There is, right now, as I write this, an awful terrorist attack going on in Paris. Please stop whatever you’re doing and say a quick prayer for all of those involved, all of those injured, all the dead, and the families of everyone involved. Even if you’ve already prayed for them, even if you don’t normally pray, please.
In face of something so big, no response feels adequate. What can we say? I live in Rome, a city that – by the grace of God – has been spared terrorist attacks, despite the nation’s poor security, and the repeated threats against Rome, against St. Peter’s Basilica, and against the pope. I hope you’ll forgive the meandering tone of this post, but I’m reminded of a few things. The first is Revelation 1:20, which mentions that every local church has a guardian angel watching over it, and I’m thankful to God for setting His angels over us (and thankful to my guardian angel, and to Rome’s). The second, and related, is Psalm 127, we begins (vv.1-2):
Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep.
“Our help is in the name of the Lord, Who made Heaven and Earth” (Psalm 124:8), full stop. Does God allow evil to happen sometimes? Certainly. But St. Paul reminds us that “we know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). He continues (Rom. 8:35-39),
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
And so we have nothing, ultimately, to worry about. Could our lives end tomorrow, even today? Of course. But we wake up every day knowing that. This should remind us both of the frailty of our bodies and the immortality of our souls… and the relative value of physical and spiritual life. Blaise Pascal, the French Catholic philosopher and mathematician, wrote in one of his Pensees of the curious paradox of man’s frailty and invincibility:
Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature, but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapour, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this.
All our dignity consists then in thought. By it we must elevate ourselves, and not by space and time which we cannot fill. Let us endeavour then to think well; this is the principle of morality.
Of course, man isn’t just a “thinking reed,” but a praying one, which underscores St. Paul’s point in Romans 8.
Finally, (while we still don’t know for certain whether this was Islamic extremists, as it current seems) I’m reminded of a letter by the North African Abbot Christian de Chergé, the abbot made famous by the delightful film Of Gods and Men. Abbot Christian was the Abbot of a small monastery of French Trappists living in Algeria, the Monastery Notre-Dame de l’Atlas of Tibhirine. As the situation in Algeria worsened, the monks realized that they would likely be martyred by Islamic extremists. Offered the chance to flee to France, they instead chose to stay with their monastery and with the community that they were serving, in order to be Christ to them. They served right up until the end, when they were indeed kidnapped and martyred.
Towards the end, Abbot Christian wrote a remarkable (even provocative) last testament, that serves as a beautiful witness to the grace of martyrdom. If at times he seems to strain the bounds of orthodoxy in rushing to the defense of the Muslims who would kill him, recall Our Lord’s pleading from the Cross in Luke 23:34. The letter leaves no question that Abbot Christian grasps the centrality of Christ, even as he hopes that Christ’s mercy will extend to not only himself but to the men who will kill him.
-The letter is worth reading in full:
If it should happen one day—and it could be today—that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to encompass 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 One 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 associate such a death with the many other deaths that 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 share 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 a clear space which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God and of all 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 this people I love were to be accused indiscriminately of my murder. It would be to pay too dearly for what will, perhaps, be called “the grace of martyrdom,” to owe it to an Algerian, whoever he may be, especially if he says he is acting in fidelity to what he believes to be Islam. I know the scorn with which Algerians as a whole can be regarded. I know also the caricature of Islam which a certain kind of Islamism encourages. It is too easy to give oneself a good 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 in Algeria, in the respect of believing Muslims—finding there so often that true strand of the Gospel I learned at my mother’s knee, my very first Church.
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 realize that my most 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, 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 to refashion the likeness, delighting in the differences.
For this life given up, totally mine and totally theirs, I thank God who seems to have wished 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 brothers and sisters and their families—the hundred-fold granted as was promised!
And you also, the friend of my final moment, who would not be aware of what you were doing. Yes, for you also I wish this “thank you”—and this adieu* —to commend you to the God whose face I see in yours.
And may we find each other, happy “good thieves,” in Paradise, if it pleases God, the Father of us both. Amen.
*The French word for goodbye, adieu, literally means “to God.”
Our Lady of Lourdes, pray for us! Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, pray for us!