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Des Hommes et des Dieux

This was a French movie about the monks who were murdered in Algeria. It is the true story of eight Trappist monks who lived in a monastery in Tibhirine until 1996 when seven of them were kidnapped by Muslim terrorists and later killed. The Trappist Order of monks is a part of the Cistercian Order of monks, which lives according to the Rule of St. Benedict. Therefore, the monks portrayed in the film lived very much like the Cistercian monks of the high and late Middle Ages, and also very much like the Benedictine monks of the early Middle Ages. I liked the movie and would recommend it, but it was rather slow, so not everyone would enjoy it. Watching it from beginning to end requires some patience, but for me it was worthwhile.

Monasticism is a part of several religions. In the world today, it is very probably a more important part of Buddhism and Hinduism than it is of Christianity, yet it continues to exist within Christianity, especially within the Roman Catholic Church and also within Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Christian monks, much like their Buddhist and Hindu counterparts, take vows to sacrifice some worldly joys to devote themselves completely to spiritual endeavors. In this, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims are alike. They differ, however, in the spiritual endeavors to which they devote themselves. To say this in a different way, they all have the same style, with only minor variations, but the substance or ultimate purpose of what they do differs substantially. Christians and Muslims believe in one God and they sacrifice some worldly joys so as to devote themselves completely to loving God. The two differ in that Christians believe God became the man Jesus Christ, and therefore a personal relationship with Him is possible because He is a person. Muslims do not believe that Jesus Christ was God, so their relationship with Him is less personal, but some of them are admirable in their piety. Buddhists, on the other hand, seek to meditate until they reach a state of 'enlightenment'. Buddhists believe that the reality in which we live is just an illusion in which we are trapped because of our desires. Being trapped in this false reality causes us to suffer. In fact, Buddhists believe that live is suffering. It is obvious to all people that human life involves some suffering, but Buddhists say that human life is suffering, as if suffering is the very essence of life. The enlightenment that Buddhist monks seek is the perfect realization that this world is an illusion. They believe that this world is an illusion, but it takes years of meditation for an individual to realize this so perfectly that all his desires cease and so he is freed from life, because no longer attached to this false reality. Their sought-after freedom from life is called Nirvana. For them, it is Nirvana, not God, that is the goal. Hindus are many and varied. They do not all believe the same things. Some Hindus worship God, and therefore they are very similar to Christians and Muslims. Some Hindus worship multiple gods. Some Hindus are similar to Buddhists and seek to escape the world they believe to be illusion. So, the purposes differ, but monks of all religions cut themselves off from the normal world and spend much of their time praying.

In the first paragraph, I wrote that Trappists are like Cistercians, and Cistercians are like Benedictines. The Benedictines came first. Founded by St. Benedict (480-547), they all followed the same Rule of Life which emphasized stability, and 'ora et labora'. Ora is prayer in Latin. Labora is work in Latin. So Benedictine monks divided their waking hours in three: praying, working, and studying. Some would consider studying to be a type of work, whereas others would consider it to be a type of prayer. Either way, the life of a Benedictine monk was one of ora et labora. One of the three vows all Benedictine monks took was the vow of poverty, but after a few centuries the Benedictines grew quite wealthy. Much was donated to them, and because they worked hard they multiplied the value of all they had. They took vows of celibacy, so they had no children, therefore their wealth accumulated constantly without ever being spent to support families or divided among heirs. After about six hundred years, the Benedictines were much wealthier than most common people at that time; some men became Benedictine monks not so as to more fully devote themselves to spiritual endeavors, but rather to live more comfortably. This seemed scandalous to some who thought them hypocritical taking vows of poverty and then living in luxury. Robert of Molesme founded a monastery in 1098 with the intention of reforming the Benedictine Order. Thus began the Cistercian Order, which lived according to the Rule of St. Benedict, and therefore was essentially the same as the Benedictine Order, except that they kept their vow of poverty more strictly. Time passed and the Cistercians grew wealthy just as the Benedictines had before them. This should not have surprised anyone. Men become rich when they work hard and save all their wealth because they have no wives to spend their money and no children to divide their inheritances. So, in 1664 Armand Jean le Bouthillier de Rance began a reform movement among Cistercians. Eventually, those Cistercians who followed after de Rance became known as Trappists. Trappists reformed the Cistercian Order not by becoming more modern or living more comfortably, but by trying to return to the early Middle Ages and follow the Rule of St. Benedict strictly, much as the Cistercians had done in 1098. So, even though the Trappist Order began in the early Modern era, it is actually more Medieval today than the Cistercian Order or the Benedictine Order, for both of them have grown wealthy and comfortable. (I do not mean to criticize Benedictines or Cistercians. Some would argue that they can do more good for more people by living more like normal folks do, and that argument might be right).

I spent two months this summer in India and learned that Hindus are proud of the fact that their ancient religion and culture are still alive today, unlike the religion and culture of ancient Egypt or Babylon. If age gives people a right to boast, then Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians can boast of their monks, who live today much as they did during the early Middle Ages. Of course, the number of Christian monks has dwindled; there are fewer now than there were during the Middle Ages, but there are still several thousand, and though they seem to be dying off in Europe, many young men from other parts of the world are volunteering to replace them, so it seems that monasticism will continue for the foreseeable future to be an important part of Christianity, and also a part of the Middle Ages that survived the Modern Age and continues to live on in the Postmodern Age.