Jackie is a friend whose family I have admired for about fifteen years. Sadly, they have endured too many tragic deaths. She has lost her mother and both sisters to breast cancer. Her husband died within the last couple years from ALS. Jackie is a strong woman of faith. As a teacher in a Catholic high school she is precisely the sort of role model we would want for our kids. She walks the talk!
I was grateful to have run into her at a recent fund raiser for Loyola Spirituality Center and for the chance to have coffee yesterday. Hearing stories of her family’s loss and personal grief, I imagined this is what Gethsemane feels like; this is what standing at the cross looks like. There was laughter, funny stories, sharing of photos and fond recollections too. But there was no disguising the truth of our lives. We were sharing our stories – sacred stories.
Jackie is working-up a one-week unit on church history for a class she teaches and asked, “Who are the great people of faith my students need to know about? What are the really important stories?” It would be easy to defer to the obvious, the familiar, iconic figures long dead. But is that what taps the imagination, idealism and energy of adolescents? Yes, it does! But aren’t they moved more by surprise, the unexpected, the contemporary? In a culture where fully one-third of young adults claim no religious affiliation and many students at church-affiliated schools come from “non-practicing” families, Jackie’s question takes on fresh urgency.
I eagerly shared my personal favorite without a second thought – Christian de Cherge and the Trappist monks living among a Muslim nation. The ghastly story of their kidnapping and death in 1996 was popularized by the movie, Of Gods and Men [trailer]. A gripping biography, The Monks of Tibhirine: Faith, Love and Terror in Algeria by John W. Kiser (2002) is available on Kindle. Christian Salenson’s 2009 Christian de Cherge: A Theology of Hope (2009) ranks among the most significant books I have read in the last ten years.
Christian de Cherge lived in Algeria for a few years when his father served as a French army commander. He returned, as a seminarian, to fulfill his military obligation. It was then that he met Mohammed, a devout Muslim and father of ten children. The friends shared many conversations about God. Once when accosted by rebels, Mohammed defended Christian as a Godly man and a friend of Muslims. The thugs withdrew but Mohammed was found the next morning near his home with his throat slit. This Muslim’s ultimate sacrifice transformed the young seminarian’s faith and propelled his lifelong pursuit of Christian-Muslim understanding and dialogue.
This “dialogue” was much more than talking and certainly no esoteric theological disputation. Rather, the dialogue came of itself, the fruit of living together with Muslims over a long period of time. …We avoid theological discussions because they lead to intellectual sparring that gets in the way of getting to know one another. All the little daily gestures of goodwill speak for themselves. Sharing our water, a piece of bread, a friendly handshake says much more about what we can do together than do theological tomes (Kiser 67-68). Aren’t we all capable of and called to such dialogue?
Thus, we begin Lent. Sharing our stories – sacred stories. Recognizing that we are gifted, blessed and grateful, we console one another standing at the cross of one who paid the ultimate sacrifice of human love. We share coffee, a piece of bread, a warm embrace saying much more than any theological tome. Our time, our lives, our loves, a world of sorrow – called to conversion.