The Martyrs of Atlas

Here’s a film appropriate to see in Holy Week.  Of Gods and Men (Des hommes et des dieux) is based upon the true story of the martyrs of Atlas, a group of nine Cistercian monks living in Algiers linked in deep friendship with the Moslem villagers surrounding the monastery. Seven of the monks were kidnapped by terrorists during the Algerian civil war in 1996. (Although we don’t see what happened to them, they were beheaded, either by the terrorists before or after a failed rescue attempt by the Algerian government in which the monks may have been accidentally killed.)

As foreigners are targeted and danger increases, the French monks must come to a consensus about whether to stay, whether to go back to France, whether to split up – some stay, some go. The government urges them to leave. The villagers, however, are dependant upon them.  The terrorists themselves want their medical expertise and supplies. The viewer is let in on the soul-wrestling of brother Christophe in particular, cursing, weeping during nights of prayer, and finally emerging transfigured with a calm joy. 

There’s no soundtrack to manipulate your feelings. But there is chant – the monk’s exquisite chant. And in one scene, during a sort of “last supper,” Brother Luc brings out bottles of wine and then plays a cassette tape of the dying swan theme from Swan Lake while the brothers contemplate both their unity of purpose and witness in the face of possible martyrdom, without saying a word.

I saw the film twice in one week – once with two Holy Cross brothers in Santa Barbara, and two days later with participants in the retreat I was leading there. I’d love to see it again. Here’s a trailer for the film:

The prior of the monastery wrote the following letter, forgiving ahead of time his murderers. Portions of it are quoted in the film. It’s worth contemplating lovingly.

 Testament of Dom Christian De Cherge, OCSO

This testament was composed by Dom Christian de Cherge in Algiers, December 1, 1993 and produced in Tibhirine, January 1, 1994. It was opened on Pentecost Sunday, 1996, shortly after Dom Christian and others of his Trappist community were murdered in Algeria.

If it should happen one day—and it could be today—that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to encompass all the foreigners in Algeria, I would like my community, my Church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to this country. To accept that the One Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure. I would like them to pray for me: how worthy would I be found of such an offering?

I would like them to be able to associate this death with so many other equally violent ones allowed to fall into the indifference of 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 share in the evil which seems, alas, to prevail in the world, and even in that which would strike me blindly. I should like, when the time comes, to have a space of lucidity which would enable 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 to me important to state this. I don’t see, in fact, how I could rejoice if the people I love were indiscriminately accused of my murder. It would be too high a price to pay for what will be called, perhaps, the “grace of martyrdom” to owe this to an Algerian, whoever he may be, especially if he says he is acting in fidelity to what he believes to be Islam.

I know the contempt in which Algerians taken as a whole can be engulfed. I know, too, the caricatures of Islam which encourage a certain idealism. It is too easy to give oneself a good conscience in identifying this religious way with the fundamentalist ideology of its extremists. For me, Algeria and Islam is something different. It is a body and a soul. I have proclaimed it often enough, I think, in view of and in the knowledge of what I have received from it, finding there so often that true strand of the Gospel learned at my mother’s knee, my very first Church, precisely in Algeria, and already respecting believing Muslims.

My death, obviously, will appear to confirm those who hastily judged me naive or idealistic: “Let him tell us now what he thinks of it!” But these must know that my insistent curiosity will then be set free. This is what I shall be able to do, if God wills: Immerse my gaze in that of the Father, to contemplate with Him His children of Islam as He sees them, all shining with the glory of Christ, fruit of His Passion, filled with the Gift of the Spirit whose secret joy will always be to establish communion and to refashion the likeness, playing with the differences.

This life lost, totally mine and totally theirs, I thank God who seems to have wished it entirely for the sake of that JOY in and in spite of everything. In this THANK YOU which is said for everything in my life, from now on, I certainly include you, friends of yesterday and today, and you, O my friends of this place, besides my mother and father, my sisters and brothers and their families, a hundredfold as was promised!

And you too, my last minute friend, who will not know what you are doing, Yes, for you too I say this THANK YOU AND THIS “A-DIEU”-—to commend you to this God in whose face I see yours. And may we find each other, happy “good thieves” in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both. . . AMEN!


3 Responses to “The Martyrs of Atlas”

  1. Tony Burkart Says:

    Only if we could all come to a prayer like this and really mean it! Perhaps our divided hearts might heal along with our perceived enemies to one of unified being. Perhaps the true meaning of transcendence/transformation is when the worst in us becomes the absolute best. Could this be the deepest yearning of the collective human heart?

  2. Diane Stavrum Says:

    Again it is in a valley of decision where we are moved to the deepest part of ourselves to seek the Divine Presence. This apparent truth from so many testimonies makes me wonder if this isn’t the “narrow way so few travel?” Sadly, our Western Christianity, it seems to me, encourages us to use all our effort to turn away from such inner turmoil and just be happy and help others the best you can.

  3. claire Says:

    Thank you for giving him Christian de Cherge’s Testament. Nothing wimpy here, a love that we can all hope to have when we meet death, in whichever form it comes.


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