FIFTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
I am preparing for a course I am running in Rome at The Anglican Centre and one of the topics I have been working and reflecting on is how we live lives of repentance and forgiveness.
One of the stories I am exploring, and which I thought I would share with you is about Christian de Cherge and the Monks of Tibhirine. It is a story with which some of you may be familiar.
In the early hours of the 27th March 1996, seven Cistercian monks from the Monastery of Notre-Dame-de-l’Atlas (Our Lady of Atlas) at Tibhirine in Algeria, were kidnapped by a group of armed men. The French government refused to negotiate and after 56 days of captivity, their captors announced they had cut the throats of the seven monks as we said we would do. Their remains were found on the 30th May 1996 and they were buried in early June. They are now included as martyrs in our prayers.
Prior to their kidnapping and murder, the Prior and six monks produced an extraordinary collection of prayers, talks and reflections about the journey they prayerfully and purposefully took to their death.
The monastery was established in 1938 but there had been a history of Cistercian monks in the region since the mid-19th century. It is an interesting story about how this group of monks came to be living and sharing lives within a wider Muslim community; and how they supported and engaged with each other as a wider community makes inspiring reading.
However, for the purposes of this morning, for a period of almost 18 months, during 1988 to 1990, the Prior of this small community, Christian de Cherge, gave a series of talks on humility. The group’s journey towards their collective martyrdom had many markers along the way, and this theme of humility and forgiveness was one of them.
There were many verbal and physical warnings about the violence that would descend on the community; many small humiliations that spoke of what was inevitably to take place. Â And the violence was happening to other Muslims who supported them in the community as well as to the monks themselves.
You might ask why they stayed in this community with so many signs this is what would happen to them. However, the monks are very clear in their writings, they stayed as a demonstration of love for their neighbours, they stayed freely, in solidarity with the humiliated; they stayed as a demonstration of humility and not power. They stayed, like Christ stayed, out of love and in solidarity with those who lived there.
Christian de Charge described the paschal shape of this obedience:
The enclosure [of the monastery] marks a space of welcome for our neighbours; it represents an open heart, wounded by the suffering of this world. For us, our stability in this place [offers] an example [resolve] of crucified love in the face of our enemies.
Christian went on to say:
When martyrdom is understood in the context of a spirituality of self-offering, the death of any disciple of Christ is not related so much to the violence of the assassin, but rather to the free, conscious gift of one’s own life. So the martyr can say, in communion with Christ: No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down on my own (John 10:18).
Certainly, the monks’ own individual and collective resolution to stay was difficult and costly. They wrote that each found himself facing his own weakness and fearfulness as the head of the order in France tried to persuade them to leave.
In the end, the monks were at Tibhirine for a little over two years with death before their eyes; like Christ’s own journey.
As Christian wrote, a few months before they were kidnapped:
The presence of Death is traditionally a constant companion for the monk. This companionship has taken on a more concrete clarity with the direct threats we have received, the assassinations very close at hand, and certain visits [of those with violence in their hearts, threatening them]. It is presented to us as a useful test of truth, even though an inconvenient one.
Their decision to remain can perhaps be read as a radical act of hospitality: openness to the ‘other’ even when the other is hostile. You might ask how is this possible?
Christian believed the heart of this openness is found in forgiveness. So he rehearsed the moment when he would stand before his killer and express the desire to forgive. He had had a dress rehearsal for this the previous year when the community was attacked; although on this occasion the attackers withdrew. Christian reflected on the possibility of forgiveness.
And so, to this ‘other’, the one who would violently take his life, Christian directed the final lines of his testament, after the visit of their killer and the community’s decision to stay:
And also you, my last-minute friend,
Who will not have known what you were doing.
Yes, I want this THANK YOU and this A-Dieu to be for you, too,
Because in God’s face I see yours.
May we meet again as happy thieves
in paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both.
Christian rehearsed his intention to forgive his killer, intentionally echoing Jesus’ words from the cross: ‘Father forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing’ (Luke 23:34).
Christian writes about the happy thief, the one who admits his guilt as he hung crucified alongside Christ: he recognises they have been condemned justly, and begs Jesus for a place in his kingdom, and is promised a place in Paradise. However, extraordinarily, Christian is also aware of his own complicity with evil and his own need for forgiveness. So in his testament, he writes:
I would like, when the time comes, to have a moment of spiritual clarity
Which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God and of my fellow human beings,
And at the same time forgive with all my heart
The one who will strike me down
Christian said the thief witnessed to Jesus’ innocence, but faced with that martyrdom, the saint and the assassin are just two thieves dependent on the same forgiveness. Christian viewed his killer, then, as a brother. They were fellow thieves in need of God’s mercy.
And they were, simultaneously, bearers of the divine likeness (in God’s face I see your face). The enemy becomes a last minute friend.
I know this has been a long story but it provides an incredible insight into forgiveness.
The gospel story of repentance is found only in Matthew. In the first two verses of the gospel reading, Jesus talks about forgiveness needing to happen 77 times, indeed, without counting the times.
Yet the next few verses provide a very stark description of the consequences of the failure to forgive.
Each Sunday, we pray to our Father: ‘forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us’; and each day we do not practice anything close to that statement.
Forgiveness as an intellectual exercise is very different to the reality of looking at someone you don’t like, someone you hate, or even someone you love and forgiving them, over and over again. Even those who genuinely seek reconciliation, should continue to expect to deal with human beings who will continue to suffer from the same bad habits that led them to the poor behaviour in the first place. It is the persistence of sin. In this context, Jesus demands we be far more forgiving of others; and I think, of ourselves.
Our ritual, liturgical receiving and accepting of Christ’s forgiveness becomes real for us ONLY when we forgive others. ‘Forgive us our debts as we forgive others’ is a very clear expectation. It is not only we are expected to forgive those we believe have harmed us, but also to seek forgiveness from those we believe we have harmed. Failure to forgive is failure to see God; failure to forgive separates us from God.
The very personal challenge God asks of all of us, is to consider our gratitude in response to the blessings God has given to us.
Each of us has been blessed by God beyond our capacity to earn such blessings; God has constantly and consistently listened and forgiven us.
Each of us has known God’s love and constant steadfast presence in our lives, in spite of our regular betrayal of God. Not one of us prays to be judged based on our own goodness in response to God’s abundant gifts.
The stories I hear around our communities, of resentments held tightly, judgements, criticisms, unkindnesses against others repeated and entrenched; we are held by our fear of failure and refusal to consider we might be wrong, and it leads to broken lives, families, parishes, and our world.
Christian de Cherge’s clarity about the enemy who is the last-minute friend is profound. Our own glimpses of God’s forgiveness at our repentance are life-giving.
While the story of Christian de Cherge and the other monks is extraordinary; I say to you: God loves you; God sees your own unique extraordinariness. All things are possible with God’s Grace.
The Lord be with You.
My thanks to Jane Foulcher 2015 Reclaiming Humility Four Studies in the Monastic Tradition. Cistercian Publications, Ohio.