Twenty years have passed since seven monks from the Trappist Priory of Our Lady of the Atlas at Tibhirine, Algeria, were kidnapped by members of the Armed Islamic Group, victims in the Algerian civil war. American moviegoers know the story of their vocation from the award-winning 2010 film "Of Gods and Men" ("Des hommes et des dieux").
There is confusion over the conditions of their death. Two months after the kidnapping the monks were found, apparently executed and beheaded, but knowledgeable sources contend that they were killed not by their captors but in a failed rescue attempt by the Algerian Army.
The monks of Tibhirine and Christian De Chergé, their prior, belong to a tradition of French Catholic engagement with North African Islam. The earliest of these was Blessed Charles Eugène de la Foucauld, the early 20th-century hermit of Tamanrasset in the Algerian Sahara and the inspiration of the Little Brothers and Sisters of Jesus.
The others are the distinguished Islamist Louis Massignon and his disciple Mary Kahil, who initiated the badaliya, a movement of Christian-Muslim prayer-support groups.
Foucauld, a one-time soldier, fell under the spell of the Sahara after doing a cartographic exploration of Morocco for the French government. In1901, after ordination to the priesthood, he returned to the desert, first to Bene Abbès and then at Tamanrasset, where he lived as a hermit dedicated to prayer and adoration but also tirelessly served his Tuareg neighbors.
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Originally hoping he might find converts among the Tuareg, Foucauld lived out his time with a life of presence and service to his Muslim neighbors. "God continues to come to us and live with us in a close and a familiar way, each day and at every hour, in the Holy Eucharist," he wrote. "So, too, we must go and live among our brothers and sisters in a close and familiar way."
To a Protestant visitor he said, "I am not here to convert the Tuareg at one go, but to try to understand them ... . I am sure God will accept into heaven those who are good and virtuous ... . You are a Prostestant, Tessière is a nonbeliever, the Tuareg are Muslims. I am convinced God will accept us all."
Blessed Charles desired to be "the universal brother." His home, which doubled as a house of hospitality, he called a "fraternity."
For a number of years Foucauld hoped that Louis Massignon, a scholar of Islam and like him a lover of the North African desert and its Muslim peoples, would join him at Tamanrasset and be his successor. After much hesitation, Massignon made a life in scholarship and marriage.
Towards the end of his life, Massignon received permission to be ordained a priest in the Melkite rite, which has married priests. His spiritual legacy is to be found in the practice of (spiritual) "substitution" in which Christians and Muslims offer their lives for one another's spiritual growth.
After a period of youthful exploration and unbelief, Massignon had been led back to the faith of his Catholic birth by the devotion he encountered in Muslim people. His return to faith deepened with his study of the 10th-century Sufi mystic Mansur al-Hallaj, for whom sacrificial love stood at the heart of the spiritual life.
In that spirit with Mary Kahil, an Egyptian Christian involved in Muslim charities, Massignon took a vow to give their lives for the Muslim people. To a Jesuit in Cairo, Mary explained, "We have offered ourselves for the Muslims. Not to convert them, but so that the will of God be done in them and through them. We want to make our prayer theirs, our lives theirs, and present them to the Lord." Massignon pioneered the way for a new Catholic openness to Islam sanctioned by Vatican II's Declaration on Non-Christian Religions, Nostra Aetate.
Many monastics and lay people in Europe joined them in this self-dedication, and in 1947 the Vatican approved the statutes of the "badaliya." Today it represents a spiritual path to peacemaking between Christians and Muslims. A badaliya meets at Saint Paul's Church in Cambridge Mass., led by Dorothy C. Buck, a Massignon scholar.
Christian de Chergé, the martyred prior of Thiberine, began his spiritual odyssey with a lived experience of substitution. He was a French soldier in the Algerian War of Independence, and his life had been saved by a Muslim policeman named Mohammed. The rebels spared De Chergé, but the next day Mohammed was found slain, executed as a collaborator with the hated occupier for interceding for Chergé.
De Chergé gave his friend's death a Christic interpretation: "There is no greater love than this: to give one's life for a friend." Mohammed had offered his life for Christian, and ever after, Chergé's vocation was to explore the relation of Muslims and Christians in the plan of God.
Another time, as he knelt before the Blessed Sacrament in prayer, first a Sunni, then a Sufi Muslim, inexplicably joined him in three hours of shared prayer. He became convinced of the spiritual kinship of Christians and Muslims, and in years of prayerful monastic theology, he elaborated a Christian theology of Islam.
Because the fullness of that plan will only be realized at the end of times, Christian Salenson, Chergé's spiritual biographer, calls Christian's view of Islam "a theology of hope." Again and again, Chergé longed for the day when Muslims and Christians would appear before God united as one in the communion of saints.
In Teilhard de Chardin's cosmic Christ, he found a way to articulate the convergence of people of the two traditions in "the Greater Christ," so that one day all would be bathed in the light of glory.
It has been a century since the death of Blessed Charles and 20 years since Chergé and his fellow monks gave their lives in substitution for their Muslim neighbors and in hope of that final consummation. In the last few years they have been joined by two Jesuits who gave their lives in Syria in service to Muslims.
Paolo dall'Oglio re-founded a ruined monastery at Mar Musa as a center of Muslim-Christian dialogue. In 2013 he disappeared in eastern Syria in territory controlled by the so-called Islamic State on a mission to negotiate release of their captives.
Frans van der Lugt, who had spent more than 50 years in Syria, was murdered by an assailant in Homs, after he chose to remain and suffer with the people of that besieged city.
The monks of Tibhirine, Charles de Foucauld, Louis Massignon and Mary Kahil, along with Paolo dall'Oglio and Frans van der Lugt, pioneered Muslim-Christian peacemaking. Their charisms are needed today wherever jihadis sow fear, demagogues stir up hatred and love of Muslim neighbors is in scarce supply.
[Jesuit Fr. Drew Christiansen is Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Global Human Development at Georgetown University and a senior research fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs.]