With these words, Dom Christian, the Prior of the monastery of Our Lady of Mt Atlas, in Tibhirine, Algeria, began his testament, written between December 1993 and January 1994. The little document shows how fully aware Fr Christian, indeed all the brothers in Tibhirine were, of their precarious existence in Algeria at that time, and how quickly it could deteriorate, and to what it might lead them. The moment which occasioned this prescient testament from Fr Christian was the visit, on Christmas Eve 1993, of a group of armed young men, Islamic extremists, to the monastery, meant to intimidate, and occasioning a deep reflection on the part of the Tibhirine brethren.
Then during the night of March 26th, 1996, seven of the nine monks present at the monastery – Dom Christian de Chergé, Br Luc Dochier, Fr Christophe Lebreton, Br Michel Fleury, Fr Bruno Lemarchand, Fr Célestin Ringeard, and Br Paul Favre-Miville – were kidnapped in circumstances that have never truly been clarified. The seven monks were murdered, probably on 21st May, 1996. The precise events which filled those 56 days of their captivity and the details of their deaths remain shrouded in mystery. Their choice to remain in Algeria, despite an increasing atmosphere of terror, matured swiftly after that first visit. But it was above all a free decision on their part – both as individual monks and as a Trappist community – to remain in their monastery, and together, and with the local Muslim community, and in solidarity with the small Christian community in Algeria.
How do we begin to describe and define the martyrdom of the brethren of Tibhirine? It’s an almost impossible task. In the first instance, they died as a community of monks, virtually all of them, together, as far as we can tell. In that act they lived perfectly the desire which comes toward the close of the Holy Rule of St Benedict which these men heard read to them every day, and which will have occupied their thoughts, guided their whole life in community, provided moments for sharing, teaching, even disagreement, perhaps – “Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to everlasting life” (RB 72). There can be little doubt that they at some stage recognised the true import of those words.
Both phrases are important. Their lives as monks are summed up by the preference expressed in the first phrase. Because Christ was everything for them nothing could assume such importance that it would stand in their way of becoming completely conformed to Christ, their teacher, leader and example. This, after all, is the whole point of monastic life – bringing oneself as completely as possible, and insofar as I know myself, to be one with Christ, who shows me the way to the Father. With all that Christ has made possible, by his life, death and resurrection, nothing can begin to compare. Every Christian life is a struggle to come to terms with this invitation – of putting Christ first in everything – and the monastic life becomes the most intense crucible for it, since it asks the monastic to enter into this struggle completely. Humanly, this is always tough – we are set up in rebellion, in disobedience, in pride, and we find it difficult to be led rather than to choose our own way. This then is the measure of Gospel renunciation.
The aspiration which drives the first phrase is encapsulated in the second – the prayer that Christ will bring us all to everlasting life. We can notice immediately here that St Benedict does an extraordinary thing – from talking about the monks in the first phrase, he includes himself in the group in the second phrase. He wants that they bring him also to this life that Christ promises! Here, Benedict shows himself the subject of his own Rule – he can’t make this journey on his own. No doubt the monks of Tibhirine, in their preparedness, awareness, even fear, but above all, love, carried one another to the terrible fate which awaited them. And this must go for the two monks who were left behind that night, and survived – Br Amadée and Br Jean-Pierre. They are being drawn to this everlasting life by their own brethren, with whom they lived and shared life and the love of brothers, who have gone before them and continue to bear them up. And they do so also by having allowed them, in a sense, to be witnesses to the events of those days by their recollection and reflection.
Witnesses. This, after all, is the technical and literal meaning of ‘martyr’ – one who stands in place of another to give testimony. The witness of the monks of Tibhirine was not just in their deaths – although in this the Church has said that indeed they have lived a singular conformity to Christ, dying out of faith, sustained by love, witnesses to hope, and so she has declared them ‘blessed’. Their lives also strove to provide a rich witness to the Gospel – how to follow Christ; to the gift of peace which is the mark of the Risen Jesus; to a life of sustained private and communal prayer, which marked their house and community as a place of real transfiguration and Christ-Presence; to their humanity, which is the outward sign of our being made in the image and likeness of God, struggling as they did to overcome the will to flee and therefore to preserve their own lives, as many others were doing in Algeria at that time; of dialogue and a desire to live within a context of understanding, respect, love and even prayer with their Muslim neighbours, who came to them for assistance, who worked in the grounds of their monastery, side by side with the monks, who accepted the monks as men of wisdom and special consecration, who brought them peace. These many lived moments of witness would already have distinguished the monks of Our Lady of Mt Atlas had death not come their way as it did. They strove to live a real Gospel fraternity, among themselves in community, and in communion with their Muslim neighbours in whose community they found themselves, not by chance, but by a design that was part of God’s plan for them, and for us. This is a fraternity which costs – perhaps everything that I have to give. It costs in the moment when I offer myself in the belief that everyone possesses a dignity which is equal to mine, even if they do not recognise it in me as such. It seems that Dom Christian, who did so much to lead his brothers, found great support, as we should, in the words of John Paul II when he visited Casablanca, in August 1985:
“All men should live in harmony and serve the universal brotherhood. The human person, man or woman, should never be sacrificed. Each person is unique in God’s eyes. Each one ought to be appreciated for what he is, and consequently, respected as such. No one should use his fellow man; no one should exploit his equal; no one should condemn his brother. It is in these conditions that a more human, more just, and more fraternal world will be able to be born, a world where each one can find his place in dignity and freedom”.
Should you wish to become a little more acquainted with the last days of these extraordinary monks and men, why not watch the acclaimed film Of Gods and Men (2010). Not only does it tell the story of the struggle, desolation and immense consolation which this community at Tibhirine lived out, it also gives a very true and detailed glimpse into Cistercian-Trappist life, since the actors who played the monks prepared for their roles by living with, for a time, our Cistercian community at Tamié.
-Part of our ‘Celebration of the Saints’ series-