catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 10, Num 11 :: 2011.06.10 — 2011.06.23


Should we stay or should we go?

Praying in the church.  Tending to the cold frames. Studying the Bible and the Koran. Praying in the church.  Preparing dinner. Selling honey.  Treating patients in a free medical clinic.  Sharing communion in the church.

These are the activities of daily life for monks in the Trappist community that is the focus of the film Of God’s and Men.  Located in rural Algeria, the community serves in good relationship with their Muslim neighbors.  However, when a violent fundamentalist movement begins threatening the lives of moderate Muslims and Christians in the country in the mid-1990s, the monks have to decide whether to stay or to leave or to accept protection from the corrupt military.  It’s a slow film, but that’s intentional—you see the community’s collective and individual decision-making process against the backdrop of their lives, showing many of their prayers at length to allow the viewer to understand their decision in the context of their deepest commitments.

In one important regard, the official description of the film is poor: “Despite the growing menace in their midst, they slowly realize that they have no choice but to stay.”  Well, not really.  Part of the beauty of the film is that it embeds the monks’ agonizing choice — in which they very much have agency — in the context of their slow, deliberate rule of life.  In fact, the decision itself is the primary drama of the story and raises critical questions for the viewer: for what am I willing to risk my life? What community and rituals reinforce the stability of my hard commitments?

I’m re-reading Kathleen Norris’ Dakota and one passage in my recent reading sticks out to me related to this beautiful, hard film.  Norris is quoting a monk named Terrence Kardong, who lives in a struggling Dakotan community that’s often been advised to leave and go somewhere more urban, more easy.  Kardong says,

We maybe crazy, but we are not necessarily stupid….  We built these buildings ourselves.  We’ve cultivated these fields since the turn of the century.  We watched from our dining room window the mirage of the Killdeer Mountains rise and fall on the horizon.  We collected a library full of local history books and they belong here, not in Princeton.  Fifty of our brothers lie down the hill in our cemetery.  We have becomes as indigenous as the cottonwood trees….  If you take us somewhere else, we lose our character, our history — maybe our soul.

Of Gods and Men further heightens this tension of hard commitment by showing the monks in the middle of an extremely violent revolution, facing direct threats to their lives.  It raises all sorts of questions about non-violence, the true nature of freedom and liturgy as storytelling for identity formation.  Though the film contains many scenes of discussion and worship, it’s far from didactic, and the most moving moments of grace are shown, rather than told.

A glass of wine.  A song.  An embrace.

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