By Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania
Published in Church and Life(1839) 16.8.2012-5.9.2012 No 13 Pg 2
Based on the 1996 kidnapping and murder of seven Trappist monks in Tibhirine, Algeria, the 2010 multi-award winning French motion picture, Des hommes et des dieux. (Eng. Of God’s and Men), is in truth, a piece of religious artwork painted on film.
The film depicts how a peaceful Catholic religious community lends medical assistance to an Algerian village, consisting predominately of Muslims. Islamic terrorists begin to scour the area, but the leader of the monastery, Christian, refuses to leave after being given such advice by the Algerian government. The Trappist community is then divided between those who believe that the community must not desert the people they have ministered to for so long; and those monks who did not wish to be martyred – for martyrdom is what will likely eventuate. Christian also stands firmly on the principle that good should not bow down to evil; that peace and love should not run from violence and hatred.
In one the most poignant scenes ever to be sculptured on film – the monks celebrate a Christmas meal with one another; but this Christmas meal begins to parallel The Last Supper – a group of friends eating with one another, celebrating each other’s company, understanding their precarious hold on life, as they walk the tightrope of mortality. The scene is not contrived so as to present hagiography; no word is said. But the wry smiles on the faces of the monks, say everything. We become Christians when we are baptized – but we become men and women of Christ when we personally face and answer the huge existential questions of life. Even though the viewer is taken by the hand and journeys with the monks through theGardenofGethsemaneto the eventualGolgotha, the film does not depress – but rather raises up. Tears do not flow – but hearts swell, in the knowledge that there are men and women in this world, who are prepared to stand for those values, that each and every one of us desire to live happily under, but far too often are afraid to commit more than a few nervous breaths in support of.
In True and False Reform (2011), Yves Congar presents in a beautifully crafted chapter, a discussion on what separates the nominal from the living Christian. He opens with the sentence: “So that the sap of Christianity can still thrust its shoots through the crust of history, the Holy Spirit, watching over the church, raises up servants whose fidelity goes beyond conformity to the status quo. “Twice-born” persons are needed for this.” (Congar, 2011, p. 169).
The term ‘twice-born’ translates less awkwardly into the English language, as ‘born-again’. But what does this mean ‘born-again’? So often this phrase is blurred by images of starry-eyed youth, waving their hands in the air and singing gospel-music. In part, ‘born-again’ does reflect a joyous occasion – but such joy, must be harnessed into a sense of purpose and a deeply committed change of heart, or as they say in Greek, ‘metanoia’. Thus when Christ is speaking with Nicode’mus in the Gospel According to Saint John, Nicode’mus is puzzled as to Christ’s instruction of the two births within the physical lifetime of a single individual. We read: “Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicode’mus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him.” Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicode’mus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, “You must be born anew.’ The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or wither it goes; so its with every one who is born of the Spirit.” Nicode’mus said to him, “How can this be?” (John 3: 1 – 9, RSV).
Yves Congar explains the two births as follows. The first birth relates to the individual born into a faith community. Within this community they stay: “living according to the expectations and habits of their social group.” (Congar, 2011, p. 170). In time, they can become ‘pot-bound’; for the danger can be that they do not really own their faith – but their faith, perhaps once alive, has become a custom; “Sunday Christianity”. Romain Rolland would write of this danger: “all the lazy believers in the churches – clerics and laity alike – who don’t believe anything by themselves, but remain sprawled out in the barn where they have been cooped up in front of a manger full of convenient beliefs that they only have to take and chew on.” (Congar, 2011, p. 170). Congar then offers an explanation of the ‘twice-born’. These are the people who have received “a kind of revelation, a new birth; they have discovered a new personal set of values and a kind of change has come over their lives. They live their lives no longer in conformity to the received ideas of their social milieus but according to their own personal convictions.” (Congar, 2011, p. 170).
The history of Christianity shouts out the hymn of those ‘born-again’; be they St. Francis of Assisi, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine of Hippo, and to our own time: Oscar Romero, Edith Stein, Andrii Sheptyts’kyi, Jacques Maritain, or Mother Teresa. Each of these individuals, left their first birth, in order to take up a second life through a re-birth. Every one of these individuals, took a road less-travelled, a road arduous. They began to live their Faith in the knowledge that they stood in the continual presence of God. Their twice-birth, does not mean in any way that they rejected the Church – it meant that their Church became manifested, or actualized, in them. Lip-service died, when the heart started to beat, as on fire.
Every one of us will be called by Christ at various points of our lives to make a decision as to the authenticity of our Christian Faith. We can listen, or we can pretend to be deaf – convincing ourselves that we are not Saints, so that any voice we hear, or pricked conscience we feel, we can pass off as a whim. Yet our Faith is daily challenged by the society in which we find ourselves; and the measure by which we respond to these challenges, is directly proportionate to the depth of our Faith, and our commitment to It. In the worst case scenario, we can scoff and become cynical about those who are on fire with the Faith; mocking them, and setting them up as objects of derision. But we do this solely because by so doing, we hide a personal reluctance to commit. Perhaps we have also been so tarnished by life, that we do no longer believe in idealism, or have lost a sense of trust that there are in this world, people who are genuine.
We are all fallible creatures; and not everyone is prepared to risk everything; we will lose courage from time to time; we will become physically, emotionally and spiritually weak. Who of us can condemn those few monks in Of Gods and Men, who when the kidnappers arrived, chose to save themselves by hiding, while the rest of their community were taken away? Christ will measure us not by our peers, but by who we are – that is, by what we were twice-born to become.