OF GODS AND MEN: Loving your Neighbor—when your Neighbor is Death

In his latest article, Richard Lindsay engages in something of a review/conversation of the new film Of Gods and Men with Mike Campos, a fellow, recent PhD grad at the Graduate Theological Union.

Of Gods and Men tells the story of a group of French Trappist monks in Algeria killed by Islamic militants in 1996. Giving away the monks’ fate is not much of a spoiler, especially since the film is based on a true story which you can find online. What fascinates and moves viewers, including the jury at Cannes which gave the film the Grand Prix in 2010, is the film’s speculation on why, given ample opportunity to escape, the monks stayed in their precarious and isolated community under the continuing threat of death.

Helping me interpret the film is Mike Campos, a classmate (and recent graduate) of GTU’s doctoral program. Mike was a novice in a monastic community in Vermont before returning to his studies and career as a Catholic religious educator. The following exchange only begins to capture the intense café conversation Mike and I had after viewing this enormously moving and deeply theological film.      

RL: Summarizing in brief, the film slowly and beautifully introduces us to this small order of nine men who work, eat, study, and pray together at this tiny outpost of Christianity in the Muslim world. The brothers are not closed off from the world around them; there seems to be a respectful understanding between the monks and the community that reflects a similarly devout, although culturally and religiously different, devotion to God.

The village and the monastery are soon forced to a crisis by the invasion of Islamic militants, who demand a more fundamentalist approach to the faith. Even Muslims who do not share their zeal are in danger of torture or beheading. On Christmas Eve night, the militants confront and threaten the monks, and only the quick thinking of Brother Christian, the head of the monastery, who makes an appeal to their common reverence for Jesus Christ, saves the monks from possible death. Conditions continue to deteriorate, however, bringing both continued threats from the Islamic militia and unwanted attention from the Algerian army. The brothers must then wrestle with the possibility of abandoning their monastery and the village or staying and facing almost certain death.

Mike, one of the things that struck me about the film was that it allowed us to get into the rhythm of daily life of the brothers before the “action” of the story started. You see how integrated they are in the life of the village, as they provide medical care and small acts of charity for the villagers. You see them attending a community religious function where the brothers are praying right alongside the villagers as they read the Koran. There’s the touching scene where one of the brothers gives grandfatherly advice about love to a teenage girl from the village. They really have become integrated into the life of the village, and the difference in faiths had been overcome by their dependence on each other.

You also see the brothers going about their daily tasks of tending the garden, gathering wood, and collecting honey to sell at the local market, punctuated by the prayers of the daily office. You said this film captured the feel of monastic life, both in the activities of the brothers and in their relationships with one another. Tell me more about that.

MC: The sense of integration you highlight resonates with my own (brief) experience of monastic life. Living in the context of an intentional community means straddling a “double rhythm” of sorts: the rhythm that develops in the embrace of the brotherhood and the larger—equally palpable—rhythm that defines a monastery’s relationship with the world. Holding both in tension is key to monastic life; one can only embrace the gift of solitary loving within community.

These tensions between the individual and the broader community, between the monastic enclosure and the world, came out in the way the film framed the monks’ daily prayers. Shuffling in the early morning darkness to chapel, the monks take their places in seats worn down by the consistency of time and place. Some sit upright, most seem ready to fall off the pews—aging bodies barely able to keep the weight of sleepiness at bay. The viewer is drawn to the immensity of silence itself; it both invites and repels. One is truly alone. There is something both beautiful and overwhelming here.

In significant ways, this framing of monastic prayer echoed the monks’ interactions with the community beyond the enclosure. The sense of peace, order and calm on the monastic grounds is heightened by the “intrusions” of the outside world: villagers seeking Brother Luc’s medical assistance, friends and workers who assist the monks in their daily work, even the Islamic militia men who force their way into the enclosure. All embody the larger political crisis of their location as French nationals living in Algiers, a colonial remnant. These intrusions define the “feel” and shapes the narrative of the film. In a sense, the entire film evokes monastic sensibility itself. It is rhythmical, punctual—and intrusive.

RL: What you’ve mentioned about your experience in the monastery was the kind of diffuse eroticism at play in the community. The natural eros of relationships is not repressed, but spread amongst the various members of the community. We saw this in the affection the monks had for one another, which was sometimes expressed physically, through greeting each other with a kiss, or massaging a tense shoulder, but never in an overtly sexual way.

Individual personalities are not destroyed by the community but heightened in community. This is particularly important as the monks go through the difficult process of discernment whether or not to stay in the face of threats of the militants and army. Each personality is allowed to go through his own doubts and fears, or to contribute his own exhortation to the community. No opinion, not even that of the abbot, Brother Christian, is allowed to decide for the group.

By the end of the film, you can begin to see why, based on their theology, they decided to stay. The imperative to continue the ministry of prayer, outreach, and daily work is heightened by the threat, until simply performing these “mundane” tasks take on great importance as acts of resistance.

I was also moved by the theology some of the monks narrated in the letters they wrote, explaining why they were continuing to stay and serve in the monastery despite the risk to their lives. One line that struck me was, “In our failure we come closer to God.” As a Protestant, I have been trained to see failure as a sign of God’s disfavor and a spur to change, reformation, and renewal. That idea of failure as a means to the divine was particularly hard for me to swallow.

MC: I think you’re onto something by describing monastic relationships as a form of “diffuse eroticism.” I understand this to mean two things: a desire or attachment that draws one to another, and the implicit sense of the other’s mystery that attends to this desire. Holding both in tension allows for a form of desire that keeps community intact and alive.

The kind of desire that undergirds monastic life—beautifully portrayed in the film—is apparent in the monks’ very approach to work and rhythm. Labor is not understood to be external to one’s self/body/spirit. It is integral. It is the way in which one relates with others: thus the sense of paternal love that Brother Luc’s medical service embodies, the implicit gesture of community nourishing that frames their production of honey, the attention to the fruits of their garden work. All of these evoke a type of desire that enlivens their relationships both within and outside the monastic enclosure.

If viewed in this way, desire could be said to “justify” or “explain” their decision to remain even at the threat of death. When one relates with community—each other, the villagers, the land, the government, the militia—one simply does not leave and sever. In each brother’s individual struggle over whether to leave or to remain, they reconsider what it means to relate, to love, to embody that “diffuse eroticism” you named. Their decision to stay, in a sense, exposes a deeper commitment to relationships, individuals and people that transcend the momentary crisis of politics.

One of the most moving scenes for me occurs at the moment when the Brother Christian stands toe-to-toe with the militia leader. Beyond the tense exchange of words, the prevailing threat of violence, I was moved most by the sense of “recognition” both men extend to the other. In the span of a moment, both saw each other as a person, worthy not just of respect, but of desire.

RL: The relationship and desire you mention also leads to a moving transformation of their relationships with their own lives. At one point, Brother Luc tells Brother Christian that he no longer fears death: “I am a free man.” This would seem contradictory to the Western materialist idea that true freedom can only come through unfettered individuality and a kind of grasping relationship with one’s own survival and personal fulfillment.

The most moving scene for me was near the end, when they have all decided to stay, knowing the deadly consequences of their decision. They are having dinner together, and one of the brothers puts on a recording of Swan Lake. Of course, my obsession with camp made me chuckle at this. (If you must die a martyr, make your exit with Swan Lake). But the scene was tremendously affecting as the camera focused on each person in the community as he savored his meal and dining with his brothers. You could tell the wine was somehow more fragrant and delicious. The strains of the music were more beautiful. It illuminated the great truth in the phrase from the Gospels, “Whoever tries to save his life shall lose it, and whoever loses his life shall preserve it.”

Seeing this film also makes me appreciate the rich heritage of Christianity (or Christianities) that I have been blessed to observe through my continuing study of scripture and theology. When the monks are reading that passage from Luke 17 about giving one’s life for the “Kingdom,” the community of God—about the choice to save one’s life or to preserve it— even the part which says, “on that night two people will be in one bed; one will be taken and the other left,” which becomes almost literally true for the brothers, I see the deep layers of my religion from a different perspective and life experience. The monks’ practice of Christianity is not my own, but I feel I have access to understanding it. It comes from dedicating yourself to a tradition—really studying it and letting it seep into your bones until you can see the deeper connections of theology and scripture. This is infinitely more rewarding than our culture’s ubiquitous “spiritual but not religious” stance.

MC: Of Gods and Men also touched something fundamental for me about the nature of faith itself. The awkward separation we put today between spirituality and religion is trumped in light of these monks’ illogical decision to remain—and so face the possibility of death. As I’ve said before, this choice only makes sense when we understand their sense of relationality to one another, to the community—even to the militia men—as something that arises from one’s embrace of God. In this regard, they embody the very nature of religion as truly a “re-binding” with another; the kind of commitment that allows room for the other to be. While their very commitment—to God, to each other, to the communities with whom they’ve created life—is truly embodied, it evokes that “grasping for the un-graspable” that has long been part of a believer’s way of being. Christians describe this in poetically apophatic terms—the love that comes from embracing Someone who remains complete Mystery.

Like you, I had to sit back and think a bit about Brother Luc’s notion of “freedom.” What does it mean, indeed, to allow seemingly dehumanizing circumstances take control of one’s life? What does this seeming abdication from responsibility—to one’s self, to one’s community (of accountability?)—say about one’s obligation to uphold life and meaning? In the end, these monks didn’t so much “give up” as “give themselves over” to the mystery of loving. Thus they chose to stay. They chose the possibility of death as the consequence of their larger responsibility to love. There’s great freedom in this.

Ultimately, the merit of the film lies in its ability to hold in tension themes of responsibility and letting go; of death and life; of loving and violence, without proffering the cheap resolution to these tensions of a “spiritual-but-not-religious” perspective. In doing so, the movie exposes the abundant mystery that undergirds humanity itself.