Recently, students in our Honors class were reading The Rule of St. Benedict. I then had them watch the 2010 film Of Gods and Men about the Trappist monastery in Tibhirine, Algeria, where nine French monks lived and worked until 1996 when, during the Algerian Civil War, seven of them were kidnapped by the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria and later found beheaded.
I won’t go into why I pair the movie with the book, other than to say that the movie does a nice job of portraying the Benedictine life, both its challenges and its understated beauties. Seeing it portrayed in this way helps make the Rule seem less alien. Rather than asking, “What kind of bizarre person would choose to live this way?” they see it as something more desirable, something worth choosing.
One of the additional questions the movie poses for us, however, is whether the monks made the right decision to stay in Algeria when the violence in their area increased and mortal danger became more threatening. The movie does a good job of showing how conflicted the monks were. They were far from determined to embrace martyrdom and rush to their deaths. At one meeting, a monk says point-blank: “I didn’t become a monk to die.”
I ask the students whether the monks were “imprudent,” perhaps even “foolish” to stay when they knew the threat to their lives was so great. The answer to this question is not clear to them, but has much to do with the way I have posed the question. They all admire the monks of Tibhirine. But could they say the choice to stay was prudent?
Since we in the modern world think of prudence as “exercising excessive caution” rather than, as the classical understanding of the virtue of prudence would have dictated, “making the right moral judgment,” it is difficult for them to call this act “prudent.”
Heroic, yes. But prudent?
In a different class, I posed the same question about whether it was prudent or foolish for the villagers in the little French town of Le Chambon to hide literally thousands of Jewish refugees during the Second World War while the German army was hunting them down and deporting them to concentration camps.
A young woman had come into the classroom that morning exclaiming about Magda Trocmé, the village pastor’s wife and one of the leaders of this conspiracy of goodness: “I love that woman! I want to be that woman!”
When the question of whether the villagers had been foolish to take in the Jews came up, I asked her whether she thought they had been foolish. “Oh yes,” she said, “definitely.” “But I thought you said you wanted to be like Magda?” “I do,” she replied. “So you want to be like a foolish woman?” I asked. “Yes,” she said, “because she was foolish in the right way.”
Perhaps she’s right. Perhaps Christians are foolish. No point in denying it. Just foolish “in the right way.”
In my Honors class, most of the students are sure that the monks of Tibhirine made the right choice to stay. Perhaps this is simply due to their youthful naïveté. One student, perhaps out of that same delightful youth and naïveté, asked: “If you are a monk, and you’ve decided to hand your life over to Christ, martyrdom is kind of part of the deal if it comes along, isn’t it?”
What do you say to that? Perhaps the best thing would have been to write it on the board and then let the whole class just sit and contemplate it in silence for five minutes.
But I don’t have that kind of saintly patience, so, instead, I asked: “Isn’t it just ‘part of the deal’ if you are a Christian, period?” If you’ve decided to hand your life over to Christ, martyrdom is kind of part of the deal if it comes along, isn’t it?
Thus if you weren’t willing to suffer the loss of – what? – your job, your status, even your life, then could you really say that you had “handed your life over to Christ”? Or would you have to say something more modest, like “I have handed part of my Sunday mornings over to Christ”?
And if you realized that this was, in essence, what you were saying to Christ, would you not have to admit you were expressing to Christ much the same sentiment the poet Billy Collins expresses to his mother in his poem “The Lanyard.”
I had never seen anyone use a lanyard.
Or wear one, if that’s what you did with them.
But that did not keep me from crossing strand over strand
again and again until I had made a boxy, red and white lanyard for my mother.
She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted teaspoons of medicine to my lips,
set cold facecloths on my forehead
then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim and I in turn presented her with a lanyard.
“Here are thousands of meals” she said,
“and here is clothing and a good education.”
“And here is your lanyard,” I replied,
“which I made with a little help from a counselor.”
“Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth and two clear eyes to read the world.” she whispered.
“And here,” I said, “is the lanyard I made at camp.”
Some poor reader may be left wondering what reply my student gave as to whether serious sacrifice was required of every Christian, not just monks. “I guess so,” she said somewhat tentatively. “Yeah. I mean, it is. Isn’t it? I have to think about that.”
You and me both, young one. You and me both.