Today we celebrate the Feast of All Saints. It emerged as a feast day around 610 CE when the Pantheon in Rome was dedicated to Mary and the Christian martyrs by Pope Boniface IV. In 835 CE Pope Gregory IV moved the date from May to 1 November and the feast expanded to include martyrs and canonized saints, together with the great uncounted multitude described in The Revelation of John as the saints from every tribe and language and people and nations.
God’s love is for the multitude is unlimited and John’s great multitude represents all the faithful people who are saints, including us. This means the Feast of All Saints is different from all other Saints days. All Saints Day is our festival!
Today, my reflection is about saints’ lives whose witness continues to transform us. We all know people who have inspired us, helped us, showed us a better way to live, behave and think, including people who live locally here today, around the world and who have gone before us. You might also want to include St Julian of Norwich, St Teresa of Avila, St Augustine, or even the martyrs of Papua New Guinea. But today I want to retell the story of Christian de Cherge, abbot of the monks of Tibhirine in Algeria.
In May 1996, the GIA, a radical Muslim faction active in Algeria kidnapped seven Trappist monks led by Frenchman, Christian de Cherge in the Atlas Mountains, holding them hostage, demanding France release several of their own imprisoned compatriots. The French government refused to negotiate. Several weeks later the GIA killed the monks by beheading them.
Two years before his death, Christian de Cherge, like Jesus, had known he would be killed because of his peace-making. He and his brother monks spent time in prayer and reflection on what this meant for all of them. Before he died, he wrote a letter which was opened after his death. In it, he forgave his murderer. He said:
If it should happen one day – and it could be today – that I become a victim of the terrorism that now seems 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 Algeria; and that they accept that the sole Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure.
I would like, when the time comes, to have a space of clearness that would allow me to beg forgiveness of God and of my fellow human beings, and at the same time to forgive with all my heart the one who will strike me down.
I could not desire such a death; it seems to me important to state this: How could I rejoice if the Algerian people I love were indiscriminately accused of my murder?
My death, obviously, will appear to confirm those who hastily judged me naïve or idealistic: “Let him tell us now what he thinks of it!” But they should know that … for this life lost, I give thanks to God. In this “thank you,” which is said for everything in my life from now on, I certainly include you, my last-minute friend who will not have known what you are doing … I commend you to the God in whose face I see yours. And may we find each other, happy “good thieves” in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both.
However, de Cherge’s journey to his death started in 1959, when he was in Algeria doing compulsory military service. He befriended Mohammed, a Muslim policeman and they walked weekly to discuss politics, culture and theology. One day, a squad of Algerian rebels ambushed the two men. Mohammed stepped between them and Christian, saying to the attackers: ‘He is a godly man.’
The rebels let both men go, but this act of bravery cost Mohammed his life: he was found murdered in the street the next day leaving behind a wife and 10 children. The experience changed Christian’s life. He decided to commit himself to God and to the cause of peace. When his tour of duty ended, he returned to France and entered a Trappist monastery. He studied to become a priest, eventually becoming the ecclesiastical head of a rural district in the Algerian Atlas Mountains.
As abbot, de Cherge made radical decisions in carrying out the spirit of Jesus’ commands. Instead of proselytising, he offered the locals employment, medical care, and lessons in literacy and French. He organised an annual interfaith summit to promote Muslim-Christian dialogue. He invited Muslims to stay in the monastery. He wanted to show it was possible to live together under one God or Allah. As he explained it, ‘the only way for us to give witness is …. to be what we are in the midst of banal, everyday realities.’
Over time, because of this work, the GIA grew angry with the monks whom they saw as meddlers. They finally kidnapped, held hostage and then murdered seven men. To many, the death of de Cherge and his fellow monks proves the worst stereotypes of Islam. But to Christian it was the expected cost of being a peacemaker.
As I reflect on our current leaders and why so many people are willing to die in ongoing armed conflicts between the “Christian” West and the “menace” of Islam, or for other geopolitical reasons of power, nationalism and faith as we see with Russia and Ukraine – its worth asking: where are the men and women willing to die instead for the sake of God’s peace? Certainly, de Chergé was one of these. He added in his farewell letter:
I know the caricatures which a certain Islamic ideology encourages and which make it easy for some to dismiss the religion as hateful…But such people should know that at last I will be able to see the children of Islam as He sees them – He whose secret joy is to bring forth our common humanity amid our differences.
This story of Christian de Cherge, his fellow monks and neighbours is remarkable. Yet we too are called not to be worldly people, using violence and hatred to divide churches, communities and countries in search of power and wealth; rather, we are called to offer God’s peace and love in our welcome to everyone.
Jesus’ invitation in the ‘blessings and woes’ and the instruction to love our enemies (6:20-31), leaves us humbly, vulnerably looking to God for the Way to live out this calling. This is not an intellectual exercise to admire or despise a hero and the enemy depending on your perspective, but an opportunity to accept Christ’s radical invitation to see and experience the reality of life from a position of vulnerability and powerlessness. De Cherge talked about this as ‘humility’, not power; and our response to Christ’s humility leads us to love and peace not violence, rejection or judgement.
Luke tells us (6:20): ‘Jesus looked up at his disciples’ as he spoke to them about the nature of God’s kingdom. Unlike Matthew’s description of the Beatitudes, Jesus was not on a mountain looking down, he was on his knees on a level place (6:17), healing, speaking to the poor, the hungry, the grieving and the despised. Our willingness to step off our mountain tops and sit in the dust sharing the grief of the world provides us with the examples of saints who are real, trusting, faithful, loving, courageous, joyfully accepting the radical nature of God’s love for all of us in God’s kingdom.
Jesus then speaks directly and powerfully to those of us full of life’s abundant riches, laughing and carefree, with good reputations, reminding them these are the world’s rewards, not God’s and to rely on them is delusionary. The dilemma we all face in confronting our own idols of wealth, security, judgement and privilege, is in acknowledging whatever we can know of God, is seen in Christ Jesus who forgave his murderers and promised the kingdom of heaven to a thief. He loved everyone to the end and he gives us new hope and life.
Christian de Cherge took Jesus’ instructions to heart: ‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you,’ (Luke 6:27-28) and de Cherge was clear, he did not want those left behind to hate their killers.
As we gather for All Saints and celebrate their human lives, we are joyful knowing God’s radical love encompasses us all as saints, and as we embrace Jesus’ radical teaching, our hearts can fill with joy and hope beyond understanding, while our hands and minds can serve one another in Jesus’ name.
The Lord be with you.
Foucher, J. 2015. Reclaiming Humility. Four Studies in the Monastic Tradition. Collegeville, Minnesota, Liturgical Press.
Jarvis, C.A., Johnson, E.E. 2014. Feasting on the Gospels. Luke, Vol 1 Chapters 1-11. Louisville, Kentucky, Westminster John Knox Press.
Rohr, R. 1997. The Good News According to Luke. New York. The Crossroad Publishing Company.