Of Gods and Men and the Surprising Drama of Spiritual Discernment

Of Gods and Men and the Surprising Drama of Spiritual Discernment May 24, 2011

Even though the French film Of Gods and Men—which won the 2010 Grand Prix at Cannes—is based on real events that took place in Algeria in 1995 and 1996, one particular scene may have even more contemporary resonance for viewers. The Algerian military has called Brother Christian, the prior of a small Trappist monastery, to identify a dead man believed to be the leader of a jihadist group that terrorized the area, even leading a raid on the monastery. A military official proudly tells Brother Christian that the dead man’s corpse was dragged through the streets behind a truck, as those who had suffered at his hands cheered. Brother Christian, disturbed, declares that no human being should be treated in such a fashion, no matter what his crimes. When he sees the dead man, he makes the sign of the cross and begins to pray. The military official’s eyes turn hard as flint. The war between the way of the cross and the way of the sword is on.

Especially in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death, it would be far too easy to politicize Of Gods and Men, to turn its message, as some reviewers have done, into a movie primarily expressing either (a) the hope for brotherhood between Christians and Muslims or (b) as movieguide.org says, “a wake-up call to western civilization” (and I don’t think they mean a wake-up call to take up our crosses and suffer with Christ). Political issues are indeed addressed in the film, as they should be: these are French monks dwelling in a former French colony, though part of their intended mission is to repair the wounds of history. In the film’s admission that, in the fallen world, spiritual life can never be completely extricated from the messiness of the temporal—especially because of Christians’ historical participation in European colonialism—it bears comparison to The Mission (one of my favorite films). Nor does the film shy away from depicting the ugly reality of the terrorists’ violence. Yet Of Gods and Men is also, in a deep way, about spiritual discernment. It’s about the voice of God, speaking to men—through Word, liturgy, sacrament, communal life, and even “secular” music.

As tensions grow during the Algerian Civil War, as reports flow in of women killed for refusing to wear the hijab, of Europeans killed for being Europeans, the monks face the difficult decision of whether to stay or leave. They debate their potentially life-and-death decision together only twice—in the first of these meetings, they are divided between different opinions. Because Of Gods and Men isn’t an exposition-heavy movie, some viewers may be left wondering why they can’t just pack up and pray elsewhere (Roger Ebert even calls it “egotism to believe their help must take place in this specific monastery”). Trappists, with other monastic orders, take a vow of stability, a commitment not only to the community of people but to geographical place, in the belief that God works spiritual transformation—true conversion of life—through this kind of deep rooting. It’s a sacred vow. For the monks to even consider leaving their monastery, the situation must be dire.

Of Gods and Men does not portray the monks as perfect individuals. During the discernment process, each individual’s weakness surfaces. Brother Christian at first unequivocally refuses military protection from the Algerian government, without first consulting his brothers—an oversight for which they call him to task. The film shows a hardness to Brother Christian that suggests his motivation may involve some stubborn pride or even a bit of a martyr complex. Another monk struggles with the nagging doubt that, if they are martyred, it will be for nothing. Even a man who has already given up everything for Christ can sometimes still fear death. Yet, despite their initial disagreement over their course of action, the monks continue the rhythm of their daily life together, going about their tasks in the garden or in the community medical clinic, punctuating the hours with sung liturgy and prayer.

Within a few weeks, when the monks again meet together to vote on staying or leaving, they are of a single mind. What has led them to such unity? Certainly not rational discussion of the pros and cons of each side. Instead, they work together. They sing together and take the Eucharist together. They listen together. And through these daily activities they are each nudged toward the same decision. More than any movie I can think of, Of Gods and Men is a testament to the importance of worship to a community—worship as a vehicle through which God works to form his people in his image.

The filmmakers wisely chose to have the actors playing the monks, instead of a trained choir, sing in the film. The actors themselves, in interviews, expressed that the experience of singing bound them together. “To chant psalms is to breathe together, to share the Breath of Life,” says Olivier Rabourdin, who plays Brother Christophe. In the movie itself, the psalms give voice to the whole range of human emotions—in a way, allowing the monks to “act” out fear, anger, confidence, and praise, no matter what they actually happen to be feeling at the moment. And God speaks to each in these moments of song and in the silences in between. Though we as viewers do not hear God’s literal voice in the film, we see the monks expressing gratitude for the wisdom they have been given: one monk looks joyfully up to the sky as it pours down rain on his face, another whispers “You surround me” to God in the middle of the night, another contemplates a poster of the crucified Jesus on the wall, putting his fingers on the spear wound in his side.

Given that the monks’ life is structured by sacred music, it’s interesting that one of the film’s most transcendent moments occurs when one monk plays a recording of the main theme from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. It’s clearly a moment of rare aesthetic indulgence, and the monks truly have something to celebrate: their life together as a community. As the music plays and they drink wine together, the camera lingers on each of their faces in turn (in a way, it reminds me of a similar shared-meal scene in Babette’s Feast, another of my favorite films), showing fear, relief, and, most importantly, love for each other. (Incidentally, this moment probably works best if you aren’t used to hearing the Swan Lake theme in horror movies. I’ve discovered after many arguments that, while the Swan Lake theme represents mystery, longing, and great beauty to me—and apparently to the monks in Of Gods and Men—lots of people hear it as sinister and creepy. This may be because it was used in the 1931 film version of Dracula and subsequently in a lot of Saturday morning cartoons.)

What happens after this moment matters little: the tension of the plot does not revolve around whether the monks will live or die. Of Gods and Men has, instead, achieved the far more difficult task of dramatizing spiritual discernment. The monks, through God’s divine nudging, have been led, each in his own way, to a decision. And they are at peace. As one monk, Brother Luc, declares, “I’m not scared of terrorists, even less of the army. And I’m not scared of death. I’m a free man.” Free men all, the monks know that their freedom in Christ calls them to radical obedience to the will of God. And the revelation of that will, through their mundane routines, is a miracle.

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