Monthly Archives: May 2011

St. Anastasia Book Club: The Monks of Tibhirine: Faith, Love and Terror in Algeria


We picked this book to read for April for the St. Anastasia Book Club mostly because I had just seen the movie “Of Gods and Men,” which was excellent. The book is great for giving additional information to support the movie. It spends a lot of time speaking of the political atmosphere in Algeria, of the various factions and of the religious aspect to the conflict. This made for some dry reading, but it was useful, if you were looking for a comprehensive understanding of the situation the monks were in.

Personally, I wasn’t as interested in that part so much as the lives of the monks themselves. While the majority of the attention seemed to be on Christian, the elected prior, each of the monks was revealed in the book. By the end, you really knew them: their personalities, likes, struggles, and a little bit of what Tibhirine and the Islamic community around them meant to them.

Throughout the book were passages which are worthy of copying down and praying with. The lives of these monks teach us so much about community, love, living the faith, dealing with people with different viewpoints with love, and courage.

The book was well-written in that it showed these men as real people: not paragons of virtue, but men with strengths and faults. I think it is precisely in the accurateness of their presentation that we can come to identify with them and learn from them. They did not present an unattainable ideal, but a very human response to the world around them. An excerpt written by Paul, one of the monks, states this beautifully, “A monk is simply a sinner who joins a community of sinners who are confident in God’s mercy and who strive to recognize their weaknesses in the presence of their brothers.”

Below, I’ll quote some of the passages I found particularly inspiring. I’m sorry that I don’t have page numbers for you, as I read the e-book, but if you have the Amazon Kindle version, I’ll cite the location code.

Christian obedience required intelligence and discernment; it could not be simply mechanical. It was never permitted a Christian to commit an evil act, even if commanded to do so by a superior. (1252-55)

How important is this for us to remember, especially as Catholics whose liturgies, with minor deviations, follow a certain formula. It is easy for our participation in Mass, and even our prayers and devotions, to become rote and mechanical — lacking in true feeling and the engagement of our spirit. How necessary is it that we focus and really pay attention to what it is that we are doing.

Old and New Testament…. It’s like a set of teeth. You need the uppers and the lowers or you can’t chew. We can never be content to read a text in isolation, but only within the total context…which is the only hope for understanding the word of God. We need to search for the truth that comes from living, from meeting people, and from love—truths that bring us forward, not those that just titillate the intellect.” (1770-71)

They believed that preaching, education, social work, and good example were the best medicine, the way of da’wa. Da’wa stimulates and promotes regeneration from within by instructing Islamic morality, respect for Islam, and good behavior. (2014-15)

Christian understood perfectly well the importance of the violence in the psalms. He called them a cry that says, “God be just, so I don’t take justice into my own hands. I know I can’t be just when I am angry.” The psalms reminded him of the violence in himself, something he believed was at the core of every person. Nevertheless, Christian thought it was insensitive to be singing psalms of violence when violence was increasing all around them. (2078)

God’s law is not an à la carte menu from which to choose the easy bits, or the agreeable portions. All of it must be consumed, chewed over, and digested. The Koran has a literal meaning and an inner meaning. True understanding, the Prophet said, comes only from grasping both. (2368-70)

With the help of divine inspiration, a scholar of the law will discover the harmony that exists between the ambiguous and the clear. And this will serve to strengthen his faith further. For it is only through study, reflection, and prayer of the heart that one can attain knowledge of God and His unity. (2444-60)

I love this: “prayer of the heart.” It has been pointed out to me that studying faith without having faith yourself is merely “religious studies.” If you truly want to be a theologian, you must live the faith. Mind, body and soul. There is no disunity in the Body of Christ.

My favorite:
“Let’s talk about the cross,” the Sufi said.
“Which one?” I asked him.
“The cross of Jesus, obviously.”
“Yes, but which? When you look at the cross, you see an image of Jesus—but how many crosses do you see?”
“Perhaps three, certainly two,” the Sufi replied, thinking a bit.
“There is one in front and one behind.”
“Which comes from God?” I asked him.
“The one in front,” he said.
“Which comes from men?”
“The one behind.”
“Which is the oldest?”
“The one in front…. God had to create the first one before man could make the second one.”
“What is the meaning of the cross in front, of the man with his arms extended?”
“When I extend my arms, he said, “its for embracing, for loving.”
“And the other?” I asked.
“The other cross is an instrument of hatred, for disfiguring love.”
“My Sufi friend had said, “Perhaps three.” This third cross—isn’t it perhaps he and I and this common effort we are making to loosen ourselves from the cross of evil and sin behind, so we can bind ourselves to the cross of love in front? Isn’t this just what is happening when a Jew, Yitzhak Rabin and a Muslim, Yasir Arafat, yesterday committed themselves by their revolutionary handshake to renounce finally the sword and to plow together in peace the hard soil they share? Isn’t that gesture, the struggle of moving from hatred toward love, a third cross?” (2497)

This was just beautiful. I don’t think I’ll be able to look at a crucifix in quite the same way again. I don’t think that this in any way should lessen our reverence for the cross [thinking of the way we kiss the wood of the cross during Good Friday devotions], but rather be thankful for it. God was there for us all along, with His arms outstretched, waiting for us to walk into the embrace which was being freely offered to us. However, we were unable to see His posture of love until the cross brought this into relief. It is because of the cross that we are able to see the love of God.

“If it should happen one day, and that could be tomorrow, that I am a victim of the terrorism which seems now to be engulfing all the foreigners living in Algeria, I would like my community, my church, and my family to remember that I gave my life for God and this country.” (2533-37)

When Christian read about Attia in the Algerian press, he decided to become his intercessor. “I felt I was my brother’s keeper, even of the brother in front of me that night. As his keeper, I should be able to find in him more than that which he had become.” At a retreat in Algiers, Christian gave three reasons to justify his intervention before the final judge: “He didn’t slit our throats; he came outside when I asked him and then didn’t return for Luc even when he was wounded; thirdly, he excused himself when I told him he was disturbing our celebration of the birth of the Prince of Peace.” (2785-91)

What a way to love one’s enemies! In this, Christian isn’t even “loving one’s enemy,” but truly seeing that enemy as not an enemy at all, but a brother.

Christian understood this difficulty with forgiveness. He and Christophe thought much alike. Yet he was upset when he was told by the wali that the bodies of some of the terrorists had been dragged by Jeeps through the streets of Medea. The wali defended the exhibition of the bodies. The terrorists were “filthy beasts.” Christian reproached him. With that kind of thinking, he said, the cycle of violence would never be broken. The wali’s remark was a wound that went to the heart of Christian’s faith. All men are created in God’s image. God is present in all his children, including killers. It is never too late for his children to come home, to become infants of God. Without gratuitous love, the bloody engine of reciprocal murder would never stop. (2791-92)

Without a belief in God’s presence in all his creatures, no matter how dim the spark might seem, men lose their humanity. (2815)

Amen! Just see what is happening in our culture with its widespread secularization.

“What holds us here is not our Christian values, but the relationship to Christ,” (2823-24)

You pulled me out of the grave in order to live by You, with You, and in You. You, Your care, Your anxiety, Your agony—that is now ours.” (2825-26)

“The concept of total war is not Islam. Islam says you can kill only those who threaten you. You never kill women, children, or religious people unless they are themselves in combat.” (3044-46)

I think we need to keep this in mind. There are a lot of people who are quick to demonize all Muslims for the transgressions of a few, who may not be living out the Islamic faith as it is meant to be lived. They cause scandal by their actions. As Catholics, we are far too often guilty of this ourselves. There are many times where our example, our lives, are not consonant with the teachings of the Church and we too give scandal and give a bad impression of what it means to be a Catholic.

“Men never do evil as thoroughly or as joyfully as when they do it in the name of God.” (3511-12, quoting Thomas Merton)

Pride, rearing its ugly head.

How far does one go to save his skin without running the risk of losing his soul? (3536-37)

Would that this passage stay with me during all the times of trial in my life.

when I recognize my weakness, I can accept that of others, and see a way for me to imitate Christ. (3667-68)

Merton’s famous description of monks: “trees that exist in obscure silence, but by their presence purify the air.” (3861-97)

Christian then described the five pillars of behavior that must be practiced daily to have peace. He began with patience. Saint Benedict had explained its importance: Inside the monastic enclosure, persevering in their calling until death, monks participate through their patience in the sufferings of Christ.” “There is no word for martyr in the Trappist constitution,” Christian elaborated, “nor reference to a bloody death. There is only the demand for patience and endurance in living each day.” After the Christmas visit by the montagnards, Cardinal Duval had counseled Christian with one word—la Constance—“perseverance.” Poverty was the second pillar. “The future belongs to God, not to us. Man does not have the imagination of God, so when we think of the future, we think of it as being like the past.” To want to imagine the future is only wishful thinking. Christian reminded his listeners that, in the Old Testament, God provided the Israelites with manna each day. But if they tried to gather more than they needed, storing it up for the next day, they found that it spoiled. “The future is like a tunnel. You can’t see anything inside, and only a fool would expect it to look the same upon exiting as upon entering it. When it comes to recruiting for our monastery today, we have no one to approach in Algeria. And among the people, whom are we going to ask? We must simply let the Spirit do its work and fish for souls. That is what I call poverty—to have need only for that which You have always given me.” Christian’s third pillar was presence. God is in all his children, and when one kills another, one kills the image of God. In every human being, there is something eternal, something more than a homicidal act. “This is why I cannot kill myself,” Christian recalled the words of the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, whom he admired. “Morality entered the world by the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ The first words a person’s face says to another is, respect me. Killing can take different forms, as all who live in a community know. A contemptuous attitude, a wounding word, phrases that assassinate are other ways to kill.” Christian reminded his audience of John’s words: He who hates his brother is a murderer. “Each person must ask, ‘Have I eradicated all forms of hatred from my heart?’ We cannot live in this country today, wishing for peace, if we don’t go to this extreme of removing hatred from ourselves…and no one can say he has done this. “When I approach my neighbor, I also become his guardian, which means to become his hostage. Justice begins with the other. Take the case of Sayah Attia. I was not only the guardian of my brothers in the monastery but his guardian, too, of this man who stood opposite me and who should have been able to discover within himself something more than what he had become. I think this happened in some small measure, to the degree that he gave way that night, or made an effort to understand me. People say these types are disgusting animals, they are not human, and that you can’t deal with them. I say that if we talk like that, there will never be peace.” Prayer is the fourth pillar. “Do we pray enough for one another, for all people without any limits?” Christian asked. “Saint Paul wrote in Romans, In trying times, persevere in prayer…. We could not keep going if we did not pray and, in our prayers, seek to rid ourselves of the spirit of violence, prejudice, and rejection within us. After the episode with Attia, I wanted to pray for him. What should I pray to God? ‘Kill him?’ No, but I could pray, ‘Disarm him.’ But then I asked myself, Do I have the right to ask God to disarm him if I don’t begin by asking, ‘Disarm me, disarm my brothers.’ That was my prayer each day.” Finally, he spoke of that all-important word, forgiveness. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. We must dig into ourselves to follow the path of forgiveness…to rid ourselves of the tendency to want to choose one side or the other, to give a prize for good and evil—yes, we monks have this instinct, too. So we called the terrorists the “brothers of the mountain” and the army “the brothers of the plain.” The terms are useful for talking on the phone, but it was also a way of maintaining an open, fraternal spirit toward all sides. Coincidentally, Forgiveness is the first name for God in the Muslim litany of ninety-nine names for the divine—Ar Rahman. And the last is Patience—Es Sabur. But God is also poverty, God is presence, and God is prayer. This is the peace that God gives us. It is not as the world gives it.” (4140-42)

On Sunday, May 26, forty thousand churches throughout France tolled their bells for the monks. It was the first time since Pope John Paul I died in 1978 that such a countrywide commemoration had occurred. (4400-4401)

The caskets were placed beside their respective graves. Each one had been dug by people from the village, who had swept the dirt and tidied up the area in preparation for receiving their babas. (4401)

This is a photo of the graves of the kidnapped and murdered monks.