By Michelle Francl-Donnay
Protect us, Lord, as we stay awake; watch over us as we sleep, that awake, we may keep watch with Christ, and asleep, rest in his peace. – Antiphon for the Gospel Canticle, Night Prayer
I saw the film “Of Gods and Men” last weekend. The movie is extraordinary: simple, beautiful and difficult. If you get a chance to see it, go.
“Of Gods and Men” tells the story of the Trappists of the Abby of Our Lady of Atlas, in Tibhirine, Algeria. The situation in which the monks found themselves was politically unstable, and threatened not only their lives, but also the lives of those who lived in the village that had grown up around the monastery. Though many urged the monks to flee, and they themselves struggled with the decision, ultimately they chose to stay, to watch over and watch with the community of which they were an integral part.
I first learned of the story through a poem, “The Contemplative Life,” written by Marilyn Nelson, which quotes a letter left by the prior of the monastery, Father Christian de Cherge. The triduum is nearly upon us, and with it, my thoughts turn to what it means as a Christian to watch and to wait, as these monks did for more than three years, from the first time men with guns pounded on the door of the enclosure, until they were taken away to face their own Calvary.
I hear in Father Christian’s letter a way of waiting in hope, a way of waiting that does not seek anything for himself, other than God’s mercy. “I should like, when the time comes, to have the moment of lucidity which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God and of my fellow human beings, and at the same time to forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me down. I could not desire such a death. It seems to me important to state this.”
What moved me most in the film were the scenes of the monks praying the Liturgy of the Hours. Just eight monks, facing one another in a small chapel, looking not so different from the community I pray with each morning, their choir habits white instead of the black habits the Augustinians wear. There was the same antiphon I pray each night, “Protect us, Lord…,” the Salve Regina sung, as I do, in Latin, the psalm intoned to a familiar Gelineau melody.
I realized at one point that I knew the time and the day by the psalms and their antiphons; if it were Psalm 143, it must be Tuesday’s Night Prayer. Suddenly this was not an experience distant in time and space. When this was happening, I was pregnant with Chris, my breviary precariously balanced on my burgeoning belly, praying those same psalms with the whole Church – including the monks at Tibhirine. In some way, united through this common prayer, I and the rest of the Church, was present to what happened in Tibhirine.
As we enter into these last days before Easter, once again we wait in prayer, we wait as one, unspanided by time or space. We wait in the garden, by the fire in the high priest’s courtyard, and before the cross. We are all called to keep watch: with each other, for each other, with the Church, for the Church, with Christ and in Christ. May God grant us the courage and the grace to do so.
All-powerful God, by the suffering and death of Your Son, strengthen and protect us in our weakness. We ask this through our Lord, Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen. – Opening prayer for Monday of Holy Week
Michelle Francl-Donnay is a member of Our Mother of Good Counsel Parish in Bryn Mawr. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.