Understanding Our Church

A Treasury of Arkansas Writers Discussing the Catholic Faith

The fruit of the Spirit: The power to forgive in an outrageous world

Published: July 27, 2002

By Abbott Jerome Kodell

In March 1996 seven Trappist monks in Tibherine, Algeria, were kidnapped from their monastery at midnight by masked intruders who were later identified as Islamic militants. The decapitated bodies of the monks were produced two months later. The Trappists had been guilty of two crimes: they were not native Algerians, and they were not Muslims.

Though these terrorist murders were not on the scale of the World Trade Center attacks and were not widely reported, in Algeria and in France especially there was the same reaction of horror, outrage and disbelief. There were also outcries of hate and calls for revenge, but these did not dominate the response, arguably because the response was influenced by the Trappist order and particularly by the spirit of the murdered monks themselves, exemplified in a letter left by one of them, Father Christian de Cherge.

Months earlier it had become clear that the lives of the monks were under threat, and that nothing would make any difference to the extremists: not the community the monks had built up with the Muslims, not their prayer for Algeria, not their service, not even the clinic of Brother Luc, a medical doctor, prized by the poorest of the poor.

Father Christian wrote a memorandum around Christmas time contemplating the possibility of his death as a “victim of terrorism” which was published in local papers after his death as his “testament.” It contained the following words, including an expression of forgiveness for his murderer:

“If the day comes, at last I will be able — if God pleases — to see the children of Islam as he sees them, illuminated in the glory of Christ, sharing in the gift of God’s passion and of the Spirit, whose secret joy will always be to bring forth our common humanity amidst our differences. ... And to you, too, my friend of the last moment, who will not know what you are doing. God’s image is in you, too; may we meet in heaven, like appy thieves, if it please God, our common Father.” How could Father Christian write like this? How could he be so forgiving as to wish eternal happiness to his unknown assailant? Many today would say that this is asking too much, that human emotion is too powerful to allow such peace and equanimity in the face of outrageous acts of terrorism.

But this is precisely where the gift of salvation in Jesus Christ goes beyond a topic of conversation and becomes a real force in the world.

We believe that by the gift of the Holy Spirit, disciples of Jesus are empowered to live the life of the kingdom in a broken and dangerous world, among people who have lost their way.

Father Christian was exhibiting the “fruit of the Spirit,” the gift which enables us to rise above ourselves in our response to everyday challenges: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal 5:22-23). Father Christian mentions that many will judge him as “naive or idealistic.” He died the way Jesus died, forgiving his killers. And he treated people the way Jesus treated them, as capable of being the children of God they were created to be, even though their actions were in direct contradiction.

It is a very dangerous way to live. Only a divine gift can make it possible, and only a divine gift can change the world.

Abbott Jerome Kodell writes from Subiaco Abbey.