Today, on the tenth anniversary of the most painful events in recent memory here in the United States, when we lost some 3,000 citizens in a few hours, God wrote the homily. Could the readings be more timely? We hear the first reading from Sirach open with these words: “wrath and anger are hateful things…Could anyone nourish anger against another and expect healing from the Lord?”
Thomas Aquinas was right when he said the natural response to injustice is Anger. We should be angry, but like Jesus was when he cleansed the temple: an anger that comes from love for the person's good and the desire for them to attain it – anger that humanity is not living up to its high calling – anger that co-exists with forgiveness.
Another natural response is to remember. Jesus tells us to forgive, but he never says "forget." So where does the age-old saying, "forgive and forget," come from? I don't know, I guess I'm too young to remember. But I bet it comes from the point of Jesus' words, that is, what forgiveness truly entails: that you love another so fully and respect their freedom so reverently that you do not allow the past to corrupt the present. Forgiveness does not deny justice, but goes far beyond it - toward rehabilitation, not only of the person, but of the wounded, even broken, relationships they affect.
There was a Cistercian monastery (Our Lady of Atlas) in Algeria that in the late months of 1993 had to make a decision: Islamist extremists were driving out all foreigners from the area and they were given only a few months to leave safely. The monks met to decide their future – and in the face of the fears, concluded that their fate was already bound to these people. Upon being told that the Church needed monks and not martyrs, the abbot, Fr. Christian replied: “there is no difference.” In a one-page letter that was discovered after their abduction and, fifty-six days later, their death, Fr. Christian offers his “last words” to explain why they chose this road to those who might not understand it.
He says that (1) his life was already given. That was what he meant when he said a martyr and monk are no different. Their life is love.
He also reminds us that “the Sole Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure.” Jesus himself died from the plot executed by a few extremists.
Lastly, he says “I know I am an accomplice in the evil which seems alas, to prevail in the world.” Here he is claiming his own sinfulness, his own responsibility in continuing the world’s suffering.
In saying this, he points out that there are two conjoined "sins" we can commit in light of such tragedy and injustice: self-justification and demonization. It is way too easy to interpret such situations in the following terms: “we are completely innocent; they are absolutely evil.” We assume the high ground while we put others in the place of the unforgiveable sinner. Neither of these are true. First of all, we all are guilty of being accomplices with evil, and the intricate connections of humanity do not make evil something easily separated out. Secondly, Jesus died for everyone, so no one is unforgiveable.
Yet we make these claims in all kinds of small ways in our lives: "remember what he or she did that one time? Remember what he or she said to them?" It's a lot easier to do this than to take the long road of true and full forgiveness that our first reading and Gospel call us to do. Yet forgiveness is the only solution to the tragedies of injustice we suffer in this life.
At times we fail to live up to that. We all fail to rehabilitate, to work tirelessly for the good against the tireless work of evil. In short, we are not perfect and we at times grow weary of becoming saints. But we cannot throw in the towel, we cannot stop converting our hearts to love more deeply. The only hope of a better world is that God’s kingdom of world be built up in our hearts and the hearts of all. Let us pray that the kingdom of forgiveness that began on the Cross will take root in our souls and in our lives. Amen.
Below you will find the Final Testament that Christian wrote:
When an "A-Dieu" takes on a face.
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, my family,
to remember that my life was given to God and to this country.
I ask them to accept that the Sole Master of all life
was not a stranger to this brutal departure.
I ask them to pray for me—
for how could I be found worthy of such an offering?
I ask them to be able to link this death with the many other deaths which were just as violent, but forgotten through indifference and 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, alas, to prevail in the world,
even in that which would strike me blindly.
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.
I do not see, in fact, how I could rejoice
if the people I love were to be accused indiscriminately of my murder.
To owe it to an Algerian, whoever he may be,
would be too high a price to pay for what will, perhaps, be called, the "grace of martyrdom,"
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 Algerians indiscriminately.
I am also aware of the caricatures of Islam which a certain islamism encourages.
It is too easy to salve one's conscience
by identifying this religious way with the fundamentalist ideologies of the extremists.
For me, Algeria and Islam are something different: they are a body and a soul.
I have proclaimed this often enough, I believe, in the sure knowledge of what I have received from it,
finding there so often that true strand of the Gospel,
learnt at my mother's knee, my very first Church,
already in Algeria itself, in the respect of believing Muslims.
My death, clearly, will appear to justify
those who hastily judged me naive, or idealistic:
"Let him tell us now what he thinks of it!"
But these people must realise that my avid curiosity will then be satisfied.
This is what I shall be able to do, if God wills—
immerse my gaze in that of the Father,
and contemplate with him his children of Islam just as he sees them,
all shining with the glory of Christ,
the fruit of His Passion, and filled with the Gift of the Spirit,
whose secret joy will always be to establish communion
and to refashion the likeness, playfully delighting in 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 sums up my whole life to this moment,
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,
the hundredfold granted as was promised!
And also you, the friend of my final moment, who would not be aware of what you were doing.
Yes, I also say this Thank You and this A-Dieu to you, in whom I see the face of God.
And may we find each other, happy good thieves, in Paradise, if it pleases God, the Father of us both. Amen. (In sha 'Allah).
Algiers, December 1, 1993—Tibhirine, January 1, 1994.