This May marks the twentieth anniversary of the deaths of the monks of Tibhirine, and this September marks the same anniversary of the death of Henri Nouwen. Twenty years ago, on the very day of the monks’ abduction in Algeria, March 27th – my birthday – I was sleeping in the Hotel Palatine on the Via Cavour in Rome. Little did I know that sometime in the future their lives would intersect with mine in the most profound manner.
Through John Kiser’s The Monks of Tibhirine: Faith, Love and Terror in Algeria and Xavier Beauvois’ exquisite film Des hommes et des dieux (Of Gods and Men), these brothers in the Lord, though dead, yet they still speak. I don’t remember when I first heard about my brother, Henri Nouwen; but for the past few years, through his writings, though dead, he still speaks, he speaks to me wonderful Christian truths. What did…what do these men have to say even now?
All seven of the Trappist monks killed in 1996 were French. They were: Christian, Luc, Christophe, Michel, Bruno, Célestin and Paul. These brothers – my brothers in Christ – lived and ministered to the townspeople of Tibhirine in the Atlas Mountains of Algeria. Ministered to a people and country they loved. Caught in the clutches of a brutal civil war, they were killed; and, ironically, to this day, their murderers are unknown.
Often in my life, I come across a piece of art whether it is a song, film, book or even painting that mysteriously resonates deeply within my being. That is what happened when I viewed “Of Gods and Men” in 2012. This film tells the story of Christian and his fellow monks in Tibhirine while incorporating all that is beautiful in the Catholic Church. The simple liturgy, the acapella worship, the spiritual academia and the rich art history. Never has a movie so holistically moved me.
That they were kidnapped on my birthday while I was in Rome seemed to underscore this connection. I am bonded to these brothers because of their story, but also because of their Christian lives and how they lived the gospel in true simplicity and anonymity. One of the many things these brothers speak about even now is forgiveness.
Knowing his murder was a possibility, Brother Christian penned a testament, a manifesto of his heart. Even though dead, he still speaks to us today about forgiveness and love. He wrote:
Obviously, my death will appear to confirm
those who hastily judged me naïve or idealistic:
“Let him tell us now what he thinks of his ideals!”
But these persons should know that finally my most avid curiosity will be set free.
This is what I shall be able to do, God willing:
immerse my gaze in that of the Father
to contemplate with him His children of Islam
just as He sees them, all shining with the glory of Christ,
the fruit of His Passion, filled with the Gift of the Spirit
whose secret joy will always be to establish communion
and restore the likeness, playing with the differences.
For this life lost, totally mine and totally theirs,
I thank God, who seems to have willed it entirely
for the sake of that JOY in everything and in spite of everything.
In this THANK YOU, which is said for everything in my life from now on,
I certainly include you, friends of yesterday and today,
and you, my friends of this place,
along with my mother and father, my sisters and brothers and their families,
You are the hundredfold granted as was promised!
And also you, my last-minute friend, who will not have known what you were doing:
Yes, I want this THANK YOU and this GOODBYE to be a “GOD-BLESS” for you, too,
because in God’s face I see yours.
may we meet again as happy thieves in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both.
Because of these wonderful, most Christ-like lives, I will pray for Algeria for the rest of my life for my brothers’ sake, I will pray for the love and peace of God to come to this country they loved. THIS is Christianity. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends, and that is just what my brothers did for their friends in Algeria. This, my friends, is a modern example of walking “in His steps”. I am not glorifying their deaths, I am glorifying their lives.
Another brother, Henri Nouwen, was a priest, scholar, speaker, famous writer and theologian. He left a distinguished career as a teacher and writer to spend time with the handicapped adults at L’Arche in Canada. From there, he says, he learned his greatest lessons.
I first read his book, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, then The Return of the Prodigal Son. Both of these books, like Of Gods and Men, touched me deeply in my wounded soul. Before I read Reaching Out, I was independently thinking of getting from loneliness to solitude. As I contemplated this idea, two books serendipitously came to me that touched on this very subject, Paul Tillich’s The Courage to Be and Nouwen’s Reaching Out. In Reaching Out, Nouwen still speaks:
To live a spiritual life we must first find the courage to enter into the desert of our loneliness and to change it by gentle and persistent efforts into a garden of solitude. The movement from loneliness to solitude, however, is the beginning of any spiritual life because it is the movement from the restless senses to the restful spirit, from the outward-reaching cravings to the inward-reaching search, from the fearful clinging to the fearless play.
Henri lived the last ten years of his life at L’Arche Daybreak community in Richmond Hill, Ontario, Canada. He is buried there. In his book, Finding My Way Home, there are four essays: The Path of Power, The Path of Peace, The Path of Waiting and The Path of Living and Dying. In The Path to Peace, Henri writes about his experiences caring for a young completely handicapped man named Adam. Adam was entirely dependent on the support staff at L’Arche, but despite his disability, Henri said of Adam “the longer I stayed with Adam, the more clearly I recognized him as my gentle teacher, teaching me what no book, school or professor could have ever taught me.” Henri asked Adam’s parents,
“Tell me, during all the years you had Adam in your home, what did he give you?” His father smiled and said without a moment of hesitation: “He brought peace…he is our peacemaker…our son of peace.”
Henri continued, “The gift of peace hidden in Adam’s utter weakness is a gift not of the world, but certainly for the world.” From his experiences with Adam and at L’Arche, though dead, yet he still speaks.
I must touch briefly on The Path of Waiting as this is a place I am familiar with. Loneliness and waiting, waiting for things to happen, things to progress, things to get better. In Reaching Out, my brother taught me how to progress from loneliness to solitude. And in The Path of Waiting, he taught me how to wait.
To wait with openness and trust is an enormously radical attitude toward life. It is choosing to hope that something is happening for us that is far beyond our own imaginings. It is giving up control over the future and letting God define our life. It is living with the conviction that God molds us in love, holds us in tenderness, and moves us away from the sources of our fear.
Our spiritual life is a life in which we wait, actively present in the moment, expecting that new things will happen to us, new things that are far beyond our own imagination and prediction. This, indeed, is a very radical stance toward life in a world preoccupied with control.
I am indebted to these brothers for the lives they lived and the insights they’ve shared. They embraced their faith and brought their talents, struggles and humanity to that faith. I look forward to being “happy thieves in Paradise” with them.
Though dead, yet how profoundly they continue to speak.