There is a beautiful line in the film, “Of Gods and Men” – “Let God set the table here. For everyone. Friends and enemies.” This particular line is spoken in the story by the superior of a Trappist monastery in the mountains of Algeria. Based upon the true story of the monks of Atlas Abbey in Tibhirine, the film depicts the community’s final months before seven of its members, including their superior, were kidnapped and killed by an armed militia. Their deaths, and those of thousands of others in Algeria, were the bitter fruit of a society polarized by extreme rhetoric, religious intolerance and violent prejudice.
I think often of these monks in my own ministry of vocational accompaniment. I suppose it’s reasonable to ask, “Why?” After all, their deaths took place in a predominantly Muslim country some 23 years ago. What do they have to do with the lives of young men discerning God’s call today? Well, it was a Muslim woman who showed me how.
Then, I was serving as a Maryknoll missionary in East Africa the same year as the monks of Tibhirine were slain thousands of miles away in northern Africa. I worked in partnership with a small legal project that assisted poor Kenyans in securing their basic human and legal rights, especially land rights. One day, I stopped by their office and noticed one of their administrative assistants, an attractive and sophisticated young Kenyan woman, wearing a hijab, a dark scarf she wore loosely over her head. Since I had not seen her wear it before, I asked her in a friendly but respectful way, “What gives?” She smiled and replied, “I’m wearing this as a sign of my hope that I can overcome my own selfishness and pride. These are things that keep me from experiencing God’s love. And, if I cannot accept God’s love, how can I share it with others? This struggle against selfishness and pride is what we Muslims call ‘jihad’.”
In becoming better acquainted with this Muslim woman, she took it upon herself to share with me how her own “jihad” against personal pride led her to reach out to Christians and to others so that she could recognize the surprising ways that God’s love was present in each person she met. The film, “Of Gods and Men”, depicts beautifully – and painfully – these same experiences in the discipline of selfless love embraced by the monks of Tibhirine.