims is an opportunity for us to put God back at the center of our lives, to live out our monotheism in a way that honors God and humanity.

An Orthodox priest showing me the qurban (Eucharist) at an ancient church in Al-Salt, Jordan.

An Orthodox priest showing me the qurban (Eucharist) at an ancient church in Al-Salt, Jordan.

Muslims often call this feast, Eid al-Qurban. Qurban is another Semitic word for sacrifice and is used by all three religions. It is used in Hebrew to describe the burnt sacrifices offered by Jews, and for Syriac- and Arabic-speaking Christians, it refers to the Eucharist, the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. The term, from its root q-r-b, connotes “closeness,” “approaching,” and “nearness.” The ritual sacrifice of animals in the case of the ancient Jewish and contemporary Muslim traditions, and the sacrifice of Jesus—the Lamb of God—in the Christian tradition, all seek to atone for the sins of the community and bring the community closer to God.

Today’s world events seem defined by separation, alienation, and difference. Though charged with language about God, they make us feel distant from Him. So it is important today that we pray this prayer from the synagogue, from the monastery, and from Mecca:

“May this confluence of our feasts bring us together—closer to one another, and closer to You, You whose mercy has no measure.”

~~~

[i] To learn more about Eid al-Adha, check out my blog reflection from 2010.
[ii] To read more about God’s primary quality in Islam, check out My Mercy Encompasses All: The Koran’s Teachings on Compassion, Peace & Love.
[iii] Cragg, Kenneth. Christian Lives Given to the Study of Islam.
[iv] The famous Muslim feminist scholar, Amina Wudud, writes about gratitude here.

Neighbors, Aliens, & Enemies on the Anniversary of 9/11

How moved I was to stumble over these readings in the missal today, on the anniversary of 9/11. I share them here in the hopes that others will find them comforting, empowering, and challenging.

Radical Love

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Leviticus 19

“You shall treat the alien who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you.” Leviticus 19

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you; pray for those who mistreat you.” Luke 6

The Last Supper, by Sieger Koder

The Last Supper, by Sieger Koder

Human Dignity

“Truly, you have formed my inmost being;
You knit me in my mother’s womb.
I give thanks to you that I am fearfully, wonderfully made.”
Psalm 139: 13-14

The Fruits of Generosity

“Give and gifts will be given to you; a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing, will be poured into your lap.” Luke 6

Surrender, and The Washing of Feet, by Sieger Koder

Surrender, and The Washing of Feet, by Sieger Koder

Why I cried in Arabic class

Though the conflict in Syria is raging less than 50 miles away from my home in Amman and the effects of the war can be seen and felt in countless ways throughout the country, I have lacked much of any emotional reaction to the horrific humanitarian, cultural, and environmental destruction that is occurring just beyond Jordan’s northern border. I think this is a pretty natural human response, to become numb to news of the ‘same old’ tragedies we hear bits and pieces about everyday.

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The news of Fr. Frans van der Lugt’s assassination—and the emerging stories about his prophetic ministry and witness—is what shook me out of my emotional apathy about the Syrian conflict. It’s not Fr. Frans’ European background and white face that makes his death so striking. Rather, what makes his murder so salient is that despite his apparent otherness (and his opportunity to escape) he decided to accept the same fate as his adopted Syrian family, with whom he’d lived almost fifty years.

Martyr and missionary

Many people have already written essays about Fr. Frans, who “liked ice cream and Zen and hiking retreats with Mass and reflections.” Particularly moving pieces are “What Martrydom Means” and “A Man of Peace.” These accounts and remembrances describe a life of complete service of and total communion with the people of Syria. The more I read about this Jesuit missionary, the more I am convinced that he is a true example for our time, a modern day prophet who reminds us by his life and death of the complete self-giving Passion of our Savior.

He has been called “a martyr for interreligious dialogue.” He founded Al-Ard (which means, “The Land”), “an organization that cares for the mentally handicapped and provides one of the rare spaces where the three Abrahamic religions can come together and pray.” He was also famous for his eight-day maseer, a retreat/pilgrimage/hike, in which he led Christians and Muslims in Zen meditation. The Jesuits in Homs also hosted a social club and a bread baking operation for the needy.

What I hope to share here is a translation of an Arabic-language video Fr. Frans recorded, which I’ve translated into English with the help of my Arabic tutor. Fr. Frans recorded many of these videos, talking not only about the plight of his starving and wounded community, which has experienced a blockade for nearly two years. I chose to translate a video in which he describes the “communal” or “sharing” spirit of the Syrian people.

The translation is below. You can see the original video at this link. Notice how Fr. Frans continues chattering away as bombs drop incessantly nearby.

Hello! I want to talk to you about my experience with the Syrian people whom I love so much. I came to Syria in 1966 and I came to know the people through many activities and different fields. First through the schools, camping and hiking trips, and later I got to know them through psychological assistance, yoga and Zen Buddhist meditation, and through the ‘Ard Project (‘ard means “land” in Arabic), a countryside development program, and after that through the Spiritual Exercises, lectures, meetings with different groups, meetings with individuals, and visits to people. 

Thanks to this presence, I came to really love the Syrian people. I took part in beautiful things and I received the abundance and generosity of the people! Now we see a people who are really tormented, and with them I share in their treasure and in their sadness, their fear, their pain, and their death. The communion is about being present, connections, and closeness, and because of this I want to be in the heart of the people, until I move with you from hardship and loss to a new horizon—from fear to peace, sadness to joy, and death to life. I want to be with the people in the bosom of these circumstances even as we face together the labor pains, the passage, and the new birth.

If someone asks me, “Why do you love the Syrian people? What do you love in them?” I say “I love so many things about this people. Really beautiful qualities.” So I thought in these sessions (video clips) I will talk about “What do you find in the Syrian people that you like?” Today I want to talk a bit about the spirit of sharing and communion that exists in the heart of the Syria people. They like to share with others what they are living.

First we’ll look at what is around us [in our neighborhoods]. We see a mother in hard circumstances, she is cooking, but she doesn’t cook only for her own family. She is also thinking about others! After they eat they send half of the food to others, a gesture done without pretentiousness or condescension, and without feeling like “you owe me because of what I’ve given you.” No, with simplicity. 

The second thing is if we are taking a trip, and the people we meet are also living in hard circumstances and they don’t have much in the house. But we notice that they always keep something in the house for a guest. It is impossible not to give the guest something better than you what you have for yourself. They always give the guest the best of what they have. Sometimes on trips, they tell us about their pain and suffering, but always after the question they ask is, “And you, how are you?!” They love to share also the things that you are living! They can be at the peak of their own pain and still be open to the other and being together with them. 

We discover the willingness to share in our daily life, but we discovered this willingness even more in our trips and hikes outside! For example, [during a trip on foot,] we enter an orchard. And on our trips we do not allow our participants to take fruit from the trees. But sometimes, the owner of the orchard comes, and he invites us in sharing. He says: “A hundred welcomes! Here you go, young people! Eat! And a thousand ‘healths’ to you! The orchard is yours! The property is God’s [not mine].” He’s not annoyed that they ate his fruit, but he’s happy. He’s happy because he offered this opportunity to share, and he is happy to see them happy. He doesn’t think of money and he doesn’t count the cost, but he lives a partnership which is innate, brotherly, and unguarded, which flows like water from a spring. After they leave, he does not say “Thank God they left! I wish they’d never come or never been born!” No one in our society has this attitude. I’ve never heard anything like this.

For today, this is enough. We will continue talking about this sharing spirit of the Syrian people another time. 

The “Most Generous”

This Syrian spirit of generosity is not just one I learned listening to Fr. Frans’ accounts. I have also learned it from my tutor, who himself is Syrian—from Homs—and whose name means “the most generous” in Arabic. Every day I walk into class he offers me tea (which I usually accept) and he even helped my roommate and I find our current apartment. It’s thanks to him that I’ve progressed considerably in the spoken dialect, and he can’t be blamed for the fact that, like Fr. Frans, I still often mix up gender agreement of nouns and adjectives.

As we listened to and reflected on Fr. Frans’ poetic language about the Syrian people, my teacher began to share about the beautiful atmosphere of pre-war Homs. He lived much of his life in Homs, and his wife is from al-Hamidiyyeh, a Christian neighborhood famous for its charming and walkable streets. (The al-Hamidiyyeh neighborhood association is responsible for posting many of the videos of Fr. Frans.) Before the war, Homs had a vibrant culture of weekly concerts, plays, and outdoor activities. Fr. Frans was an active part of this community.

A number of years ago, my tutor and his wife attended a youth performance of Hamlet. This adaptation of the play was modern and comical, and following the show Fr. Frans delivered a lecture on the philosophy of theatre. This was my tutor’s only encounter with Fr. Frans, but he, like the rest of the city, was aware of this saintly man and his perpetual optimism. My teacher’s former neighbor in Homs knew Fr. Frans quite well, and felt he was like a father or close friend.

A misty mystery

I don’t know what exactly brought tears to my eyes, but the combination of the beautiful culture and its tragic loss; the foreign sound of bombs and the familiar sound of Shami Arabic; and the human goodness that somehow persists in the midst of evil made a lump rise in my throat. I looked over and noticed that my teacher was fighting back tears, too.

Since encountering Fr. Frans, the Syrian people, and what they have to teach us about generosity, solidarity, and communion, the tears I lacked before have started flowing more freely. I find myself crying in anger and sadness because the injustice and pain that seem unending. And I find myself crying in hope and joy because people like Fr. Frans and my tutor exist.

And I anticipate that I’ll continue crying throughout this week, this Holy Week that somehow affirms and gathers up these conflicting feelings. During the next seven days, we are invited into this paradox of tears, a place where we cannot discern whether our emotion is due to sadness or joy, death or life. The Paschal mystery of Christ’s Passion, death, and resurrection tells us that these opposites actually go hand in hand.

But this mystery also teaches us the most important lesson of our faith, which an Arabic saying captures so strikingly. That, in the end, regardless of death and sin’s pervasive power, “still, the world is good.”

Thank you Fr. Frans, and you, my Most Generous teacher, for reminding me that the blockade will be lifted, that the stone will be rolled away, and that what appears to defeat is in fact the means for everlasting life.

We are preparing ourselves to Easter, reflecting on crossing from death to resurrection. We feel like we are in the valley of the shadows, but we can see that light far away, leading us to life again…We hope that Syria experience resurrection soon again… and let’s move forward. –Fr. Frans

 

Christus Paradox: Reflections on “Of Gods and Men”

You shouldn’t read this blog post.  At least not until you see the film, “Of Gods and Men.”

Really, stop now if you intend to watch it and don’t want me to spoil it for you.

Click here to watch the trailer.

Click here to watch the trailer.

The movie tells the true story of French monks living in the hills of Algeria during the civil war in the 1990s. These Catholic men worked simply alongside their Muslim neighbors, responding to medical needs and providing other basic services. Wanting to push foreigners out, both the government forces and rebel groups threatened the monastic community, but the priests chose to stay—and ultimately lost their lives because of it.

The film is at once hopeful and tragic, peaceful and terrifying.  The moments of beauty and solidarity are just as heartbreaking as those of brutality and fear.  Some of my favorite scenes in “Of Gods and Men” take place on Christmas, and that’s why it seems appropriate for me to write about this film now, as the holiday is upon us.

“Of Gods and Men,” which might just be my favorite movie, has helped me rediscover—or even recognize for the first time—some important lessons about the Incarnation (God becoming human in the person of Jesus) that many of us may often miss.

“A happy night in Palestine”

In the slanted afternoon light of Christmas Eve, an old monk named Celestin hobbles around the chapel of the Tibhirine monastery, organizing candles for the evening Mass.  He cheerily sings this hymn under his breath:

God has prepared the earth
like a cradle
for His coming from above.
This is the night,
the happy night in Palestine.
And nothing exists except the child,
except the child of life Divine.
By taking flesh of our flesh,
God our desert did refresh
and made a land of boundless spring.

Celestin’s joyous anticipation of the birth of Jesus reflects the Christian attitude we expect during the season. It is only natural for us to be happy as we welcome our Salvation, the God who took on flesh to dwell among us—as a little baby.

This point (that God came to us not through military strength or kingship, as was expected, but instead through poverty and childhood) is not missed by the monks.  Processing into the dark chapel to begin the Christmas service, the monks sing this hymn, and the youngest monk, Christophe, gently places a figurine of the newborn Jesus into the manger scene.

To listen to the hymn and watch the clip, click here.

To listen to the hymn and watch the clip, click here.

This gesture, and the hymn that the monks sing together in unison, is a reminder of the humility and vulnerability that characterize Christmas.  Often, we become so accustomed to the story of Jesus’ birth that we hardly recognize the very powerful lesson it tells us about the way God works: not through massive displays of power, but through the simplicity and poverty of His creation.

The holiday of Christmas, the monks help us realize, is an acknowledgement that God’s kingdom of peace, justice, and love will be achieved in very unexpected ways, by and through people about whom we usually don’t give a second thought. Born to a stigmatized mother in a forgotten town, his life threatened by a power-hungry king, Jesus was the definition of “marginalized.”  Most people didn’t care about him, and those that did wanted him dead. Yet, it was he who became the most important bearer of God’s transformative love. No wonder the monks exude an aura of awe as they sing quietly in dim candlelight.

“Take new lodgings in my heart”

The monks understand quite well, however, that the Incarnation is not simply a one-time event that happened two thousand years ago. It is also a cosmic mystery (a faith-filled assertion that God imbues all of creation and can be known in this world) that must be embodied and internalized by humanity.

Sitting around their meeting table a few weeks after Christmas, the monks discuss whether or not to flee Algeria, to escape the violence engulfing the country.  The abbot of the monastery, Christian, reflects on the events that occurred directly before their Christmas Mass, when armed terrorists stormed the compound, looking for medicine to heal their wounded comrades.  The encounter had shaken the priests, and woke them up to their own vulnerability and defenselessness. Christian explains to his fellow monks that the way to respond to the violence they face is by participating in the Incarnation:

I’ve often thought of that time … that time when Ali Fayattia and his men left.  Once they were gone, all we had left to do was to live.  And the first thing we did was … two hours later … we celebrated the Christmas Vigil and Mass.  It’s what we had to do.  It’s what we did.
 
And we sang the Mass.  We welcomed that child who was born for us … absolutely helpless and … and already so threatened.
 
Afterwards, we found salvation in undertaking our daily tasks.  The kitchen, the garden, the prayers, the bells.  Day after day. We had to resist the violence.  And day after day, I think each of us discovered that to which Jesus Christ beckons us. 
 
It’s to be born.  Our identities as men go from one birth to another.  And from birth to birth, we’ll each end up bringing to the world the child of God that we are.  The Incarnation, for us, is to allow the filial reality of Jesus to embody itself in our humanity.
 
The mystery of the Incarnation remains what we are going to live.  In this way, what we’ve already lived here takes root … as well as what we’re going to live in the future.

Christian reminds us that the Incarnation is not fully achieved if we don’t allow the mystery to unfold in our own ordinary activities.  By recognizing that God is born within us and in all creation, we naturally begin to live differently.  We more consciously try to embody the traits exhibited by the child, Jesus: his trust and humility.

Christian among the townspeople.

Christian among the townspeople.

Christian’s speech reflects the sentiment of one of my new favorite Advent songs, “The Dream Isaiah Saw.”  I can imagine the monks of Tibhirine praying these words, as I have done during the last few weeks:

Little child whose bed is straw,
Take new lodgings in my heart.
Bring the dream Isaiah saw:
Life redeemed from fang and claw.

“We do not see your face”

When we celebrate Christmas, we tend to feel joyful as Celestin did, ignoring the heavy stuff and leaving it for the solemn, rainy months of Lent. Jesus’ suffering and death seem far from our minds. Even if we do acknowledge the “fang and claw” that characterized Jesus’ time on earth and still plague our world, we perceive Jesus’ Incarnation as an event that somehow makes all that misery and pain go away.

But the monks help us understand that Jesus’ suffering—and our own—is inextricably linked with Christmas, a fact that we are no doubt more aware of this year, as we still contemplate the horror of the Sandy Hook massacre and violence against children.

As they finish the Christmas Eve hymn in the fading candlelight, the monks’ chant takes on a somber tone:

Listen to the hymn and watch the scene here.

Listen to the hymn and watch the scene here.

This is the night,
the long night in which we grope,
and nothing exists except this place,
except this place of ruined hope.
By stopping in our adobe,
God, as with the bush, did forebode
the world on which fire would fall.

Jesus’ eventual suffering always lingers in the background of his birth.  As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat expresses so beautifully in a piece about the school shooting and Christmas, “the rage of Herod is there as well, and the slaughtered innocents of Bethlehem, and the myrrh that prepares bodies for the grave. The cross looms behind the stable — the shadow of violence, agony and death.”

The Incarnation is not about ridding the world of suffering. Instead, it’s about solidarity, about staying.

God became human to share in our pain, to struggle alongside us. God embraced our vulnerability and weakness in order to be intimately close to us. To me, that’s a much more powerful, loving action than if God, from a high seat in Heaven, simply improved our humanly affairs without actually engaging in them.

The monks knew that living the Incarnation was most importantly about solidarity, even if it meant their eventual death.  They, like Jesus in the desert, were tempted to save themselves and leave behind the poor and marginalized they’d come to love. But ultimately they made the hard choice to stay.

By deciding to remain in Algeria, the monks didn’t choose “dying” over “living.” They simply decided to finish the work God had called them to do, with the understanding that either their living or their dying would be done in the service of God.

They, like Jesus, didn’t seek out death. Jesus didn’t say, “Ok, it’s time to die! Now someone find me a cross!” Rather, he remained with the people, loving them in a radically simple way, for as long as he could.  As we see in the Gospels, Jesus did the will of the Father, whether that led him to walk down with Mary Magdalene in the valleys of Galilee or up the rocky mountain to Calvary.  His living and dying were offered up equally to God.

Christophe in prayer.

Christophe in prayer.

Jesus’ example of self-sacrificing solidarity, and his call for us to emulate it, can be a hard thing for us to swallow. We, like Christophe, whisper to the darkness, “I’m afraid! Help me…”  We wonder if God is truly good, if He allows us to face such uncertainty and struggle.

Douthat again offers some wisdom that we, and Christophe, may be comforted by: The New Testament… seeks to establish God’s goodness through a narrative rather than an argument, a revelation of his solidarity with human struggle rather than a philosophical proof of his benevolence.”

Douthat, and our whole Christian faith for that matter, argues that the experience of suffering does not imply God’s absence, and it is not an indication that God is not “good.”

Instead, we know that God is good because God is Emmanuel. Because God is with us, just as He is with Christian, who walks along the water and is brought to tears by the recollection of this hymn:

We do not know your mystery,
Infinite Love,
but You do have a heart,
for You seek the Prodigal son
and hold against Your breast
the troublesome child,
which is the world of mortals.
 
We do not see your face,
Infinite Love,
but You do have eyes,
for You see through the oppressed,
and look upon us
with a shining gaze…

Merry Christmas.

*Special thanks to a good friend and numerous Jesuits who helped me to reflect on the wisdom of this film.

T

The title of this post comes from another of my favorite songs, Christus Paradox, which also inspired points I made in this post.