‘Of Gods and Men’ weaves spiritual tale

http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/11098/1137760-120.stm

Movie review
Friday, April 08, 2011
By Barry Paris, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
From left, Lambert Wilson as Christian and Jean-Marie Frin as Paul in “Of Gods and Men.”

“Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully

as when they do it for religious conviction.”

— Pascal

The eight monks at the Cistercian monastery live in — if not the Garden — at least a little Oasis of Eden.


‘Of Gods and Men’

4 stars = Outstanding
Ratings explained
  • Starring: Lambert Wilson, Jean-Marie Frin, Michael Lonsdale.
  • Rating: PG-13 for subtitles and one violent scene.

They and “Of Gods and Men,” Xavier Beauvois’ wrenchingly beautiful film about them, are situated in an isolated mountain village in North Africa, where their community coexists quietly, contemplatively and peacefully with their Muslim brothers and sisters. Cistercians follow the seventh-century monastic order of St. Benedict and never proselytize or otherwise disturb the people among whom they live.

On the contrary, they serve them whenever and however they can. Old Brother Luc (Michael Lonsdale), for example, is a doctor, who treats the many villagers who come to him for help every day. Best evidence of harmony comes in a long, slow pan of faces at a Muslim prayer service: It ends on the face of Brother Luc — respectfully attending and listening to the imam’s prayers, along with the villagers.

But the tranquil rhythms of monastic life there — praying, farming, beekeeping — are seriously shaken when a crew of Croatian workers outside the village is massacred by al-Qaida-like Islamic radicals. They have issued an ultimatum ordering all foreigners to leave the country — including the monks.

Mr. Beauvois’ film is based on a shockingly true story: the 1996 kidnapping and disappearance of seven French Cistercian-Trappist monks in Tibkirine, Algeria. In that real event, and in this fictionalized rendering, the monks decline military protection and refuse to leave.

But there’s rare dissension in the monastic ranks about the security threat and decision to stay — the most painful decision they’ve ever had to make. Caught between the terrorists and the army, they must walk an increasingly dangerous tightrope between the two sets of men, and another fine line between God and themselves. To leave would be to surrender and walk away from their literal and figurative “mission” — not to mention their deep ties and love of the villagers.

Most agonizing, however, is the challenge to personal faith and commitment to the monks’ most basic Christian beliefs. How can you have an unseemly fear of death if you believe in Psalm 23, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,” and in Luke 17: “He who tries to save his life shall lose it, but whoever loses his life will save it.”

In most films, music “accompanies” words and “scores” (as in underscores) the dialogue. In this one, it largely replaces dialogue. The monastery is, after all, a world of silence. The Psalms (literally, “songs”) are universally considered the most lyrically exquisite part of the Bible. Stripped of instruments, “naked” chant lets you tune in and gradually realize you don’t know these texts as well as you think you did. If you, like the monks, let yourself do it, you’ll be as transformed as they are by the strange tonality and the message that elevates and unites them. Singing is an integral part of their lives and the film; the Liturgy of the Hours happens seven times a day and is essential to their union and communion as a spiritual force. This semi-Gregorian chant, with its strangely modern, subtly dissonant melodic and harmonic variations, becomes the lingua franca of their debate and dialectic.

The film’s magnificent, excruciating, transcendent Last Supper scene employs the famous “Lac de Cygnes” (how’s your French?) score, and is perhaps the most powerful use of secular music for character and narrative purposes I’ve ever seen in a film.

If ever you (and I) regretted not taking that upper-level French course, it’ll be here. The subtitles are excellent, but English-speaking audiences are disadvantaged for relying on them. But it’s not a crippling disadvantage, thanks to the superb acting. Lambert Wilson as Brother Christian, the abbot, is a deeply loving, protective shepherd to his flock. And “Thou shalt not steal” applies unless thou art Michael Lonsdale, in which case you have special dispensation to steal all scenes in which you appear. For that matter, all the monks are riveting, each face and personality uniquely empathetic in response to the crisis.

This slow, contemplative tragedy — a best foreign film Oscar nominee — will powerfully affect Christians & non-Christians alike, but especially Catholics. (It could and should be screened at parochial schools, relevant and terribly timely as it is to the slaughter of UN workers in Afghanistan last week.) FYI, its sole scene of bloody violence occurs toward the beginning and does not involve the monks.

But it is emotionally rough. Of the Big Three — faith, hope and love — faith is the tricky one that can get so easily twisted from a virtue into a vice. What’s the real difference between radical Islam and Quran-burning Christians in the inflammatory ability of both to incite madness? Bible and Quran thumpers-and-burners are all alike. But there’s not one political or politicizing word in “Gods and Men.” The monks — and the movie — are about spirituality, not religion.

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Closer

I was listening to the radio the other day and came across the song, Closer by Shawn McDonald. Not only did the music catch me, but the lyrics really hit my heart. I thought I would share this in hopes that it has the same effect on others. I’ve put a poll at the end of this post. Please check it out. I would love to hear what you think!

Closer by Shawn McDonald

Looking for a color in a shade of gray
Looking for love in a drop of rain
Trying to find change in the old mundane
Everything I do just feels the same
Spending my life out in the desert
Been gone so long feels like forever

I just want to be even closer to you
I just want to be even closer
I am yours
You can have all of me anything, everything
I just want to be even closer

A day without you is a thousand years
A day without you is a million tears
Tell me why do I run when I am in fear
Why do I run when you are so near
Spending my life out in the weather
Been gone so long and I need some shelter

I just want to be even closer to you
I just want to be even closer
I am yours
You can have all of me anything, everything
I just want to be even closer

Where ever you go
Where ever you are
I just want be there with you

I just want to be even closer to you
I just want to be even closer
I am yours
You can have all of me anything everything
I just want to be even closer

Looking for a color in a shade of gray
Looking for love in a drop of rain

Before they call, I will answer.

Forwards. I usually don’t read them. To be honest, when one shows up in my email inbox, a sense of disdain crops up. I feel like I get them all the time. The stories are usually cheesy and predictable, and most of them are probably not true. But they serve a purpose, and for some they are what’s needed in a frustrating spot in their lives. Today, not knowing it, I must have been one of those individuals.

package

Below, is the forward I received today. My father sent it to me, and I have to tell you that it truly blessed my heart and encouraged me. I encourage you to read it, and I pray that through it God will encourage you as well!

The email starts now:

THIS WILL TRULY LIFT YOU UP SPIRITUALLY.
Enjoy and Believe

Isaiah 65:24

This is a story written by a doctor who worked in Africa. 

One night I had worked hard to help a mother in the labor ward; but in spite of all we could do, she died, leaving us with a tiny, premature baby and a crying two-year-old daughter. We would have difficulty keeping the baby alive; as we had no incubator (we had no electricity to run an incubator).
We also had no special feeding facilities.
Although we lived on the equator, nights were often chilly with treacherous drafts. One student midwife went for the box we had for such babies and the cotton wool that the baby would be wrapped in.
Another went to stoke up the fire and fill a hot water bottle. She came back shortly in distress to tell me that in filling the bottle, it had burst (rubber perishes easily in tropical climates)..
‘And it is our last hot water bottle!’ she exclaimed. As in the West, it is no good crying over spilled milk, so in  Central Africa
it might be considered no good crying over burst water bottles.
They do not grow on trees, and there are no drugstores down forest pathways.

‘All right,’ I said, ‘put the baby as near the fire as you safely can, and sleep between the baby and the door to keep it free from drafts Your job is to keep the baby warm.’

The following noon, as I did most days, I went to have prayers with any of the orphanage children who chose to gather with me. I gave the youngsters various suggestions of things to pray about and told them about the tiny baby. I explained our problem about keeping the baby warm enough, mentioning the hot water bottle, and that the baby could so easily die if it got chills. I also told them of the two-year-old sister, crying because her mother had died.

During prayer time, one ten -year-old girl, Ruth, prayed with the usual blunt conciseness of our African children. ‘Please, God’ she prayed, ‘Send us a hot water bottle today It’ll be no good tomorrow, God, as the baby will be dead, so please send it this afternoon.’

While I gasped inwardly at the audacity of the prayer, she added, ‘And while You are about it, would You please send a dolly for the little girl so she’ll know You really love her?’

As often with children’s prayers, I was put on the spot. Could I honestly say ‘Amen?’ I just did not believe that God could do this.

Oh, yes, I know that He can do everything; the Bible says so. But there are limits, aren’t there? The only way God could answer this particular prayer would be by sending me a parcel from the homeland. I had been in  Africa   for almost four years at that time, and I had never, ever, received a parcel from home.

Anyway, if anyone did send me a parcel, who would put in a hot water bottle? I lived on the equator!

Halfway through the afternoon, while I was teaching in the nurses’ training school, a message was sent that there was a car at my front door. By the time I reached home, the car had gone, but there on the verandah was a large 22-pound parcel. I felt tears pricking my eyes. I could not open the parcel alone, so I sent for the orphanage children.. Together we pulled off the string, carefully undoing each knot. We folded the paper, taking care not to tear it unduly Excitement was mounting. Some thirty or forty pairs of eyes were focused on the large cardboard box. >From the top, I lifted out brightly-colored, knitted jerseys. Eyes sparkled as I gave them out. Then there were the knitted bandages for the leprosy patients, and the children looked a little bored.. Then came a box of mixed raisins and sultanas – that would make a batch of buns for the weekend.

Then, as I put my hand in again, I felt the…..could it really be?

I grasped it and pulled it out. Yes, a brand new, rubber hot water bottle. I cried.

I had not asked God to send it; I had not truly believed that He could.

Ruth was in the front row of the children. She rushed forward, crying out, ‘If God has sent the bottle, He must have sent the dolly, too!’

Rummaging down to the bottom of the box, she pulled out the small, beautifully-dressed dolly. Her eyes shone! She had never doubted!

Looking up at me, she asked, ‘Can I go over with you and give this dolly to that little girl, so she’ll know that Jesus really loves her?’

‘Of course,’ I replied!

That parcel had been on the way for five whole months, packed up by my former Sunday school class, whose leader had heard and obeyed God’s prompting to send a hot water bottle, even to the equator.

And one of the girls had put in a dolly for an African child – five months before, in answer to the believing prayer of a ten-year-old to bring it ‘that afternoon.’

‘Before they call, I will answer.’ (Isaiah 65:24)
When you receive this, say the prayer. That’s all I ask. No strings attached. Just send it on to whomever you want – but do send it on.

Prayer is one of the best free gifts we receive. There is no cost, but a lot of rewards. Let’s continue praying for one another.  This awesome prayer takes less than a minute.

Heavenly Father, I ask you to bless my friends reading this. I ask You to minister to their spirit. Where there is pain, give them Your peace and mercy. Where there is self doubting, release a renewed confidence to work through them Where there is tiredness or exhaustion, I ask You to give them understanding, guidance, and strength. Where there is fear, reveal Your love and release to them Your courage.. Bless their finances, give them greater vision, and raise up leaders and friends to support and encourage them.  I ask You to do these things in Jesus’ name. Amen