The Last Monk of Tibhirine by Freddy Derwahl

The Last Monk of Tibhirine: A True Story of Martyrdom, Faith, and SurvivalThe Last Monk of Tibhirine: A True Story of Martyrdom, Faith, and Survival by Freddy Derwahl

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When Jean-Pierre appeared at the gate in the late afternoon of my arrival, we immediately embraced each other. He knew what I expected of him—namely, that I hoped he would relate the whole story to me. I found the slightly bent-over eighty-seven-year-old Trappist monk in good spirits. His blue-green eyes accentuated an impish smile that concealed great kindness. Deep wrinkles on his forehead and chin did not bear the signs of worry but of wisdom. He wore a sand-colored habit typical for this climate, with a leather belt, and on his head a knit tarbush bearing Islamic motifs. … The next morning at 10:30, we sat down together for the first time. Our only topic was his life. The massacre of his seven brothers lay fifteen years in the past. He, however, had been spared from the attack, so where had his fate led him since then?

This is the story of Jean-Pierre Schumacher, the last surviving member of a Cistercian monastic community in Algeria, whose members were was kidnapped and killed in 1996. Like many people, I became aware of that event when I saw the movie Of Gods and Men, which Scott Danielson and I discussed on A Good Story is Hard to Find podcast.

This book alternates between Jean-Pierre’s life story and author Freddy Derwahl’s experience while on retreat at the monastery. It includes the lives of the martyred monks as their lives intertwined with Jean-Pierre’s, with special emphasis on the prior, Christian, and his writing. Once the timeline gets to the point where the movie was made, it is included in the discussion which is interesting for anyone who has seen it.

I did not expect the book to grab me from the first page as the author told the story, not only of Jean-Pierre, but also of his own experience staying at the new monastery. His diary entries not only drew me into his own experience, but also invited me to deeper reflection.

2:00 pm:
A siesta with open eyes. The text about the exciting life of P. André Louf that I read during the night continues to resonate with me. I need the example of strong men. That is the reason why I had also taken along the books by Pope Benedict and Ernst Junger. They tested their limits—one of them in a gentle manner, the other defying death. By the way, both of them feel the mocking criticism of their time breathing down their necks.

9:30 pm:
I sit outside on my little wooden bench. Rarely was the star-filled sky so comforting. We are surrounded by magnificence that is unreachable and yet a promise that is quite close.

One of the most impressive things to me about this book is the way that the monks’ offer their faith to others by embracing all that they can of Islam. That may sound overly ecumenical but the way that Christian approached it was to include all the Islamic symbolism and patterns possible in different parts of the monastery. This at least added a familiar feel to visiting Muslims and added a context for showing where there were common points of worship and faith.

It worked so well that twice a year there were a group of Muslim devout who would come for a day of common prayer and worship, at the Muslims’ request. They quickly discovered that discussing theological points led to disagreement and so learned to focus on the God alone. This made it possible to connect as people of faith based on the core idea of searching for God and personally connecting with Him.

A deep bond developed between the prior and the Muslim friend after the latter had asked him to teach him how to pray, and for many years there was a lively spiritual exchange between the two. After they had not seen each other for a while due to various other obligations, the Muslim friend said to him, “I think it is time to dig in our common well again.” It was an allusion to the depth that characterized their encounters.

Christian responded, “And what will we find at the bottom of the well? Muslim or Christian water?”

Then he looked at him with a mixture of smiling and sorrow: “Do you still ask yourself this question? Don’t you know that on the bottom of this fountain we will find the water of God?”

The Last Monk of Tibhirine was originally written in German and the English translation occasionally betrays awkwardness. The most obvious place was when Derwahl’s July 26 diary said, “Mass in celebration of the Apostle Jacob.” I was stopped in my tracks as I pondered who the Apostle Jacob might be. Finally going to a liturgical calendar I realized that it was a mistranslation. July 26 is the Apostle James’ feast day.

There were a few other awkward phrasings in sentences which seemed as if they should connect to transitional commentary or new thoughts, but which never materialized.These were not egregious enough to make reading problematic but did cause the occasional hiccup.

Overall The Last Monk of Tibhirine is suitable for either slow, meditative reading or simply to learn more about the story of Jean-Pierre and Our Lady of Atlas monastery. I enjoyed it on both levels. Suffice it to say that this book is a gem whether one has seen Of Gods and Men or not. Highly recommended.

About Julie Davis

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