Back Room on Display

Sometimes there are no words. This is such a time. We are left aghast at humanity’s capacity to inflict new forms of evil, cruelty and hate.

The horror we are witnessing in Paris is, tragically, not a new or infrequent phenomenon. Each incident leaves us outraged, exasperated. Every recurrence holds the frightening potential to deaden our emotions, erect new walls around our self-enclosed enclaves, and pretend the violence is worlds away. This cycle must stop — both the death-dealing acts of terrorism as well as the head-in-the-sand retreat into denial and isolation.

Sometimes there should be no words! This is such a time. Rather, we must dig deeper and firmly resolve to discover a new capacity to inquire, comprehend and respond with the best in our human nature. This is a time for radical, un”reasonable” love.

Ironically, Hinduism — the most ancient of all the great world religions — is celebrating the feast of Diwali, the annual celebration of light, life and community. Perhaps this is sheer coincidence as the world convulses amid this latest act of death-dealing terror. Perhaps this year, especially this year, ours is a time to recall the teaching and nonviolence practiced by that most famous of Hindus, Mahatma Ghandi.

This is a time to be especially circumspect with our words and judgments. Coincidentally, I was reading about Christian d’Cherge and his fellow Trappist monks when I learned of the Paris massacres. You may recall that d’Cherge and fellow monks lived in solidarity with their Muslim neighbors in Algeria. Their’s was life of radical, un”reasonable” love in the image of Jesus Christ.

Christian d’Cherge grew up in Paris, served as a priest for six years at Sacre-Coeur atop Montmartre before joining the Trappist order. Early on the morning of March 27, 1996, he and six monks were kidnapped from their Algerian monastery, held for ransom and ultimately killed by terrorists in May of that year.

This is not a time for complex reprisal or threatening invectives. This is a time for honest inquiry, sincere efforts to comprehend and responses that spring from the best of our human nature.

Upon his January 1971 arrival amid Muslim neighbors whom he would befriend as an expression of his Christian faith, d’Cherge wrote in his journal these few but poignant words: “They are believers and respectful of all religious people, provided that what is in the back room corresponds with what is in the display windows.”

May all people of faith live with such correspondence, integrity and respect. Now, more than ever, may what we place on “display” through our words and actions manifest that which is best in the “back room” of whatever faith we allegedly profess.
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The quote of Christian d’Cherge is in translation from his native French: The Monks of Tibhirine: Faith, Love and Terror in Algeria by John W. Kizer. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2002. p. 39.

In Grateful Memory

Dom Christian de Chergé and his fellow Trappist monks rank among my all-time heroes. The movie “Of Gods and Men” recounted their faith-filled commitment to inter-faith dialogue and their tragic fate. On the night of March 26-27, 1996, seven monks from the monastery Notre-Dame de l’Atlas of Tibhirine in Algeria were kidnapped.  They were held for two months and then found dead in late May 1996.

Aware of the reality in which they chose to live, Dom Christian, the superior, wrote a testament in 1993 to be opened and read if he died by violence. The text was opened on the feast of Pentecost, May 26 shortly after the monks were killed.  In prayerful respect for these martyrs I recommend Dom Christian’s testament for your reflection on this anniversary:

If someday -and it may be today- I happen to be a victim of the terrorism which now seems to engulf all the foreigners living in Algeria, I would like my community, my Church, my family to remember that my life was GIVEN to God and to this country. 

May they accept that the Sole Master of every life cannot be indifferent to this brutal form of departure. 

May they associate this death with so many others, just as violent, left in the indifference of anonymity.

My life is not worth more than any other.

Nor is it worth less.

In any case, it lacks the innocence of childhood.

I have lived long enough to know my complicity with the evil which, unfortunately, seems to prevail in the world, and even with the evil which might suddenly strike me. I would like, when the time comes, to have this moment of lucidity which would enable me to ask for God’s pardon and that of my brothers in humanity, and at the same time to pardon with all my heart the one who strikes me down. I cannot wish such a death. It seems important to testify to this. I do not see how I could be happy to see this people whom I love to be indiscriminately accused of my death. It is too high a price to be paid for what is perhaps called the “grace of martyrdom” by an Algerian, whoever he may be, especially if he says he is acting in fidelity to what he believes Islam to be. I know the contempt in which Algerians are held. 

I also know the caricatures of Islam, encouraged by a certain idealism. It is too easy to think that one is acting in good conscience by identifying this religious path with the fundamentalisms of its extremists. Algeria, Islam is something else for me; it is a body and a soul. I have proclaimed this often enough. I believe this, as far as I know and have seen, so often finding in this place this leitmotiv of the Gospel learned at my mother’s knees, my first Church, specifically in Algeria and already respecting Moslem believers. Clearly, my death will appear to justify those who would quickly dismiss me as naive, or as an idealist, “let him tell us what he thinks of it now”! But they should know that this will finally liberate my most burning curiosity. For, God willing, I will be able to plunge my vision into the Father’s in order to contemplate with Him His Islamic children just as He sees them, all illuminated with Christ’s glory, fruits of His Passion, clothed by the gift of the Spirit whose secret joy will always be to establish communion and re-establish resemblance while enjoying the differences. I give thanks to God who seems to have wanted this lost life, completely mine and completely theirs, for heavenly JOY, for everything and despite everything. 

In this THANK YOU which says everything from now on about my life, I of course want to include you, friends of today and tomorrow, and you, friends here, beside my mother and father, my sisters and my brothers and their families, repaid a hundredfold as promised! And also to you, friend of the final hour, who will not know what you are doing. Yes, I also desire this THANK YOU for you, and this A-DIEU (TO-GOD) foreseen for you. May we be allowed to meet again as happy thieves in Paradise, if it pleases God, Father to both of us. AMEN!
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I highly recommend the compelling history, The Monks of Tibhirine: Faith, Love and Terror in Algeria by John W. Kiser (St. Martin’s Griffin 2002).

Christian de Cherge: A Theology of Hope by Christian Salenson (Cistercian Studies, 2009., trans. 2011) is perhaps the most compelling and inspiring theology I have read in ten years.