We must enter the world of the other

August 31, 2009


The Abbot General of the Cistercian Order, Bernardo Olivera, said the following:

“We must enter the world of the other, be he Christian or Muslim. In effect, if the ‘other’ does not exist as such, there is no space for true love. Let us be disturbed and enriched by the existence of the other. Let us remain open, sensitive to every voice that challenges us. Let us choose love, forgiveness and communion against every form of hatred, vengeance and violence. Let us believe without flinching in the deep desire for peace which resides in the depth of every human heart.” (The Monastic Way, 2006, 139-140).

moines de tibhirine

I find these words of the Abbot General very inspiring. They were said in a particular context: the martyrdom of seven of his Cisterican brothers in Algeria. During the night of March 27-28, 1996, seven monks of the Cistercian Monastery of Our Lady of Atlas, near the village of Tibhirine in Algeria, were abducted by Islamic fundamentalists. Their abduction was claimed by a radical faction of the GIA (Groupe Islamique Armé) in a communiqué dated April 18, 1996 and published on April 27. In a second communiqué, dated May 23, the GIA announced that the monks had been executed on May 21, 1996. Their remains were identified and their funeral Mass was celebrated in the Catholic Cathedral of Algiers on Sunday, June 2.  They were buried in the cemetery of their monastery at Tibhirine on June 4, 1996.

de_cherge_christianOne of the monks is particularly worth mentioning, Dom Christian de Cherge, as he wrote a deeply moving text, which despite its length, I have included in this article. Born on January 18, 1937, at Colmar (Haut-Rhin), he entered the monastery of Atlas on August 20, 1969, when already a priest (ordination: March 21, 1964). He made his noviciate at Aiguebelle, and his solemn profession at Atlas on October 1, 1976. He was the elected Titular Prior of Atlas since 1984. He had studied in Rome from 1972 to 1974 and was deeply involved in interreligious dialogue. His Testament, written over a year before his death but only discovered afterwards, has already become a classic of modern religious literature. For a more in-depth biographical study, see Monk, Martyr and Mystic by Dom Bernardo Olivera.

Testament of Dom Christian de Cherge

Facing a GOODBYE…. 
If it should happen one day – and it could be today -that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to engulf
all the foreigners living in Algeria, 
I would like my community, my Church and my family
to remember that my life was GIVEN to God and to this country.
I ask them to accept the fact that the One Master of all life
was not a stranger to this brutal departure.
I would ask them to pray for me:
for how could I be found worthy of such an offering?
I ask them to associate this death with so many other equally violent ones
which are forgotten through indifference or anonymity.
My life has no more value than any other.
Nor any less value.
In any case, it has not the innocence of childhood.
I have lived long enough to know that I am an accomplice in the evil
which seems to prevail so terribly in the world,
even in the evil which might blindly strike me down.

I should like, when the time comes, to have a moment of spiritual clarity
which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God 
and of my fellow human beings,
and at the same time 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.
I do not see, in fact, how I could rejoice
if the people I love were indiscriminately accused of my murder.
It would be too high a price to pay
for what will perhaps be called, the “grace of martyrdom”
to owe it to an Algerian, whoever he might be,
especially if he says he is acting in fidelity to what he believes to be Islam.
I am aware of the scorn which can be heaped on the Algerians indiscriminately.

I am also aware of the caricatures of Islam which a certain Islamism fosters.
It is too easy to soothe one’s conscience
by identifying this religious way with the fundamentalist ideology of its extremists.
For me, Algeria and Islam are something different: it is a body and a soul.
I have proclaimed this often enough, I think, in the light of what I have received from it.
I so often find there that true strand of the Gospel
which I learned at my mother’s knee, my very first Church,
precisely in Algeria, and already inspired with respect for Muslim believers.
Obviously, my death will appear to confirm 
those who hastily judged me naïve or idealistic:
”Let him tell us now what he thinks of his ideals!”
But these persons should know that finally my most avid curiosity will be set free.
This is what I shall be able to do, God willing:
immerse my gaze in that of the Father 
to contemplate with him His children of Islam
just as He sees them, all shining with the glory of Christ,
the fruit of His Passion, filled with the Gift of the Spirit
whose secret joy will always be to establish communion 
and restore the likeness, playing with the differences.
For this life lost, totally mine and totally theirs,
I thank God, who seems to have willed it entirely 
for the sake of that JOY in everything and in spite of everything.

In this THANK YOU, which is said for everything in my life from now on,
I certainly include you, friends of yesterday and today,
and you, my friends of this place,
along with my mother and father, my sisters and brothers and their families,
You are the hundredfold granted as was promised!
And also you, my last-minute friend, who will not have known what you were doing:
Yes, I want this THANK YOU and this GOODBYE to be a “GOD-BLESS” for you, too,
because in God’s face I see yours.
May we meet again as happy thieves in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both.


Algiers, 1st December 1993 
Tibhirine, 1st January 1994  



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