In the comfort of our homes and churches, when we read the Passion on Palm Sunday and then again on Good Friday, it is easy for us to be critical of the Apostles. When Jesus is arrested, they are filled with fear. Most of them run off and hide. Even Peter, who arrogantly proclaimed that he would never deny Jesus and was prepared to die with him, would succumb to the pressure of the mob and deny Jesus three times.
We read about their cowardice, and we can’t believe it. In our mind we shout at them: “How could you abandon him? You were with him for three years; you saw him cure the sick, experienced his love, and even saw his power over death! How could you have been so weak?” And we lie to ourselves and say it would have been different had we been apostles.
For those of you who feel this way, I would like to suggest that you rent the French film, Of Gods and Men, directed by Xavier Beauvois. It is based upon the true story of seven French Trappist monks who lived in the Atlas Mountains in Algeria. The monastery had existed for generations, and the Muslims who lived nearby respected the monks and welcomed them into their homes for special celebrations. The success of the monks’ mission was not based upon the number of conversions, for, given the tenets of Islam, conversions were very unlikely. No, success was measured by the example of the love of Christ they could demonstrate to the people.
And so the monks practiced poverty, chastity, and obedience. It was a peaceful, safe existence. Until . . .
In the mid-1990s, Islamic terrorists began to brutally kill foreigners and those Muslims who were “impure” and not following the Koran as they interpreted it. As the killings increased in the area, the French embassy warned the monks that it was too dangerous for them to stay in the monastery and that they should return to France. Speaking on behalf of the monks, Christian, the abbot, refused to leave.
But once he shares his decision with the monks, we begin to see that they were not heroic saints seeking martyrdom. Like the Apostles, they were fearful. As they met to discuss the situation, a couple of them thought that returning to France was a logical thing to do. A few others were not sure what they should do, but they wanted to keep open the option to leave in the future. Only two of them were sure they wanted to stay, Christian and Brother Luc. At the conclusion of the meeting, they decide to wait and see what would happen.
They did not have to wait long. On Christmas Eve night, a group of terrorists break into the monastery, demanding medicine for their wounded men. Christian, fighting his obvious fear, rejects their demands, explaining that the medicine is necessary to help the sick villagers who come by the hundreds each day. When the abbot says they are celebrating the birth of Jesus, the leader apologizes and leaves with his men.
But now the terror has touched the monks directly. They have been spared, but another group of terrorists might have killed them on the spot.
As the monks see or hear of more atrocities, we witness the specific agony of two monks in particular–Christian, the abbot, and Christophe. From the beginning, Christian has been firm about staying. But he worries about his brothers and the consequences if he is wrong. We see him in prayer in his cell at night, fighting back tears. On another occasion, he goes for a long walk and sits by the side of a lake, looking to heaven and seeking God’s grace. A third time he walks in a torrential downpour, oblivious to the elements, his hands folded in prayer, clearly beseeching his God for wisdom.
Christophe is the most fearful. His brothers hear him in his cell, crying out to God, begging for the grace to overcome his fears. In a poignant scene, he shares his concerns with Christian: “Dying for my faith should not keep me up nights. Dying here and now–does it serve a purpose? I pray, and I hear nothing.” Christian understands his fears, and his compassionate response reassures Christophe of his dignity and worth in the eyes of God.
Should you choose to watch the movie, I am convinced that you will see the Apostles in a different light. Like the monks, they were simple men who shared all the emotions of humanity. As much as they wanted to stand with Jesus, fear overwhelmed them. I am sure they said to themselves, “”Dying here and now–does it serve a purpose?” Immediately after the arrest, they answered, “No.” But after the Resurrection and Pentecost, they were different men, prepared to die for Christ. We should keep that in mind.