What would you do if to remain in a place would almost certainly mean losing your life? This is question found at the heart of the French film, “Of Gods and Men.” The film is based on the true story of eight Cistercian Trappist monks living their lives in the Atlas Mountains of Algeria in the 1990’s. The country is caught up in a violent and bloody civil war between a totalitarian regime and violent Islamic extremists. The monks have lived in peace with their Muslim neighbors but there is violence all around and non-Muslims are being killed. The monks know that it is just a matter of time.
The film powerfully portrays the debate these men have both as a community and in their own souls about remaining or leaving. These men are not super-heroes and they are not portrayed that way. They are ordinary men who, through prayer and interaction among themselves and with the villagers – each come to the realization that he must remain.
Late one night the extremists arrive. Six of the monks are taken away to be used as hostages. In the winter of 1996, the monks were killed.
The men choose to remain – specifically, out of love for their Lord and their own calling and also out of love for the villagers and their need. The men chose to remain.
Today, the church celebrates Good Shepherd Sunday and one overriding characteristic of the Good Shepherd is that, come what may, the good shepherd remains. He does not seek to save himself. In the gospel account of Jesus’ passion we find that everyone else flees, everyone else seeks to save himself (the disciples run away, Peter denies Jesus, Pilate washes his hands of the matter, the religious establishment is concerned only with its own position) except our Lord. Our Lord remains, our Lord does not seek to save himself. Our Lord is the good shepherd. The sheep hear and recognize his voice because in love he chooses to remain. Because of this his voice is authentic and true; it cuts through all the noise, false voices and distractions of the world and it speaks directly to our hearts.
What is very moving (and beautifully portrayed) in the film is how the decision to remain is not unilateral and neither is it forced on anyone. Each man makes his own decision to remain and it is the love found in the daily encounters (the daily life of the brothers themselves, the encounters with the villagers and their needs, the encounter with Christ in prayer) that led each one to that decision.
The voice of the Good Shepherd speaks to our hearts through the love found in daily encounters.
We all know the temptation to flee; to save oneself above all else. This temptation is there for each of us in a multitude of ways: the stress of relationships and pressures of work, the pain of illness, suffering and persecution, the fear of that which is different and unknown. This temptation can seem so powerful and overwhelming. What can enable one to remain in the face of it? Love can, the love that we know and receive from our Lord in the everyday encounter.
The Good Shepherd speaks to our hearts and his voice is authentic and true.