Hopeful Persistence

Lent, like Advent, is a time in-between. It is between the incarnation of Christ and His appearance in glory. It is between the beginning of our salvation, given to us in baptism, and the completion of Christ’s promise in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. It is, especially, between Christ’s resurrection and ours. And even when we come to the joyful celebration of Jesus’ resurrection after 40+ days, our life in this wilderness, death-shadow world goes on.

In Of Gods and Men (2010; for rent on various streaming services), the Trappist monks of the Abbey of Our Lady of the Atlas near Tibhirine, Algeria are brought face to face with this Lenten world. (In fact, the day of their kidnapping—March 27, 1996—was the Wednesday before Palm Sunday that year).

The title comes from Psalm 82:6: “I said, ‘You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, like men you shall die, and fall like any prince.’” This opens up the conflict between, on the one hand, the monks in prayer and labor on behalf of the people around them, and, on the other, the desires both of the terrorists and the government. The “gods” are those who believe they have the power and authority in the world, but who cannot exercise that authority over and against God (Yahweh). “God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment: ‘How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked’” (Psalm 82:1-4).

We like to characterize political or social conflicts as between powers in the world: conservative and liberal; Republican and Democrat; proper government and terrorists. But the conflict is actually between God and His chosen ones and all other authorities, if they are not carrying out the will of God in protection of the innocent, weak, helpless, and the punishment of evil. Here, the monks refuse to take the side of either the government, by accepting their military protection, or the side of the terrorists in bowing to their terror. They are present to serve the people, who are oppressed in different ways by both. And they will also not be partial: their medical care is extended even to one of the Islamic extremists, who has been shot. The gods of this age will eventually bow before the God of all: “Arise, O God, and judge the earth; for you shall inherit all nations” (Psalm 82:8)!

The first half of the movie establishes their relationships with the people of the village, who, while Muslim, have friendly and trusting relationships with the monks. Then, when the Algerian civil war breaks out around 1992, the battle is between armed Islamist fighters and the Algerian government, with many of the people stuck in the middle. In the film, we see Croatians murdered, and this begins the second half of the film, which centers on the decision of the monks about whether to leave the monastery or not. I think this film is more effective as it is simply absorbed, rather than describing what happens. But it is their communal decision to stay that is significant in terms of our Lenten existence.

What the monks slowly realize is that even though they face more closely the danger of death, in terms of a specific threat, death is never far from us. Just because we are more aware of the risk of death does not change the reality of this death-filled world. We may die at any time, and while we should consider that fact (memento mori), we should go about what we have been given to do and let God be God in terms of life and death. The monks face the initial threat on Christmas Eve, and the leader of the Islamist group that initially comes to the monastery recognizes the monks as a neutral party in the Algerian fight. He shakes Christian’s hand, and they essentially leave the monks in peace.

When Christian is later recalling this, he gives a profound description of Christian vocation in the light of that initial perceived threat: he says that after that, they went back into the church, celebrated Christmas Eve Mass, and then went about their lives of caring for people. This is the true meaning of the probably apocryphal saying of Luther that if he knew the world would end tomorrow, he would plant an apple tree today: that death and/or the end of this age is coming; that is not within our control. Instead, we go about our daily responsibilities, knowing that in the light of Jesus’ resurrection, our labor is not in vain. Because Jesus’ resurrection means our coming resurrection, we care for others and do what we’ve been given to do. That is the direction of Paul’s entire argument in 1 Corinthians 15: “be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (15:58).

Of Gods and Men is a powerful film, and a profound meditation on living Lenten lives, which means lives lived in the bright shadow of the resurrection.

Tim and Jay are recording an episode of Saints and Cinema revolving around films with Lenten themes. Look for it at saintsandcinema.com next week.