A Reluctant Saint?
Sermon for the BBC Sunday Service 22 April 2012
In 2010 the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival was won by the French film ‘Of Gods and Men’. It is the moving true story of the French Cistercians who refused to leave their monastery in a time of conflict. This is during the struggle in Algeria in 1996 between the government and Islamist opposition. Eventually they are taken hostage and killed, whether by execution or in a fire fight no-one knows. The film makes clear that the brothers each had their inner demons to contend with in this last year of their lives, and that they remained as much out of loyalty to each other and to the Muslim villagers they served, than any heroic impulse or fanatical desire for martyrdom.
There are clear similarities with the story of St Alfege over a thousand years ago. He lived in troubled times as they did, and as we do today, when the choice of loyalties was not clear cut. He served an English king who had instigated atrocities himself. There were some Danes and English on both sides of the conflict, and Christians as well as pagans within the invading force. He did not die for his outspoken defence of the Christian faith and he was never asked by his captors to deny it. He died as a result of their angry disappointment at his lack of value as a prize. It seems to have been an unpremeditated act of mob violence.
Like the Cistercians monks of Tibherine, Alfege must have searched his conscience many times to ask himself whether the stand he was making was worth it. Hadn’t he suffered enough? Was it really worth pushing himself to the absolute limit? What sort of example was he making? Osbern, his biographer preserves the story that he made an attempt at escape shortly before his murder. Alfege is led by the devil in the guise of an angel into the marshes and then abandoned. Osbern dramatizes an inner dialogue going on in the saint’s mind in which reason and scripture are used on both sides, much like the account of Jesus’s own temptations in Matthew and Luke. Only when he has been put in touch again with his own weakness and humility does a good angel lead Alfege back to prison, his inner turmoil in some measure healed and resolved.
Saints are made not born. They become saints by their obedience to the specific circumstances in which they find themselves rather than any false heroism or bravado. Read the German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s letters and papers from prison, and you discover the same agony of conscience and spiritual struggle. Perhaps the reason both men faced their execution with such bravery and calmness of spirit is that it put a final end to this inner conflict.
In the film I started with about the monks in Algeria, there is a justly famous scene where the monk who is a doctor brings out a couple of bottles of wine. As this little community eat and drink, listening to Swan Lake, their faces are transfigured as they look at each other. Whatever these men were before, they are changed now by their common discipline, plus all that they have been through together and the deeper knowledge this has brought of each others’ individual story and inner struggle. Obedience to their calling and common life has made them different people. They cannot go back even if they wanted to. Satisfied with that knowledge they have the strength to go on. The last scene sees them disappearing with their captors into a white mist- or should I have said ‘a white bliss- of snow.
When I reflect on Alfege’s story the one thing that stands out above all others is obedience to the rule of life that he accepted as a young man- perseverance, stamina, discipline. But discipline not as an outwardly imposed regime but as a balance of mind and heart distilled out of obedience to the demands of prayer and compassion. It is this which makes him surrender himself as a hostage for the sake of his brethren holed up in the cathedral at Canterbury. It is this which makes him refuse to let the tenants and inhabitants of his own lands be tipped into further starvation and misery by a ransom extorted to save his life. His charity, we are told, extended even to his enemies. The fruit of his obedience to a fate he did his best not to seek, nor to escape, was a reputation for reconciliation and justice. It still has the power to provoke us to greater understanding and compassion today. Costly perseverance in the service of a cause or reality beyond narrow self-interest- something which also gives this race its special value and appeal.