The year was 1960. France and Algeria were at war, in a bloody struggle for Algeria’s independence. A young seminary student from France was fulfilling his mandatory military service in the mountains north of Tiaret. He was part of a counter-insurgency group which provided health care and other services in an attempt to convince the Algerians that they were better off under France than being independent. While he was working there, he became friends with a local policeman, a family man, with 10 children, and a devout Muslim. They would have long walks together, and talk about God and religion. If they had not been together for awhile, the Muslim would remind the young man by saying, “It’s been a long time since we’ve dug our well.” The young Frenchman once joked, “And at the bottom of our well, what will we find? Muslim water or Christian water?” The Muslim replied, “Come on now, we’ve spent all this time walking together, and you’re still asking me this question! You know very well, what we’ll find is God’s water.”
One day they were out walking, and they were ambushed by a military group. Since the young man was in his military fatigues, he thought he was about to be killed. But his Muslim friend stepped in between and told the soldiers that this man was a friend of Algeria and a friend to Islam. The soldiers let them go. But the next day, the Muslim man, father of 10 children, was found murdered near his own well. The young French soldier was profoundly moved. He knew that this good man, this friend, had been killed because he had defended him earlier. He had given his life for him. This act changed the course of his life. He returned to France in 1961, completed his studies and was ordained in 1964. But he always intended to return to Algeria, and did so, entering the Trappist monastery of Our Lady of Atlas at Tibhirine in 1971. You’ve no doubt guessed by now that this young man’s name was Christian de Chergé. His friend was Mohammed. Christian thought deeply about his friend’s death over the years, and came to understand that his sacrifice was Christ’s sacrifice, that he had given his life for his friend, and that this was what true love actually was. Mohammed taught Christian what it truly meant to be a Christian.
In his first letter, which we heard today, John tells us, “Children, let us love not in word or speech / but in deed and truth.” We often think of love as an emotion, a feeling that two people have for one another. It arises spontaneously and overwhelms a person. It is called a passion because it takes us over, we are passive containers for love, slaves to love. Loads of songs, stories, and movies reinforce this. Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde, Harry and Sally, and thousands of other such stories pepper our culture. Many of us here today have had this experience, where we have been completely captured by love, enthralled by another person. And this is one aspect of love, no doubt. It is too universal to be denied.
However, as many people also know, probably some of you here, the love that first draws two people together changes over time. Some experience this change as deepening, others find it challenging. Many couples do not survive this change. The feeling is gone, that magical feeling of being “in love,” and some take this as a sign that they should move on. But love is not merely being “in love.” As John reminds us, love is not simply a feeling, but action, “deed and truth.”
John goes on to say that there are two commandments we must follow. First, to believe in the name of God’s Son, Jesus Christ, and second, to love one another. The first precedes the second. We can truly love one another only if we first have Christ as love’s foundation.
Love, then, has its source outside of us. When we put Christ at the center instead of our own feelings, our own wills, something shifts. We still fall in love, we still are thunderstruck by another person, but the sort of lasting love that carries successful marriages through decades is not dependent on the way we feel on any given day. As Jesus puts it in today’s Gospel, “I am the vine and you are the branches,” and, “without me, you can do nothing.” Christ is the source and sustainer of love.
That we depend on Christ’s love for our love carries over into community life as well. How do we love our families, our neighbours, our brothers and sisters?
It’s true that we can’t control our affection. We will naturally be more attracted to some people than to others. This is just a fact of human nature, and, as I say, beyond our control. Even Jesus had his favourites. However, we should not confuse this feeling of affection with real love. Love is an act of the will, with the emphasis on “act.” What we do is much more important than how we feel. We can practise small, or large, acts of kindness and generosity for anyone, no matter how we feel about them. We can wish them well, and hope for their happiness and contentment. We can recognize that God loves them just as much as he loves those for whom we have affection, and that they have just as important a role to play in God’s kingdom as we do. We can see Christ in them.
We have the chance in this monastery to practise this sort of love every day. And I am a happy witness to the fact that we actually do practise it. We are a collection of men, from all walks of life, and from all around the world. We are diverse in our backgrounds, in our political opinions, in our musical and literary tastes, in what flavour of ice cream we prefer. But we are united in the fact that we are not the center of our own lives. Christ has that place. And we are beholden to treat our brothers as Christ manifested to us, the Christ in me recognizing and honouring the Christ in you.
In 1996, Christian de Chergé along with 6 other monks were kidnapped and held for ransom. They died on 21 May, 1996. In 2018, they, along with 12 other martyrs of Algeria were beatified and their feast day set as the 8th of May, coming up this Saturday, as Fr. Elias mentioned this morning in his chapter talk. The monks knew the danger of remaining in Algeria, and chose to stay nonetheless. They stayed because they loved the country, because they loved the people among whom they had lived for so long, because they loved each other. And ultimately, in Christian’s case, because in one man, a Muslim, he had found Christ, and through him learned to truly love.