Yesterday, twenty years ago, seven Trappist monks were kidnapped by Islamist terrorists from their monastery in Algeria and held as hostage for two months. On May 24, 1996, the terrorists announced that they had ‘slit the throats’ of their hostages.
Sixteen hundred years ago, the fourth-century church father Jerome lamented the previous twenty years of daily bloodshed in what we call Europe today at the hands of Goths, Huns, Vandals and other barbarians. ‘How many of God’s matrons and virgins, virtuous and noble ladies, have been made the sport of these brutes! Bishops have been made captive, priests and those in minor orders have been put to death. Churches have been overthrown, horses have been stalled by the altars of Christ, the relics of martyrs have been dug up. Mourning and fear abound on every side and death appears in countless shapes and forms.’
Six days ago, mourning and fear abounded on every side and death appeared once again in countless shapes and forms in the streets of Brussels.
As told in the film ‘Of Gods and Men’, Father Christian and his fellow monks were under no illusions when they voted not to take the path of prudence in the face of terrorist threats. Yet they were not brave heroes. They felt like birds on a branch, Christian told local Muslim leaders, wondering whether or not to take off. The locals, desperately wanting them to stay, responded: ‘No, we are the birds. You are the branch.’
Anticipating the worst, Christian left a testament with his family ‘to be opened in the event of my death’, which read in part as follows:
If it should happen one day—and it could be today—that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to encompass 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. I ask them to accept that the One Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure. I ask them to pray for me: for how could I be found worthy of such an offering? I ask them to be able to associate such a death with the many other deaths that were just as violent, but forgotten through indifference and anonymity.
My life has no more value than any other. Nor any less value. In any case, it has not the innocence of childhood. I have lived long enough to know that I share in the evil which seems, alas, to prevail in the world, even in that which would strike me blindly. I should like, when the time comes, to have a clear space which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God and of all my fellow human beings, and at the same time to forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me down.
I could not desire such a death. It seems to me important to state this. I do not see, in fact, how I could rejoice if this people I love were to be accused indiscriminately of my murder. It would be to pay too dearly for what will, perhaps, be called “the grace of martyrdom,” to owe it to an Algerian, whoever he may be, especially if he says he is acting in fidelity to what he believes to be Islam. I know the caricature of Islam which a certain kind of Islamism encourages. It is too easy to give oneself a good conscience by identifying this religious way with the fundamentalist ideologies of the extremists. For me, Algeria and Islam are something different; they are a body and a soul…
For this life given up, totally mine and totally theirs, I thank God who seems to have wished it entirely for the sake of that joy in everything and in spite of everything…
And you also, the friend of my final moment, who would not be aware of what you were doing. Yes, for you also I wish this ‘thank you’—and this adieu—to commend you to the God whose face I see in yours.
And may we find each other, happy ‘good thieves’, in Paradise, if it pleases God, the Father of us both. Amen.
Reflecting this week on Jerome’s lamentations in the light of the Brussels attacks, I wondered if he ever foresaw that these terrorising barbarians would one day embrace the story of Jesus and themselves carry the Gospel to the corners of the globe. These ‘murderers and rapists’ were, for many of us, our forefathers.
Dare we think such thoughts or pray such prayers for last week’s terrorists? Could we write such a testament?
Easter reminds us that the Gospel is all about death… and resurrection; forgiveness… and transformation.
Till next week,