Friday, June 03, 2011

Dom Christian de Chergé

Below is a testament written by a Cistercian monk, Dom Christian de Chergé,  shortly before he was martyred by Muslim terrorists in Algeria.  I recommend this testament to every Orthodox Christian.  

I have noticed a tinge of fear and sometimes anger in the discussion among Orthodox Christians in North America regarding Islam.  It seems that many are relying more on CNN and Fox News to set their tone than they are the Scripture and the Holy Fathers.  Perhaps those of us of the True Faith can learn a little something from a Roman Catholic (Cistercian) monk who has been revealed as a martyr of Christ.

The story of the monks and their monastery is told in the 2010 movie, Of Gods and Men.  Every North American should see this film. 

Facing a GOODBYE....

If it should happen one day - and it could be today -
that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to engulf all the foreigners living in Algeria,
I would like my community, my Church and my family
to remember that my life was GIVEN to God and to this country. 
I ask them to accept the fact that the One Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure.
I would ask them to pray for me:
for how could I be found worthy of such an offering?
I ask them to associate this death with so many other equally violent ones which are forgotten through indifference or 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 am an accomplice in the evil which seems to prevail so terribly in the world,
even in the evil which might blindly strike me down.
I should like, when the time comes, to have a moment of spiritual clarity which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God and of my fellow human beings, and at the same time 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 the people I love were indiscriminately accused of my murder.
It would be too high a price to pay for what will perhaps be called, the "grace of martyrdom" to owe it to an Algerian, whoever he might be, especially if he says he is acting in fidelity to what he believes to be Islam.
I am aware of the scorn which can be heaped on the Algerians indiscriminately.
I am also aware of the caricatures of Islam which a certain Islamism fosters.
It is too easy to soothe one's conscience by identifying this religious way with the fundamentalist ideology of its extremists.
For me, Algeria and Islam are something different: it is a body and a soul.
I have proclaimed this often enough, I think, in the light of what I have received from it.
I so often find there that true strand of the Gospel which I learned at my mother's knee, my very first Church, precisely in Algeria, and already inspired with respect for Muslim believers.
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.

Algiers, 1st December 1993

Tibhirine, 1st January 1994  


Daniel Peterson said...

Father, Has this already come out on dvd or did you check it out in the theater?

Jake said...

You speak of a "tinge of fear". What else would you have us do - it is the correct reaction. Islam is the only one of the "great religions" where the founder was a military/political leader who explicitly called for his followers to kill their enemies and rape their enemies wives. There is a time for everything under the sun including fear.

This mans martyrdom has nothing to do with the correct characterization of Islam as a way of life and "being religious". I have never found anything in the Holy Fathers that calls for us to throw ourselves on the sword of Islam. All religions and all cultures are not created equal, even if all fall short of the Glory of God.

This man had his reasons, his love, for the Islamic people he chose to live and die with. So be it. I see nothing in this that would have me stand aside and a say and do nothing if my culture chose in it's weakness to "accommodate" Islam. My daughter (to say nothing of myself) would be worse off for it. Your characterization of this as a "tinge of fear" is strange.

CNN and Fox News has the better half here...

Finally I would note I and many others (including the whole dimminitude experience of Orthodox Christians through 1300 years of lived oppresion) would disagree with this man's characterization of Islam itself, namely the idea that there is a Isam and there is a “Islamism” - in otherworlds that there is a fundamentalism within Islam that warps it's “true meaning”. If Islamic people have at times historically “toned down” Islam and it's violent nature, that is in spite of, not because of the religion itself. Contrary to what this man says this reading is not a “carciture”. He is simply wrong on this point.

Fr. Michael said...

Dear Christopher,
Perhaps this Christian martyr had read where Jesus says, "fear not those who can kill the body."
I have no delusions about the evil men inflict on one another--even KKK members who lynch in the name of their version of Christianity, or outwardly Orthodox Christians committing pogroms on Jews or Jesuits profiting from slave trade or Protestants driving Catholics from their homes in Ireland. No, the line of good and evil runs not along religious lines but through every human heart.

Fr. Michael said...

Dear Daniel,
Yes I was able to see the movie. It is very powerful--if you can handle slow moving movies. It is, after all, about Trappist monks.

Jake said...

Fr. Micheal,

I hear what you are saying. It's just hard to hear it in this man's letter through the noise of his characterization of Islam. However, the end of his letter reminded me of Saint Clive Staples Lewis' essay "why I am not a pacifist", in which he describes meeting the German soldier whom has killed him in heaven and them laughing together over the futility of this world.

Another thing that this letter reminded me of (or perhaps challenged is the right world) is the difference between the de facto pacifism of monastics and everyone else. With a duty to family and country, I can not be a pacifist in the face of Islam or any evil which would simply destroy for the sake of destroying. There is a tension between lay and monastic morality in the face of such evil that I don't quite know how to resolve. In the end, I simply don't believe that God is calling us all to a monastic pacifism even if we are all responsible and have evil in our hearts...

Fr. Michael said...

Dear Christopher,
I think you are asking the right question here. I don't know what the answer is either. I certainly would defend my wife and children and grandchildren--even if I like to think I would not defend myself. That is part of the difference between a monastic and a married person. May God help us and deliver us from fear so that whatever is necessary, we will think clearly and act in love. By the way, I liked that picture C.S. Lewis draws too. I have often thought of it. As a boy, I had terrible fights with other boys who afterward were my best friends. I know that is possible.

Ostensive Lyme said...

One small point of correction:
"pacifism" is not strictly relegated to Monastics.
Priest too, in the world, are forbidden to shed blood.

Jake said...

"Priest too, in the world, are forbidden to shed blood."

I have heard of this cannon. It's too bad, as it strikes me as a species of Donatism. In any case, it speaks to my original point - that there is a divide/tension between monastics/hierarchy and lay and that the lay can not look to the monastics/hierarchy for crucial moral guidance in this area...

Ostensive Lyme said...

Evening Christopher.
I would disagree with you on this point. While I agree with you and Fr Michael that loving our enemies is radically challenging when our enemies threaten our vulnerable loved ones, I nevertheless believe that it is possible to be entirely faithful to Christ's commandment even 'in the world'.
I believe love is fulfilled when we give our lives up for those we love- so with Father I would protect my family in this very manner.
I disagree with what seems to be implied by Fr. Michael, that there is a conflict between my natural duty to protect my family and Christ's commandment to love my enemies. I would place my body and my life in the way of any threat to my loved ones. But I pray I would not deny the icon of Christ even in my enemy by killing him as if his life were of less value than my family. My love is only perfected when I love my enemies as if they are my own family, in the likeness of our Father who makes his sun to shine on the righteous and unrighteous alike.
This Way has been revealed to us by martyrs who did not renounce Christ even when their children's lives were at stake. We believe in the world to come. Our witness to the resurrectional power of God's love is dependent on this very witness.
Nevertheless for all my right understanding of Orthodox nonviolent love, I am not be able to witness to this as I am not yet conformed as I should be to the likeness of Christ. I am brutal in my fantasies of "just vengeance". If in my hardheartedness I one day kill my enemies, I know God is merciful. But, as Fr Stephen Freemen I think said it best: Orthodoxy teaches the paradox of life in the fallen world, but does not become an apologist for the compromises made in that fallen world.

I write a lot about nonviolence and Orthodoxy on my own blog "Two Swords." It may only infuriate you I dont know. But if you genuinely wish to grapple with the issues please feel free to read and comment there.

Because I recognize nonviolent love of enemies as the genuine Orthodox Way, the sin I am in danger of is hypocrisy. It is one thing to think and write about loving my enemies, it is another thing entirely to live it. But it's better to know the goal and strive for it than remain in willful ignorance out of fear of the light.

-Mark Basil

Jake said...


Perhaps where I would disagree with you (though I am not sure from what you said) is where the love of your enemies is reduced (or perhaps "thought of" is the way to put it) to a radical pacifism in the face of evil. It's almost as if a hard and inflexible formula is being drawn: love of enemies = "nonviolence". You see, while I agree there is a time for martyrdom, I also believe there is a time for resistance of evil, even to the death of the deranged child of God who is the agent of this evil.

St. Paul certainly thinks this is the case (Romans 13). Notice he says that the "...beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil....". He beareth not the sword in vain!

So certainly, the police officer, the soldier, even the citizen (all lay) are not called to a radical "nonviolence". It is a heavy burden for sure, given our sinful state. But they are only falling short of very human IDEAL of "nonviolence". They do not (necessarily by a law of Christ - if by reason of sin often enough) bear the sword in vain. It this were true, then we have a major contradiction in Scripture itself.

I put nonviolence in quotes because I don't think what is meant by this term by most pacifists is truly nonviolent. Like most IDEALS, taken to it's logical conclusion in all circumstances leads to some very very nasty results. The mystery of Good and Evil are just that, a mystery. "pacifism" and "nonviolence" almost always rationalize something into an absolute that stands against the very definition of mystery.

What most of this boils down to is what it exactly means to love ones enemies Does Love always (necessarily as a law of Love and God) demand allowing the violence of ones enemies to prevail (by your “nonviolent” reaction) in each and every situation in each and every human life? I don't believe so, and I don't believe the Church teaches this (St. Paul certainly does not). I do think this is what some in the Church believe, and I think they believe the Church teaches this, which is why there are pacifists who also happen to be Orthodox.

In any case thanks for the thoughtful post. I will check out your blog. Most importantly, as Fr. Michael said “ May God help us and deliver us from fear so that whatever is necessary, we will think clearly and act in love.”

Ostensive Lyme said...
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Ostensive Lyme said...
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Ostensive Lyme said...
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Ostensive Lyme said...

Hello Christopher;
for whatever reason my response is not posting properly.
instead I've posted it on my blog and here's the link:

I guess this way it wont clutter up dear Fr Michael's blog anyway!

Jake said...


Very interesting exegesis! However, I disagree that it is the "only" or even "right" one. Even in very evil states of society (say Nazi Germany, or our own when you take the holocaust of the unborn into account) it is not a black and white, either/or. True the state is often (not always) a bad actor. However it can and does bear the sword for good. A police officer in the line of duty can (and many have) bear the sword for good.

A citizen can defend his family for good. Not every violent death is a martyrdom Allow me to repeat that: not every violent death or encounter is a martyrdom If a deranged child of God came into my home intending to rape and murder and I have the means of stopping this child of God even if it means the death of him, this can be a good. Allowing him his wanton destruction is not necessarily a witness - for whom, in what way would God be using this? (I mention this because of your reasoning in your post "violence in protection of my family"). To your point about "Theosis", I do not believe it ("it" being allowing the violence of the deranged child of God to prevail) furthers that goal for anyone involved any more than it furthers a moral one. In that sense, you are treating all violence the same and paradoxically, all violence ends up being a source of good (a "witness"). If this were the case, then we would not have to pay any attention to Good and Evil at all – any sort of life however virtuous or deranged would lead to the same blessed place. There is a reason why the Church affirms Hell.

We simply disagree on the shape and character of “violence”, it's place in the Christian life, and on what exactly it means to “love ones enemies”. That's ok, we can be respectful (more than that, loving). Chances our we are both wrong ;) In any case it is my sincere prayer that God keeps both of our family's from all “danger, necessity, and distress” and that His Peace prevails.

Ostensive Lyme said...

Christopher, it's impossible to argue with you. You have the heart of a peacemaker. :)

Please pray for me;
-Mark Basil

Pippi said...

Perhaps this isn't entirely relevant, but this post reminded me immediately of the words my brother heard from a missionary to the Middle East who visited his Presbyterian church recently. He likened the attitude of the Western church toward Moslems to that of Jonah toward Nineveh. "We really don't like these people, we don't think they deserve salvation, and if they get it, we're going to sit under a tree and sulk." Interesting analogy.