May 24, 1996, a group of Islamic terrorists announced that they had “slit the throats” of seven French Trappist monks whom they had kidnapped from the monastery of Tibherine. Father Christian de Chergé, had left with his family this testament “to be opened in the event of my death.”
Christian’s entire letter can be read anywhere on the web. The story of Christian’s death and six other monks is now a novel and a movie.
While the book and movie provide serious entertainment, the value of human life, spirituality, humility, and martyrdom is called into the spotlight. Interfaith dialogue also has a significant role.
Christian, and his fellow monks, had given their lives to follow Christ. When danger was near they gave their actual lives, their flesh and body, they had passports and chose not to leave. As Christ chose to accept his destiny so did these Cistercian Monks. How have I accepted or not accepted my destiny? How many ways has God worked around me, inspite of me, and through me to deliver providentially his plans? Surely my failures and folly have at least served a few who can learn from my ways! I like the closing line, and may we find each other, happy good thieves, in paradise. Is any grace we receive not an aspect of thievery, for what do we have of any worth to purchase God’s blessing. Nothing at all in our possession can lay claim to entitlement. We are at the mercy of God’s good will and intentions being provided despite our inclination to turn towards evil or at least earthly, temporal things.
Below are some excerpts from Christian’s last letter:
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.
My life has no more value than any other. Nor any less value. In any case, it has not the innocence of childhood. I have lived long enough to know that I share in the evil which seems, alas, to prevail in the world, even in that which would strike me blindly. 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.
I could not desire such a death. It seems to me important to state this. I do not see, in fact, how I could rejoice if this people I love were to be accused indiscriminately of my murder. It would be to pay too dearly for what will, perhaps, be called “the grace of martyrdom,” to owe it to an Algerian, whoever he may be, especially if he says he is acting in fidelity to what he believes to be Islam.
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.
Translated by the Monks of Mount Saint Bernard Abbey, Leicester, England.