YOU, THE BRANCH
US, THE BIRDS
Those who have seen the film “Of Gods and men” will recognise the phrase that titles this writing.
The community of Cistercian monks of the monastery of Tibhirine in Algeria was immersed in a difficult discernment about leaving the monastery and move to another place where they didn’t feel threatened, like their Muslim neighbours, by the violence throughout the country. The plot of the film, through the words of a humble Muslim woman, confirmed what the monks dropped in conversation: the capacity to fly as birds that leave the branch. She said, “No, you are not the birds; you are the branch and we are the birds, if you go, where will we cling to?”.
I left the cinema trying to delve into the deeper meaning of the words of the Muslim woman who made the departure of the Christian monks very difficult: if they chose to leave, they were abandoning their neighbours. For the villagers, the monastery was a benchmark of stability. They felt the company of monks in their daily lives; they felt accompanied and cared for.
Days later I learned that those words were not simply a resource by the script writer to explain the situation of helplessness in which the Muslim community lived but that it was related similarly in a biography of P. Christian Chergé (prior of the monastery of Tibhirine): “Do you know? Every morning when I go for work, I look towards the monastery to see if there is light and I say to myself handul illah! (Thank God!) says a young neighbour “(*).
They had recently killed Croatian workers near the village. The monks had also received the violent “visit” on Christmas night of an armed group. The residents were particularly concerned about what had happened to the monks, leaving them too worried in the same climate of fear and violence.
“We are like birds on the branch,” says Christian one day to another neighbour.
“No! you are the branch. If you go, we will not know where to support our legs” (*). This almost bucolic phrase brings us directly and accurately to the monastic stability:
the vote that Benedictine and Cistercian monks make to remain linked for life to a monastic community and a place. It is not something abstract; it is specific to a community and a monastery.
What does the stability of our brothers and sisters mean to the Lay Cistercians who live in the world, feeling that there is a common path that brings us together from our specific vocations and life choices? I answer the question with the brief words of the Muslim woman in the film: “You are the branch and we are the birds.”
(*) « Christian de Chergé, prior de Tibhirine » de Marie-Christine Ray, Bayard Éditions, pág. 189)
The community of monks of Tibhirine was scared and at the same time, they knew they were free to leave whenever they wanted. An uphill, both individual and community, discernment, of their vocation as monks in the place where God had placed them, led them to stay even foreshadowing that the end may be fatal. Politicians and military of the country, their families and the Order itself urged them to leave Algeria.
The love of God and their Muslim neighbours along with the stability of their monastic vocation made the “branch” stronger, continuing as an example of stability, peace and support to the lives of those people who could not choose to leave. Stability cannot be sustained on its own, it is based on love and fidelity.
As Lay Cistercians linked to our monastery of reference, to which we return again and again as to the source, the very fact of the vow of stability should challenge us. You are always there. We come and go: we perch and we fly. But if there is communion, you become the stable reference, the permanence of love. Visible sign that God stays, does not leave us.
One time I was sharing with a friend: “one of the things I like about the monastery is that they are always there. Whatever happens, if it’s cold, whether it’s day or night, holiday or work, times of crisis or tranquility, no matter what, inside or out, they are always there. Moreover, in my life as I run, laugh, cry, work, stress, search, go, or not … they are always there. They are attending the most important thing in life and as an example of life. It is not an abstract feeling. They are real people, a community with faces and names that are always there. They are, for me, a model of stability”.
We taste the delicacies of monastic life: prayer, silence, solitude, lectio divina, work understood in a humane way, simplicity of life, acceptance, stability and so many nuances, that, being open, can be seen by those who walk through the cloisters. And when they deepen us, we return to our daily lives to our families, jobs, concerns and desires, in our reality, “soaked” with the “gifts” received in the monastic life, opening to the creativity that the Holy Spirit inspires us to live and transmit God in our own lives. So we ask:
Let prayer be the center of our life.
That silence and solitude seek each other to keep the North Star and live from the inside, preventing the permanent dispersion.
That lectio keeps us energised listening to God’s Word that always tells us something new every day.
That the dehumanization in the working world is softened by a transcendent vision.
That simplicity of life allows us to live without excess luggage.
That the welcome extended to us allow us to open and meet others and help us not to close ourselves in fear and indifference.
That the stability of the monks, who gives us peace, in a changing world where everything is ephemeral, disposable, makes us a stable reference for those who need us.
A brother monk recently told me that an important recommendation of the Cistercian life is “to love the Rule and love the place.” I understand that only by knowing oneself loved by God, one may love the Rule and place to live as a monk. The Rule without love is an empty list of contents; the cloister without love can be a prison; and stability without love is a matter of square meters where you can remain oblivious to one’s surroundings.
But with Love, the branch grows stronger, and the birds come and go to rest in the confidence that they are welcomed and loved. Like it happened in Tibhirine and in many monastic communities around the world, who live and love the Rule and place, i.e., God, one’s brothers and those who “perch in its branches”.
Mari Paz López Santos
Lay Fraternity of the Monastery of Santa Maria de Huerta