Saturday, March 26, 2011

Of Gods and Men

Fifteen years ago today, seven French Trappist monks were abducted from their monastery, Notre-Dame de l'Atlas, in Tibhirine, Algeria. An Islamist group, the GIA (Groupe Islamique Armé), claimed responsibility for the kidnappings and demanded that several GIA members be released from prison in exchange for the monk's release.

Two months later the monks' heads were found on a roadside; their decapitated bodies have never been found. The circumstances of their deaths remain unclear. While the GIA had earlier claimed that the monks had been executed, there is a troubling alternate theory that the monks were killed by gunfire from Algerian army helicopters during a botched raid and that their bodies were then decapitated to implicate the GIA in a shameful cover-up.

Xavier Beauvois's film Des hommes et des dieux (Of Gods and Men), which won the Grand Prix at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival and which I finally had the chance to see (after much anticipation!) this week, focuses not on the monks' deaths but on their lives. (See the American trailer here and the slightly different European trailer here.) I think it ranks with Roland Joffé's The Mission (1986), John Dulgan's Romero (1989), and Franco Zeffirelli's miniseries Jesus of Nazareth (1977) as one of the most beautiful faith-infused films ever made.

Its pace is slow, deliberate - like the Gregorian chant that marks the rhythm of the monks lives - and this is one of the film's virtues. No high-speed chases here, no breathy love scenes - how refreshing! The beauty and dignity of a few individuals' humble lives instead calls viewers to slow down, to pay attention, to focus, to notice, to cherish the ordinary and discover in it the extraordinary. One cannot appreciate this film without entering into the monastic spirit of contemplation portrayed in it.

Between scenes in which the monks go to chapel to sing the liturgical hours - vespers, compline, lauds, terce - we catch glimpses of their daily lives, lives imbued with a sense of the sacred even during the most humble tasks. One brother mops the floor and tends the garden; another, a physician by training, sees villagers in the monastery clinic; the abbott, Christian, played by Lambert Wilson (known in the U.S. for his role as The Merovingean in The Matrix), studies the Koran, visits with villagers, and tries to do right by his community. The peaceable and mutually supportive nature of the monks' relationship with the Muslim villagers is made clear in several scenes.

There are touching moments scattered throughout the film like small wildflowers in an open field. A young girl from the village and the old doctor monk have a frank conversation about being in love, dispelling the stereotype of the inexperienced or repressed celibate who knows little of such matters. The abbott opens the door to the cell of a monk who has fallen asleep snoring over his book and folds the sleeping monk's glasses for him. The monks gather with each other after a stressful moment while the doctor sutures one of them and the oldest gently rubs the youngest on the shoulders, trying to de-stress him in a paternal gesture of protectiveness.

The monks are saintly but imperfect. While washing some dishes one of them says to the other, "F- you!" after taking a humorously-uttered statement the wrong way. The brothers sometimes overhear each other's prayers in their cells, and some of their prayers are wracked with doubt and fear. The abbott makes an executive decision without input from the others, and they call him on it. Later the community comes together on more than one occasion to discuss whether they should leave Algeria, and the villagers they have come to love, in light of the rising violence and danger in the region. There are no easy answers for them, and each day brings tests of faith, small and large, with which to wrestle. In one of the most powerful moments in the film, the abbott, Christian, finds himself face to face with terrorists who have invaded the monastery. His exemplary courage, calm, and respectfulness under pressure were inspiring beyond words.

Like a meditative chant that lingers in the mind and keeps coming back hours and days later, Of Gods and Men is a film that permeates and stays with you. It's like that gentle whisper in which the prophet Elijah finds the presence of God outside the cave in Mt. Horeb. The Divine is not in the clamor of the tempestuous, earth-shattering wind, or in the earthquake, or in the fire, but rather in the stillness, in the quiet voice found in peace and silence.

Some reviews:
NPR (1) and NPR (2)

Click here to read Christan de Chergé's testament, written over a year before his death.

Click here for an interview with Henri Quinson, who left Wall Street to enter a Trappist monastery in rural France and who was the monastic advisor for Of Gods and Men.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

March 24, 1980 - REMEMBER

OSCAR ROMERO was assassinated 31 years ago today for speaking out against human rights violations in his country. He is a saint, de facto if not de jure (yet).

Photo source.

"The common good will not be attained by excluding people."

"Peace is not the product of terror or fear. Peace is not the silence of cemeteries. Peace is not the silent result of violent repression. Peace is the generous, tranquil contribution of all to the good of all. Peace is dynamism. Peace is generosity."

Click here to read an article about President Obama's visit to Romero's tomb this year.

Start at 2:25 below to skip the potty-mouth part and get to the truth-telling (From the Sojourner article Jon Stewart: How Oscar Romero Got Disappeared by Right Wingers...for the Second Time):

Monday, March 14, 2011

On Suffering

Here's something that has never made sense to me regarding suffering: asking, "Why?"

If the earth were uninhabited, its tectonic plates would move all the same. Earthquakes and tsunamis would happen all over the desolate world, hurting no one. We suffer because we live on a planet on which the shifting and fracturing of the upper mantle are a natural and inevitable occurrence. We suffer because accidents and illnesses happen. We suffer because stupidity, self-interest, insanity, or power-lust cause people to harm one another or themselves. We suffer, finally, because we cherish those who feel the effects of these natural occurrences, accidents, and evils, and because love makes loss almost unbearable.

We happen to live here and we have the capacity to care, about ourselves and/or others. Of course we suffer. That capacity to care is also what enables us to experience wonder and joy.

I suppose it's only natural that we seek to avoid suffering. That is, it's understandable to want to avoid it. But I also believe we are morally obligated not to turn a blind eye to it, and the reason I'm bringing this up is a Facebook thread I read yesterday that really, really bothered me. These are the statements that I found irritating:

Person A: "I have not been able to bring myself to look at images from Japan yet."

Person B: "There are some of us who can truly feel deep compassion without the visuals."

Person C: "I refuse to. I don't need to be traumatised by that flood of images (can we call it disaster-porn?) in order to pray for the people of Japan."

Person H: "I think I used up my year's quota of natural disaster media coverage in the Queensland floods."

Person L: "I am in tragedy overload and cannot bear to watch it. It's not entertainment and it turns my stomach when people talk about it as if it is."

I understand some of the points made in the above statements (and others I didn't bother to quote), but what turns my stomach is the image of a bunch of safe, comfortable Americans / British people / Europeans WHINING from their comfy homes about how "tough" it is to look at others' pain and suffering. THEY WON'T EVEN LOOK, they REFUSE TO SEE the faces of their brothers and sisters suffering across the world - and thus, to my mind, in a way deny or refuse to affirm the reality of that suffering. It made me think of a kid plugging her ears and willfully refusing to hear the sobbing of another kid - I don't see you; I don't hear you; therefore I won't see or hear or feel your pain or have to take any responsibility for it.

I understand that sensationalism is negative and disrespectful in itself, but I felt like saying (and please consider that I was feeling very upset about the posts at the time), "Y'all are a bunch of wusses. Suck it up and LOOK! It's not happening to YOU! The >10,000 people who suffered and died under the debris deserve better than to have a bunch of comfy foreigners hiding their eyes and 'praying for them.' Solidarity is the highest form of compassion, and sometimes allowing ourselves to experience a little secondary trauma is the right thing to do. So many people spend their energy avoiding the REALITY of suffering that they can't even confront it vicariously. SAD."

I did not stick my nose into the discussion for reasons too complicated to elaborate here, but I was so deeply bothered by the way the majority of respondents felt justified in their insistence on looking away. It's so easy to claim, I feel for people anyway even if I don't know exactly what they've been through. I can pray for them without having to understand the details of their their pain. I guess I feel it's disingenuous. Don't we have an obligation to do more than "feel for" others? Shouldn't we seek to know and understand in order for our compassion - from the root, to suffer with - to have integrity? How can we feel we have the right to just erase someone else's misery from our minds by refusing to see it? Isn't that selfish, and cowardly?

I'm not saying my point of view is necessarily right. I'm still working it out, and trying to figure out why I had such a strong reaction to this thread. Someone there shared a lovely blog post that offered a beautiful alternative to disaster-porn mentality, and I appreciated that, but I also knew that it didn't convey the experience of those who witnessed or were directly affected by the disasters, and I still couldn't shake the bothered feeling I had when I thought about people willfully refusing to see their suffering.

I'm venting it here because I am trying to make sense of my own jumbled thoughts and feelings. I suppose it's normal when the unthinkable happens to wrestle with all sorts of ideas and emotions. There are never any simple answers when it comes to human suffering, are there?