Of Gods and Men

What does it mean to commit yourself to the monastic life? What does it do to your soul to vow to live with poverty, all your life in one monastery, and serve the community that lives around it, even at the possibility of a violent death? These are themes explored in Xavier Beauvois’s French film Of Gods and Men (Des Hommes et Des Deux; 2010), based on true events in 1996.

Algeria is a traditionally Muslim country but with its colonisation by France, various Christian groups also settled their. The purpose of establishing monasteries in a non-Christian country was to live a life of worship, and uphold the example of Jesus even in a land where the natives belong to another religion. There was no effort to convert the natives to Christianity. In fact, the monks respected Islam as an authentic spiritual path, learnt Arabic, and studied the Quran. God had revealed himself in two forms, among others, and that both forms may co-exist in the same space is a moment of his glory, they believed. It is one of the higher activities of the spiritual life to engage in dialogue with followers of other paths to God. With this perspective, the monastery called Our Lady of Atlas (Notre Dame d’Atlas) was established in Tibhirine, Algeria in 1938.

The monastery of Our Lady of Atlas

The monastery of Our Lady of Atlas

Of Gods and Men begins in 1996, and shows us that the small monastic group of eight at Our Lady of Atlas – all originally from France – are a central part of the life of the village. They are invited to attend the village’s important events – a wedding, or worship on a particularly sacred day in the Islamic calendar. The monks quietly and respectfully listen as the Quran is recited, participating in the sacred events of the community. The community loves the monks as their own. One of the monks – a doctor – provides free consultations and medicines to the villagers, regardless of religion. He also helps orphans financially. Others read out letters that the uneducated cannot read. Yet others provide sound advice on affairs of the heart. The monks also cultivate the land collectively with the villagers, sharing their knowledge of farming. Perhaps most importantly, although this is not shown in the film, they engage with the Sufis in the neighbouring areas, sharing and exploring their spiritual beliefs and practices. In this, they develop the Catholic Church’s mission to engage with other religions as the various paths that have been formed in the history of the ‘salvation of man’.

And then, suddenly, there is violence. We see a group of Muslim terrorists emerge in the area. They are in conflict with France, where they have possibly been involved in terrorist attacks. The terrorists do not want any foreigners to live in Algeria, and we see them slit the throat of a Croatian man as he is trying to do business with the locals. The monks are afraid. The government suggests that they return to France.

Within them, there is no consensus. Some believe that it is more important to be in a safe place. Others, that it is more important to live the lives they have committed themselves to – the monastery is a space dedicated to God, it is a space that is dedicated to uphold the sacred, no matter what happens. Fear should not drive out its inhabitants. Further, the villagers need the monks – for the care that the government is not able to provide, and for emotional and spiritual support. Death is to come one day – inevitably. So what if it comes violently, as long as it comes while one is living up to the commitments of one’s life? As one of them puts it – Islam is the soul, the nation of Algeria the body. The monastery of Our Lady of Atlas must continue to live on in dialogue with the world of Islam around it – both spiritual Islam and violent Islam, and not escape it to safer realms.

Long days of tension follow. The violence of the terrorists in the nearby areas is on the rise. The Abbot of the monastery, Father Christian, is in a particularly strenuous position. Christian is a man with a deep sense of commitment. We see long, quiet scenes of him walking in the beautiful forests and hills of the Atlas range, and then sitting down on a rock, praying to God for an answer. When the terrorists meet him, he quotes to them from the Quran verses of peace and unity in worship.

Father Christian Chergé

Father Christian Chergé

The younger monks tend to question their vocation as monks, wondering if this is what they wanted their lives to be. The aged ones are sure that they will not spend their last years away from the space they have dedicated their lives to. Finally, they all decide that they are going to stay. When you become a monk, after a novitiate lasting several years, you vow to live in the monastery for the rest of his life. It is not a vow to be broken by fear.

A few days later, the terrorists enter the monastery in the middle of the night and abduct the monks.  They demand that the French government frees one of their men, or they would kill the monks. The French government refuses. One week later, the heads of the monks are found, but not their bodies. The last scene of the film, a long scene, shows the monks being led by the terrorists to an unknown location, the ground covered with thick snow, and it snows further, leaving the frame misty and beautiful. A voice-over reads a note left by Father Christian Chergé, the Abbot:

“Should it ever befall me, and it could happen today, to be a victim of the terrorism swallowing up all foreigners here, I would like my community, my church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to this country. That the Unique Master of all life was no stranger to this brutal departure. And that my death is the same as so many other violent ones, consigned to the apathy of oblivion. I’ve lived enough to know, I am complicit in the evil that, alas, prevails over the world and the evil that will smite me blindly. I could never desire such a death… And I know how Islam is distorted by certain Islamism. This country, and Islam, for me are something different. They’re a body and a soul. My death, of course, will quickly vindicate those who call me naïve or idealistic, but they must know that I will be freed of a burning curiosity and, God willing, will immerse my gaze in the Father’s and contemplate with him his children of Islam as he sees them.

This thank you which encompasses my entire life includes you, of course, friends of yesterday and today, and you too, friend of the last minute, who knew not what you were doing. Yes, to you as well I address this thank you and this farewell which you envisaged. May we meet again, happy thieves in Paradise, if it pleases God the Father of us both. Amen. Insha’Allah.” 

Based on a true story, Of Gods and Men is a slow, quiet but powerful film about the monastic life and its commitments which won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010. Anyone interested in the spiritual life will be deeply satisfied watching it.

The film is titled after, and opens with, a quote from Psalm 81:

“I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High. But ye shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes.”

The monks of Tibhirine

The monks of Tibhirine

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~ by tdcatss on December 5, 2012.

3 Responses to “Of Gods and Men”

  1. Awesome, man. Would love watching the movies you watch.

  2. What a wonderful look at this movie, Kaif. Thank you!

  3. abhilash, thanks :).. you can download the torrent !

    thank you debbie. i’m sure you will like the movie.

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