Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Book Review Christian de Cherge: A Theology of Hope

Hope is a powerful motivator, it keeps us moving one step in front of the other. Hope of course is a cornerstone in the Christian life, it binds us as disciples of Christ.

Many of you may not have heard of Christian de Cherge, the Abbot of the Trappist Monastery in Algeria. But you may have heard of the famous French language movie several years ago called Of God's and Men. The movie was based on the work and ministry of the monks at the Tibhirine monastery in Algeria. In 1996 six monks were kidnapped and eventually murdered by their Muslim captors. They were caught in much political and religious turmoil in the region. I saw the movie which was very powerful but had no idea that there was a book about this monastery. Thankfully, due to the work of Christian Salenson, a priest of the diocese of Nimes France we have an excellent volume about Abbot de Cherge and his views of Christian-Muslim relations.

The entire book rests on a highly ironic encounter between a young Christian and a Muslim layman named Mohammed, a village policeman. In 1961 Christian was in the French Army in Algeria working for the SAS a special section of the army that deal with administrative matters. During his time there he met a man named Mohammed who was married and had ten children. Christian tells us a little about their relationship:

"In the blood of this friend, I came to know that my call to follow Christ would have to be lived out, sooner or later, in the very country in which I received the token of the greatest gift of all." 

Through the course of tense events Mohammed was found dead, shot by insurgents at his family well. Mohammed had protected Christian and his fellow monastic brothers from and uprising, and for that he lost his life. Christian called Mohammed his "eucharistic brother" because it was Mohammed's devotion to his own Islamic faith, to his wife, and to his ten children, that showed Christian what it meant to be a true monk and follow God. In other words it was Mohammed's faith that lead Christian to deepen his own faith.

In a very tense time as today, with Christian-Muslim relations at a seemingly low tide I highly recommend anyone interested in ecumenism or Christian and Islamic studies to read this book. Salenson weaves together not only a very good biographical story about Christian and his fellow monks but at the same time discusses how the Christian practices of prayer, lectio divina, eucharistic, sacraments, fasting, feasting, and almsgiving can be deepened by an openess to what Abbot de Cherge called "radical hospitality" or "friendship." It is in deep friendships, in de Cherge's case it was Muslims, that helped foster dialogue, understanding, sharing, openess, appreciation, and love for the neighbor. The monks at Tibhirine did not live in some outpost away from their Islamic neighbors, but right in the center of the village. They worked, ate, and sometimes even prayed with one another, showing the world that true friendship and co-existence is truly possible.

There is so much more that can be said about Christian de Cherge: A Theology of Hope. When I came to the end I was a little sad because I wanted to read more. I wanted to read more of Abbot de Cherge's sermons and chapter talks that were quoted in the book. I wanted to read more about the other monks who lived at Tibhirine as well. I hope that Cisterican Publications, an imprint of Liturgical Press, will publish Abbot de Cherge's writings and sermons in the future.

Today, as parts of the Church become more closed minded, more sectarian, more inward looking, we need more words of wisdom from people such as Abbot de Cherge who provide us with hope in this world which seems to lack hope.

To read more about A Theology of Hope click here 

To read more about the movie Of God's and Men click here