The brothers of Atlas testimony never to be forgotten
Jubilee 2000 Search


Bernard Olivera

The Apostolic Letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente by Pope John Paul II, on preparation for the Jubilee of the Year 2000, reminds us that the Church of the first millennium was born of the blood of martyrs. This is a witness not to be forgotten (TMA, 37). Our Brothers of Atlas leave us this testimony today as we prepare in 1998 to celebrate 900 years since the foundation of Citeaux and in 2000, two thousand years since the birth of Jesus Christ. A witness not to be forgotten.

The mystery of mankind, of every human person, is only truly revealed in the mystery of the Word made man: the testimony of our Brothers, like the testimony of all monks and nuns, all believers men and women, can only be understood through that of Christ Jesus. And the testimony of the Faithful Witness is this: God is love! Father, forgive them for they know not what they do! Thy kingdom come, forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who do us wrong!

A vow of stability until death

Communities of the Order and stability

The decision of our Brothers of Atlas is not unique. We all, monks and nuns of the Benedictine-Trappist tradition, take a vow of "stability" which binds us until death to our community and to the place in which it lives. Many communities of our Order, confronted with war or armed violence have had to reflect again seriously on the meaning of this commitment and decide whether to leave their monastery or to remain. This has been the case of communities in Huambo and in Bela Vista in Angola, of the community in Butende in Uganda, of the community in Marija Zvijezda at Banja Luka in Bosnia, and recently of our brothers in Mokoto in Zaire. Whereas in Huambo, Bela Vista, Butende and Marija Zvijezda the Brothers chose to remain in their monastery, the Brothers of Mokoto decided to take the path of exile. In each of these cases the decision was taken by the whole community after communal discussion.

How can we understand the profundity of this vow in the life of a monk? Perhaps the letter which Father Christian had thought to send on December 28th, 1993, to Sayah Attiya, head of the GIA and of the group of armed men who came to the door of the monastery on Christmas Eve, can reveal to us the meaning of this vow: «My Brother, allow me to address you in this way; man to man, believer to believer, (...) In the present conflict in which the country is living, it is impossible for us to take sides. As foreigners we are forbidden to do so. Being monks (ruhban) we are bound to the choice God has made for us, that of prayer and a simple life, of manual work, of welcoming and sharing with everyone above all with the poor (...) These principles of life are freely accepted by each of us. They bind us until death. I do not think God wills that this death should come through you (...) If, one day, the Algerians see that we are too many, then we will respect their desire to see us leave. With deep regret. I know that we will continue to love them, ALL of them, including you. When and how this message will reach you? It is of little importance! But today I need to write to you. Forgive me for doing so in my mother tongue. You will understand. And may the Only One of all life, lead us! Amin».

Community discernment

I think it is important to recall here the great steps of the discernment as our Brothers of Atlas were able to live it after that visit on Christmas Eve of six armed men who sought to convince them to compromise and obliged them to "collaborate" with the armed movement (medical aid, economic and logistic support ).

In the days that followed the monks decided with a community vote to reject any form of collaboration with the group (except possibly for medical aid at the monastery itself), to remain at Atlas, although to reduce temporarily the number of Brothers at the monastery, not to return to France if one day they would be forced to leave Atlas, but to go rather to Morocco and wait until the return to Atlas was possible, when the circumstances so permitted. Lastly they decided not to accept any novices.

The possibility of a violent death

In this discernment which led them to the decision to remain at Atlas, despite the prevailing situation of tension, the Brothers were aware of the possibility of a violent death. The Letter which Father Christian wrote to me after the assassination of two Sisters in September 1995, said this clearly: «The celebration took place in a beautiful atmosphere of serenity and offering. It brought together a very small Church whose remaining members were all aware that the logic of their presence would now have to include the possibility of a violent death. For many this has been like a new and radical plunge into the very charisma of their congregation (...) it is also a return to the source of the first call. Therefore it is clear that it is everyone's desire for not one of these Algerians to whom our consecration binds us in the name of the love God has for them, to wound this love by killing any one of us, or any one of our brothers». Father Christian's reflection on the possibility of a violent death had become his prayer, the prayer of a man who sees himself totally disarmed of all violence towards his fellow-man, his brother: «Lord disarm me, and disarm them».

Three times at least, but above all on the occasion of the assassination of other Religious to whom he was close, Father Christian recalled this possibility.

After the assassination of Fr Henri, a Marist: «I was personally very close to Henri. His death seems so natural, so fitting for a long life lived entirely given over to the ordinary people. He seems to me to belong to the category which I call "the martyrs of hope", those of whom one never speaks because it is in the patience of daily life that they shed their blood, all of it. I understand in this sense "monastic martyrdom". It is this instinct which leads us not to change anything, if it is not part of an on-going effort at conversion (but here too, nothing changes!)» (Letter July 5th 1994).

Searching among memories to discover wisdom

Masters and mystics of the School of Charity

Christian wisdom consists in a divine project for salvation. This project finds its source and its summit in the Paschal Sacrifice of Jesus Christ. This is why Jesus Christ is the "Wisdom of God" (1 Cor 1,24). To exercise oneself in wisdom is to remember and to keep in our heart the saving interventions of God in history, putting into practice the ensuing norms of conduct. Mary, the Mother of Jesus Christ, is invoked as Throne of Wisdom for a two-fold reason: because she carried in her womb Wisdom made flesh and because she carried in her heart the wisdom of one who meditated, pondered and interpreted the saving words and gestures of Christ the Lord.

The Lord worked powerfully in the life or our Brothers. His work in them is also word. In the preceding pages we let them speak, they themselves told us their story revealing its meaning. God reveals his secrets to his friends the prophets; this continues today.

In their passion, our seven Brothers began to work in a wonderful way in our Order.. and in the Church. Now is the time to listen again to what the Spirit, working in them, is saying to the Church and to the world: He speaks and teaches in the Order, this school of schools of charity.

There is a first message for all men and women of good will. The hidden and silent passion of these Brothers was transformed into a Gospel call which resounds without ambiguity.

- Beg forgiveness from God for the aggressors. Only forgiveness can break the chains of hatred and violence. To forgive is an act of profound respect which allows us to discover in the offender, beyond all appearances, the image of God. To forgive is to realise and to proclaim that, despite our failings and our ignorance, God recognises everyone one as sons and daughters, tenderly loved. To forgive is to bear witness, in spite of everything, to our divine Filiation and universal brotherhood. The word pardon is the word which best concords with the heart of a martyr since he is a faithful witness to love.

I hope when the times comes, to be conscious enough to ask pardon from God and from my brothers in humanity, and at the same time to forgive my aggressor with all my heart...(Christian, spiritual testament)

- The martyr who offers his life while forgiving, accuses no one. A group of extremists does not represent a people: nothing would be more absurd than to accuse the Algerian people or the Muslim world for what happened. Neither must we accuse the physical authors of the drama. We must be confident that a word of pardon will dissipate all evil and ignorance, letting light shine within ourselves and finding spaces of liberty for the transformation of our existence. All human beings are worthy of being loved.

How could I rejoice if this people whom I love were indistinctly accused of my death. This is too high a price for the "grace of martyrdom" to have to owe it to an Algerian, whoever he may be, above all if he thinks to act out of fidelity to Islam as he believes it to be. (...), And for you too, friend of the last hour, who did not know what you were doing. Yes, for you too I wish this THANK YOU and this A-DIEU. And that we may meet again, happy thieves in paradise, if it pleases God the Father of us all. Amen! (Christian, Spiritual Testament.)

- Martyrs of love are authentic peace-makers. It is not only a question of being patient, bearing or tolerating hardship. It is not enough either to be peace-loving and to neither do, nor wish, anyone any harm. It is much more: to make, build peace through the gift of one's very life. No one took it from them, they offered it.

I do not think that violence can eliminate violence. We cannot exist as men if we do not accept to make ourselves images of Love, as love was revealed in Christ, a just man, who suffered the punishment of the unjust (Luke, Letter March 24th 1996).

- Human life has a meaning - it is a path towards a destiny - and we find this meaning only when life is offered as a pure and gratuitous gift. If life is a gift received, then who ever converts their life into a gift offered, lives and lets others live. To live is to love. And death can be the final act of love which gives life a sense of eternity.

There is no true love of God without unconditional readiness for death (Luke, Letter March 19th 1995).

The Spirit speaks still today to the universal Church and to every local Church. And this is what He is saying.

- Interreligious dialogue between Christians and Muslims, has now a new reason to continue: seven lives given up are a good foundation for mutual understanding. They knew that actions speak much more than words.

Not having the linguistic and religious knowledge to undertake dialogue with Islam, I feel called simply to listen. And it is God heard in his Word sent to us, who tells me to listen, to accept all this reality, foreign, different. Until I feel responsible for it: that the Spirit may lead it to the whole truth. And if we may walk this path together; so much the better! And we can speak or keep silent along the way (Christophe, Diary January 30th 1996).

We must be witnesses of Emmanuel, that is "God-with-us". There is a presence of "God-amongst-us" which we must assume ourselves. It is in this prospect that we understand our vocation to be a fraternal presence of men and women sharing the life of Muslims, Algerians in prayer, silence and friendship. Relations Church-Islam are still hesitant; because we have not yet lived long enough at their side (Christian, reflections for Lent March 8th 1996).

- The seven martyrs of Atlas are a mature fruit of this local Church and the people of Algeria: they decided to stay so as to continue their life in this Church, among these people. Their desire was to be Church for the people of Algeria.

If something is to happen to us, and I hope it will not, we wish to live it here in solidarity with all those Algerian men and women who have already paid with their life, in solidarity with all those unknown, innocent people ... It seems to me that the One who today helps us to resist, is the One who has called us. This to me is simply marvellous. (Michel, Letter April 1994).

Certainly, God loves Algerians and he has without a doubt chosen to try them by giving them our lives. Now, do we really love them? Do we love them sufficiently? A minute of truth for each of us, and heavy responsibility in these times when our friends feel so unloved. Slowly, each of us is learning to integrate death into this gift, and with it all the other conditions of this ministry of co-existence demanding total gratuity. Some days all this seems rather unreasonable. Just as unreasonable as becoming a monk. ...(Christian, community circular letter April 25th 1995).

- God makes use of the humble to build great things: only the hidden witnesses of hope can become shining martyrs of love. They have chosen to become little seeds, to be buried so that the great tree of the Kingdom may grow.

What will remain in a few months of the Church in Algeria, of her visibility, her structures, the people of whom she is composed? Little, very little certainly. Nevertheless, I believe that the Good News has been sown, the seed is growing (...) The Spirit is at work, deep in the hearts of the people. Let us be docile that He may work in us through prayer, through a loving presence among our brothers (Paul Letter January 11th 1995).

Our Church has been badly shaken, above all in our diocese of Algiers. Cut down, wounded, she has had abrupt experience of the poverty and gratuity written in the Gospel, and in each of our vocations to follow Jesus. Vulnerable, extremely fragile, she discovers that she is also more free, more credible in her vow to "love to the very end" ... (Christian - how, in the present situation, do we meet the charisma of our Order? November 21st, 1995).

In the face of death tell me that my faith - Love - will not fail. Suddenly I am frightened to believe (Christophe, Diary December 1st, 1995).

Here I am, O my God ... Here I am rich in misery and poverty, and unspeakable weakness. Here I am before you who are nothing but Love and Mercy. Before you, but only through your grace, here I am, all of me, with all my spirit, all my heart, all my will. (Bruno, March 3rd, 1990).

There is also a word for us monks and nuns of the Cistercian Order of Strict Observance. For us who, after nine centuries of existence, are preparing to cross the threshold of a new millennium with a new and bigger heart.

- They followed Jesus to the very end, in keeping with the absolute, radical nature of the Gospel. They assumed the attitudes, the options of Jesus. They embraced his destiny. They were disfigured with him, to be like him. They took on themselves the cross of abnegation in order to hasten the coming of the Kingdom. They preferred nothing to the love of Christ, Servant of the servants of God.

I beg you on that day of grace to become a servant
and to give my life
in ransom for peace
in ransom for life
Jesus draw me
into your joy
of crucified love.

(Christophe, diary June 25th, 1995).

- They leapt into the mystery so as to become fully transformed in it. A mysterious influence permitted them to experience the mystery to the point of becoming fire and light. Our seven mystics hold out their hands to lead us too into the transforming glory of God. They invite us to look into the shadows of darkness to contemplate the face of the Other. They are telling us that there is no transcendence without transparency and immanence. The Word and the Eucharist are the door through which we enter the heart of God, source of all transformation.

You speak to me - when I say and I sing: thanks to your love for me, I may come into your house.
It is here in me - so far, so near:
In You, I find myself, set free by the love by which you are loved,
if anyone loves me - is like saying I love you only thanks to your very Breath.
We will come to him
the Father and I

(Christophe, diary March 3rd, 1994)

- They lived, they died and they entered into eternal life, together. The community is the holy place of God's revelation. Love soldered them into an imperishable solidarity. Life in common without communion of life, is of little importance. Koinonia renders visible the Risen One making all things new. They sought not their own interest but that of others, this is why the Lord took them all together, at the same time, into eternal life.

Listen, Church: I am
Listen, I in you, as the Father is in me, Him in me and I in Him,
we are ONE
Listen: I am in you the Resurrection: the Life.
Through you (in you, with you) I have passed the wall. My sin stands before me - this lack of love given to my brothers - through you, not for long am I - frightened, desperate ... I have passed through death.
When, at last, my fraternal existence will be lived on that side
because you desire to see us come together to this eternal Life.
Today you say to me: stand up, go towards yourself, towards your paschal I

(Christophe, diary October 30th, 1994).

Christmas 1993 had been for the community of Atlas an experience which marked their life. Two years later, they recognised that: "through the bias of this event we felt invited to be born. The life of man goes from birth to birth (...) In our life there is always a child to be born: the son of God whom each of us are" (Christian, Reflection on Lent March 8th, 1996).

We too, Cistercians monks and nuns, through that which befell our Brothers are invited to be born again. The route is mapped out, we have only to travel it.

With Jesus, all together, towards the Father.

Starting from the Order, through the Church to the ends of humanity, open to inculturation, discernment, ecumenism and dialogue.

We are not called to die but to live radically. And if the price of fidelity is death, let us pay the price, knowing that it is in this way that life is purchased.

O Jesus, I accept with all my heart that your death be renewed in me, accomplished in me; I know that with you I will rise up out of the dizzy descent to the abyss proclaiming to the devil his defeat (Celestine, Easter antiphon)

The authentic pilgrim has both feet firmly in the present but he carries them steadily towards the future knowing that the Lord guides his steps. The path is travelled quickly when in the heart there is music and song. In a posthumous letter, Father Celestine said in all simplicity:

While carrying out my daily work (and this helps me every day) I sang this morning two short phrases: "O God, you are our Hope on the face of every human being"; and "How marvellous is your grace! You share with mankind the secrets of the Father" (Letter, January 22nd 1996).