Faithful presence. Those two words returned to my mind again and again as I reflected on the movie Of Gods and Men.
The film depicts the life of eight Trappist monks at Our Lady of the Atlas monastery in Algeria during Algeria's civil war in the 1990s. Unlike Into Great Silence—another excellent film portraying the lives of monks—Of Gods and Men focuses not merely on the day-to-day practices, routines, and disciplines of the monastery, but on how such routines can be maintained in the face of a deadly, and very real, threat of Islamic terrorists and the violence of war.
I think it was Clint Eastwood who, responding to the question of why his films contained so much violence, said (forgive me for paraphrasing) that all good films involve conflict. People love conflict and the most dramatic conflict of all involves violence.
Of Gods and Men is a violent film, but it is so good because the conflict—the seed of drama—is not one between men with guns, but within the hearts of men who self-consciously exist to love God and love their neighbours, and they do so within an institution dedicated to that task. The film's greatest struggle is fought both within the hearts of the brothers and among them. In the face of terrible violence, violence which threatened their lives, the question "do we stay or do we go?" is more compelling than any showdown between snarling men with loaded .44 magnums.
James Davison Hunter—not a monk—writes in his excellent book To Change the World that "a theology of faithful presence calls Christians to enact the shalom of God in the circumstances in which God has placed them."
Too often we read quotes such as this and imagine that a life dedicated to "enacting the shalom of God" will be a peaceful venture. It is, as the monks find out, most certainly not. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer and so many other Christian martyrs discovered, there is a cost to discipleship.
In the film worlds depicted by Clint Eastwood, the conflict is often resolved at the end of a gunfight. In this film, the conflict is resolved long before the men with guns show up. It is resolved by love. In one of the most touching series of scenes I've ever seen, director Xavier Beauvois depicts the resolve of the monks—as individuals and as a community—to remain. Why? Because they "remember that love is eternal hope" and that "love endures all."
Christians are called to relate to the world within the dialectic of affirmation and antithesis. If there are benevolent consequences of our engagement with the world, it is precisely because it is not rooted in a desire to change the world for the better, but rather because it is an expression of a desire to honor the creator of all goodness, beauty, and truth, a manifestation of our loving obedience to God, and a fulfillment of God's command to love our neighbor.
If you wish to see these words enacted in the flesh, I recommend watching Of Gods and Men.