Monday, December 26, 2011

Of Gods and Men

"I didn't become a monk to be a martyr."
"You've already given your life. You gave it by following Christ."
This movie is about faith and doubt. It's also one of the most suspensful movies I saw this year, even when the outcome was never in question.
The plot concerns a group of Trappist monks living in Algeria in 1996. Islamist extremists are terrorizing the surrounding villages, the army is either powerless to stop them or complicit, we are never certain. The powers-that-be want the monks to leave, or at least accept their 'protection' at the monastery. Father Christian, the abbot, puts it to a vote. He asks them if they should leave or if they believe they have been called by God to this place to do a particular work and accept whatever fate may befall them, not to be heroic, but to be faithful. Willingness and want are to different things. No one wants to die for their cause. Even Christ prayed in Gethsemane to not have to endure the Passion:
He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him.
"yet not my will, but yours be done." just as he instructs in what's come to be known as The Lord's Prayer, "your will be done". Its one of the hardest parts of the life of Christian faith, to say or pray those words and truly mean it. To give up one's own will to God, not knowing what his will actually is and if it lines up with yourself. But it is required. It is the only way. Father Christian learns that his attempt to impose what he sees as God's will is not the same as allowing the brothers the chance to reflect and come to such a place for themselves if they are indeed to face what is to come willingly and with resolve.

One way the film projects thematic material is through passages of the monks chanting/singing. Its entirely possible that they sing/chant these words regularly, but the situation in which they are now placed gives them a new prism through which to reflect on the words.

Also, the narrative about encroaching Islamic extremism is naturally topical for the world today. Quoting at length from Andrew Sullivan:
There is a Christmas scene in which local Jihadists assault the monastery and demand medicines. Christian insists that he will not speak with anyone with weapons inside the monastery walls. This is a place of peace he insists. He is unarmed and defenseless but his manifest integrity disarms the thugs temporarily.

And outside, he calls the Jihadist leader's bluff by knowing the real Koran as well as he does. The name of Jesus literally defuses the conflict. This is the moment of hope here - before darkness descends again: a mutual Muslim and Christian reverence for Jesus. From that moment on, the monks' faltering, doubt-riddled, fear-ridden, gradual decision to risk martyrdom rather than compromise their faith seems to come from almost outside of them, beyond them.
Here's a great vlog review by Father James Martin for PBS:

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