To the surprise of many, a religious film (or rather, a film with a clear religious topic) won one of the top awards at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. It was a surprise because the common wisdom is that religion not only doesn’t get an audience (the primary function of film-making) but worse, it stands a high chance of courting the kind of controversy that kills rather than builds attendance. Set that film in the limited confines of a monastery populated with 7 celibate and mainly elderly men and little opportunity for car chases, love interest or condemnatory behaviour – I’d love to have seen the faces when the producers first tried to pitch that one! Nevertheless – it got made. And the result is the beautifully-filmed and emotionally-charged “Of Gods And Men”.
Based on true events, it tells the story of 7 austere French Cistercian monks serving a small village in the Atlas Mountains of Algeria. Their vows of strict poverty and service have won the sometimes-grudging respect of their Muslim hosts. Their ability to identify with their lives and beliefs – and even to quote the Koran when threatened by a band of Muslim extremists on Christmas Eve – enables their survival. But it is survival in a time of mounting tension and growing hostility, caught between the Algerian Government only too well aware of French repression and the forces of militant Islam determined to win compliance. That these events took place only 15 years ago only heightens the shock.
Early on in the film, their leader tells them they will soon need to choose between fleeing to safety and staying - with the probability of death. The bulk of the film then follows each man’s personal struggle with faith, conscience, duty and service as the harsh shadow of potential martyrdom looms ever darker over them.
And it begins to climax in an extraordinary scene reminiscent of the Last Supper as the monks share a meal of bread and wine to the soundtrack of Swan Lake, the camera panning the table and zooming in as each monk struggles with his different dilemmas and uncertainties and then registers as each reaches his decision, resolved where his commitment lies.
The theme may be dark. But the film is not. It follows the monks in a comforting landscape going about their rituals of prayer and singing, running medical clinics virtually bereft of medicines. Its theme concerns the point at which we’re called to face up to the implications of our commitment. It’s often moments of crisis that precipitate that call, that challenge. (For Jesus, in today’s readings, it was the arrest of John the Baptist.)
Without those challenges, our commitment may become pale, insipid, lifeless, the garden that has not endured the frost of winter in order to bring forth the strong new growth of spring.
Of course, few of us will be called to face the extraordinary challenges of those French monks. But their stories - and our Bible readings for today - do give us some insights for our own commitment.
Isaiah, for example, talks about there being no more gloom for the people who walk in darkness – they’ve seen a ‘great light’. The monks in the film are certainly no longer gloomy after that final sharing of bread and wine. They shine with an inner light – not of joy or celebration – but of quiet certainty that they have committed to what they’re called to be and do. It’s that commitment to God that reveals the great light to them. And it’s the light that enables them to make that commitment.
It’s not that this great light transforms their outward circumstances or takes away their present or future tribulation. The film is quite clear: this illumination touches each one differently, in their different struggles. Each must make their own decision about what commitment means to each one of them. And it will be different. The commonality, the communion, comes by each allowing the others to make their own decision and then respecting that decision and living alongside it.
Which is all very well in a film – even one based on a true events. But is there a wider message?
Well of course I’m going to say’ yes’: why else would I describe it at length in what is, after all, a sermon and not a film review! And to do so, let’s return briefly to today’s Readings. What these monks were learning to do is to live together, really live together, by allowing each the freedom to make their own decision and then respecting it, even if it’s not one that they personally would have made or even agreed with. This is not something that can be decided by a majority vote (or even a coalition). If only it were that easy!
No, each monk has to wrestle with his own conscience, his own belief, his own understanding of the gospel and the call of Christ. But also his own fears, his own insecurities, his own prejudices.
This isn’t about each one forcing himself into a mould, THE image of Christ. Being in the image of Christ isn’t like forcing ourselves into an ill-fitting dress or suit or hammering our personality into a set form of behaviours and attitudes. It’s about recognising and accepting the WHOLE of who we are so that the Light of Christ shines within the totality of who we are. “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light…”
Only when each has done this individually can they examine this corporately. For commitment is intrinsically and irrevocably personal. It’s much easier to hide behind the will of the majority, to pass responsibility on to someone or everyone else. But ultimately that just won’t do. It is MY commitment, personally won, cherished, nurtured, guarded and acted out.
So the monks illustrate what St Paul was talking about in his First Letter to the Corinthian Christians and his criticism of their party spirit: I follow Paul; I follow Cephas; I follow Peter Akinola; I follow the Pope… This was not the testing of personal ideas in the cauldron of collegiality, it was the ducking of personal responsibility behind the coat tails of a false collectivity.
So what does this mean for us, for me, in the cold darkness of a winter’s Monday morning in London? How does my commitment to my calling illuminate that? How does it illuminate my relationship with God; my family; my church; my work?
St Matthew’s can provide the safe space, the encouragement, the sanctuary and the crucible. We have services, home groups, study groups, pilgrimages, Lent courses, coffee mornings… And that does require commitment to maintain.
But ultimately, we can only answer that for ourselves. Like the monks, we may test and explore that in collegiality and community, but ultimately it’s a personal journey, a personal commitment to letting the Light of Christ illuminate each part of my life so that it guides me in my commitment. Whatever that might be. Wherever it might lead. Whatever the cost.
It’s a truly daunting prospect.
Immediately after our sharing of the Bread and Wine today we’ll hear these words:
Jesus Christ is the Light of the World. May your people - illumined by word and sacraments - shine with the radiance of his glory, that he may be known, worshipped and obeyed to the ends of the earth; AMEN