by Fr. Tommy Lane
Fr. Christian de Chergé was Prior of the Trappist Monastery (Order of Cistercians of Strict Observance) in Tibhirine, Algeria. He and the other monks were from France. During the Algerian Civil War it was becoming increasingly dangerous for foreigners to remain in Algeria but Fr. de Chergé and his community of monks decided to remain. On March 27, 1996, seven monks were abducted from the monastery. Two months later their heads were found; their bodies were never found. The sad incident is the subject of the movie Of Gods and Men. Father de Chergé had left a document with his family to be opened only on his death. It was published in a French newspaper shortly after his death and became known as his spiritual testament. Part of its English translation reads,
If it should happen one day—and it could be today—that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to encompass all the foreigners living in Algeria, I would like my community, my Church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to this country. I ask them to accept that the One Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure. I ask them to pray for me: for how could I be found worthy of such an offering? I ask them to be able to associate such a death with the many other deaths that were just as violent, but forgotten through indifference and anonymity.
…I should like, when the time comes, to have a clear space which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God and of all my fellow human beings, and at the same time to forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me down.
…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 brothers and sisters and their families—the hundredfold granted as was promised!
And you also, the friend of my final moment, who would not be aware of what you were doing. Yes, for you also I wish this “thank you”—and this adieu—to commend you to the God whose face I see in yours.
And may we find each other, happy “good thieves,” in Paradise, if it pleases God, the Father of us both. Amen.
We see Father de Chergé’s faith in this document as he senses that he will lose his life as a result of terrorism. But the terrorism did not overcome him. He forgave his murderer in advance, “I should like…to forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me down.” He even called his murderer “friend of my final moment” and in whose face God can also be seen and prayed they would be two “good thieves” together in Paradise. We cannot but admire the faith of Fr. Christian de Chergé facing the most difficult challenge of his life. It is only with faith in God and prayer that he and his fellow monks could remain despite what seemed inevitable. With faith in God we see life differently. We see reality, reality in the sense of what life is really all about and the ultimate destination of life beyond what is around us every day. Prayer was surely the sustenance for Father de Chargé and his monks. The Trappist monks pray the Liturgy of the Hours seven times every day as well as celebrating Mass together and meditating together. These many hours spent in prayer every day were surely what gave the spiritual strength to the monks in the final days. Faith and prayer is also our sustenance during our crosses and trials.
I was reminded of the monks of Tibhirine by our first reading today from Habakkuk (1:2-3; 2:2-4). At the beginning of the reading we heard Habakkuk crying out to God. His fellow Jews were suffering during some time of crisis but God seemed to be slow in answering them.
How long, O Lord? I cry for help
but you do not listen!
I cry out to you, “Violence!”
but you do not intervene. (Hab 1:2)
Then the Lord answered him and told him to write down the answer as a reminder to them until the time when they would see God’s answer fulfilled. The answer was that the just one, because of his faith, shall live (Hab 2:4). A better translation is that the righteous or upright person will live through faithfulness. So God’s response shows that even if the wicked appear to prosper for a time now, that is only now, because in the long-term those who are faithful to God are saved. God’s response to Habakkuk and his fellow suffering Jews was to hang on because fidelity to God is rewarded. God loves those who are faithful to him. When Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass at Oriole Park in Baltimore in 1995 (Sunday October 8th) he commented on this text of Habakkuk and said a Polish proverb says, “God takes his time but he is just.” Pope John Paul went on to say the following words that surely must have great meaning for all who carry heavy crosses,
There is no evil to be faced that Christ does not face with us. There is no enemy that Christ has not already conquered. There is no cross to bear that Christ has not already borne for us, and does not now bear with us. And on the far side of every cross we find the newness of life in the Holy Spirit, that new life which will reach its fulfillment in the resurrection. This is our faith.
It was faith and prayer that sustained Father de Chergé and faith and prayer sustained the people of Habakkuk’s time also.
In the second reading Paul encouraged Timothy. Paul had ordained Timothy a priest and sent him on mission to Ephesus (1 Tim 1:3). In today’s reading Paul refers to the day of Timothy’s Ordination, “I remind you to stir into flame the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands.” (2 Tim 1:6) A man is ordained a priest in the Sacrament of Holy Orders when the bishop lays hands on the man and prays the Prayer of Ordination/Consecration. Paul then reminds Timothy to be courageous, “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather of power and love and self-control. So do not be ashamed of your testimony to our Lord” (2 Tim 1:7-8) Just as in the case of Father de Chergé and the people of Habakkuk’s time, it is also faith that sustains Timothy when his mission is difficult as Paul reminds him.
In the Gospel the apostles ask Jesus to increase their faith (Luke 17:5). They are asking Jesus to help them to see reality, reality in the sense of what life is really all about and the ultimate destination of life beyond what is around us every day. Jesus responds in the dramatic hyperbolic way of that time telling them if they had just a little faith they could tell a tree to move to the sea. We already have faith that will help us and over time that faith will grow. Then Jesus tells the parable of a servant going to his master’s house after a day’s work and having to prepare his master’s meal before eating himself and we too should consider ourselves servants. Jesus is the master - our Savior- and when we are faithful we are merely doing what is expected of us. It is the master – Jesus our Savior – who will save us and the work of the servant in the fields - all our good deeds – is expected but salvation comes from Jesus.
“Increase our faith” the apostles said. This is a prayer we also need as we encounter various crosses and trials during life. Just as prayer sustained the monks of Tibhirine, prayer is also what sustains us during our crosses and difficulties and helps us to see reality, what life is really all about. Habakkuk also turned to God in faith when his fellow people were in difficulty. Paul encouraged Timothy to remember the day of his Ordination when he experienced difficulties in his mission. Reading all of these passages in the Bible today we see that we all have one thing in common; we all have trials and crosses and difficulties. I believe that for a Christian in these times, prayer is necessary not just for a few minutes each day but for many many minutes each day. But we also see today that prayer and faith sustain us during these times. By remaining faithful during these times though faith and prayer - to use the words of Father de Chergé - “may we find each other, happy “good thieves,” in Paradise.”
© Fr. Tommy Lane 2016
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