Reflecting on 21 Centuries of Faith

The Song of the Martyrs

This Saturday my wife and I viewed the movie, Of Gods and Men. For those who are unaware, the basic premise of the movie/documentary is that:

Under threat by fundamentalist terrorists, a group of Trappist monks stationed with an impoverished Algerian community must decide whether to leave or stay. (Source: IMDB)

The movie was outstanding. It portrayed the deep inner-struggle and triumph of each of the Trappists as they individually and corporately made the decision to remain at the monastery under the constant threat of death. As the conflict with the terrorists and the army continued, it became very clear that the death of the monks were inevitable.

For those who know little about the Cistercians of the Strict Observance, or Trappists as they are better known, they are monks who life a live of prayer and work according to a strict observance of the Benedictine Rule. Foundational to the rule is that they enter the monastery to lose ones self only to recover it living in community. In this way, they will be perfected by the community.

To me, the deciding moment in the movie was when the Abbot and a brother monk were meeting with the local village leaders (Muslim). During the conversation, the monks mentioned that they may be leaving using the allusion that they were birds on a branch – always ready to continue on their journey. At this point, one of the village leaders spoke up and said,

You are the branch, we are the birds.

This moment was deafening. It became clear that the non-Catholic village existed because of the presence and stability of the monastery. The monastery were the life-source for the region. As each of the characters developed, we discovered their deep abiding love for the Lord of love.

In every movie, I am always looking for that thread which keeps the unity of the movie and provides a tether for the sequential events. The golden thread in Of Gods and Men was provided in a most masterful way by the Director, Xavier Beauvois. To see the thread we need to understand that the core of the movie was the deep emotional and spiritual struggle of the individual and the community dealing with the reality of death. They each had to face their inner-most fears and desires. Like all of us,

From the abundance of the heart does the mouth speak. (Matthew 12:34)

As the movie unfolds, we witness the evolving single-mindedness of the community. What was so masterful was how it demonstrated the unity. This evolving unity was demonstrated through their chant.

Time throughout the movie was shown through the chant and liturgies. At the beginning of the movie, while the chant was beautiful, there was an evident dissonance in the chant (You figure that there is always one with a bad voice right?). But, by the end of the movie, when all the monks had freely chosen to stay and wrestled through their own spiritual dark night of the soul, the chant resounded with such harmonious beauty it brought to my mind Psalms 133:1:

Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!

Fr. Basil Cole, OP in his book on Music and Morals says that you can discern the health of a society by its music – especially of the youth. The same could be said of chant and monks.

Additionally, Beauvois did a fantastic job of weaving a parallel story of the life of Christ while telling the story of these martyr-monks. Their final meal was taken together with bread and wine, somewhat picturesque of Divinci’s Last Supper but without Judas. IN the background was teh last movement of Swan Lake. Amidst their tears, for they knew what was coming, were smiles of joy because they were together. Then, in the middle of the night, they were arrested and taken away. They were forced to identify who they were and in the morning, like our Lord, were led up a hill journeying to their own personal Calvary). It also did not escape my attention my attention that they were walking through snow even though they were executed in May. The Scripture that came to mind was,

Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. (Isaiah 1:18)

I hope this movie was an accurate account of the life of these monks. If it is, I believe we will see a martyr canonization in our future. There is much more but I refuse to ruin the movie for you.

I would highly recommend this movie as a phenomenal Lenten meditation. Absolutely glorious!

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