“Of Gods and Men,” a stunning film by Xavier Beauvois that garnered the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010, examines the internal turmoil and spiritual angst of a group of Trappist monks in Algeria in the mid- 1990s who are torn between their commitment to serve as shepherds to the local community that depends upon them and their palpable fear of death at the hands of Islamic fundamentalists.
Dedicated to their faith, the seven monks lead a simple life of prayer and service that offers a compelling witness to the potency and vibrancy of a Christian faith, hope, and charity authentically lived. The movie captures the beauty and rhythm of the Trappists’ spirituality with meticulous attention to detail in the performance of the Liturgy of the Hours and the celebration of the Holy Mass. The camera also highlights the work of the monks as they labor with the local villagers to produce crops and other goods to sustain their way of life and that of the thriving community around their institution.
The Monastery of Notre-Dame de l'Atlas provides a successful model of a respectful and mutually beneficial religious ecumenism that our world so desperately needs in these times of terror and uncertainty. The monks openly discuss their religion with the townspeople and offer their advice when it is asked of them, but they also participate in the cultural and religious practices of Islam; for example, they are invited and agree to attend what looks like some sort of coming-of-age ceremony and party for a young Islamic boy of the village. All in all, the degree of peaceful even fecund coexistence between the monastery and the surrounding population is inspiring.
Tragically, this halcyon utopia is shattered by acts of violence and terror throughout Algeria. The monks do have an opportunity to leave the monastery safely, but they choose to remain despite the risks to their safety, though this decision pains each of them for different reasons. Demonstrating his profound sensitivity for the monks’ situation, Beauvois skillfully spotlights each monk’s personal struggle with a delicacy rarely seen in movie making. Whether it be through the wrinkles of stress, a shocking curse word from a religious, or the glimmer of fear in aged eyes, the monks suffer the walk to Calvary with Christ throughout the film. It is a marvel to behold the courage of these men knowing their tragic destiny, their tragic role in God’s providential design. Perhaps the most lasting image of the film finds the monks sharing one last meal and a glass of wine as a heart-stirring song plays hauntingly in the background; this is their last supper, a fitting reenactment of that of their Lord and Savior.
It is my prayer that I may face my own death with the grace and fortitude of those holy and sanctified men of the Monastery of Notre Dame de l’Atlas. I also pray that the Prince of Peace welcomes these stalwart champions of faith into his fold with open and welcoming arms. Amen.