Is the religious impulse becoming incomprehensible to modern men and women?
This was my unexpected reflection on reactions to a movie that has just been released on DVD. It is a French film called “Of Gods and Men.” The plot is based on a true story: the killing of several Trappist monks in Algeria who were caught up in the Islamic fundamentalist violence that afflicted that country for many years.
But such a description does the movie an injustice, for it is a beautiful, profound meditation on Catholic faith and witness, on the spiritual journey of monasticism and on the challenge of being men of peace in a time of cruel violence.
This is the most un-American of movies: no sex, no car chases, no large explosions, no musical score drowning every last inch of it in noise. Instead, it weaves together scenes of monastic prayer with scenes of work and witness in the Muslim village where the monastery is located. It is a film that should be shown in parish halls and youth groups for discussion on what it means to be a follower of Christ in this day and age.
To me, this is all quite clear. The prayer of the monks, the slow process of discerning God’s will for them, the coming together around a simple wooden table to discuss as a community the direction they were to go in, the struggles with fear, the dark night of a tortured soul and the profound trust in God’s loving care for them: All of this comes through in the most moving way in the film.
Yet all of this seems quite incomprehensible to some of the film’s reviewers out there. Just after I had seen the film, I heard a radio reviewer sum it up as a group of old men too set in their ways to save themselves.
A reviewer on the movie website database IMDB compared the monks to the seven dwarves in “Snow White” and said the real problem of the film is religion, because religion so eagerly endorses killing.
More thoughtful was the review of the critic Roger Ebert, who said of the monks’ decision to stay at the monastery in the face of danger: “Did they make the right choice? In their own idealistic terms, yes. In realistic terms, I say no. They have the ability to help many who need it for years to come. It is egotism to believe their help must take place in this specific monastery. Between the eight of them, they have perhaps a century of life of usefulness remaining. Do they have a right to deprive those who need it of their service? In doing so, are they committing the sin of pride?”
I find it fascinating that a secular reviewer feels comfortable judging what is “realistic” and what is a sin. We Americans love the practical and utilitarian argument, and we think a monastery in the middle of nowhere is important to the extent that it hands out free medicines to the poor. But although this is of value, it misses the point of monasticism entirely.
A priest friend recently said that Catholics should be unconcerned about winning the world’s approval, for the world will never understand. We try to explain ourselves in pragmatic and rational terms, but we risk draining our faith of its power while being unable still to convince the world that to lose one’s life is to gain it.
Just a few weeks before I saw the film, I had been visiting my uncle at Mepkin Abbey in South Carolina. Spending time with that Trappist community was a great prelude to the film. In both film and real life, it is clear that the monastic life is physically and spiritually rigorous. Yet every time we leave Mepkin, we can feel only gratitude for the opportunity to share in this spiritual treasure. Monasteries, like martyrdom, are tremendous signs of contradiction to our age and great fonts of grace that nourish those of us who struggle to live our faith in an often uncomprehending world.
Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.