The Gift of Courage: Vocation from the Inside

Léonie Caldecott

Of Gods and Men, 2010. Directed by Xavier Beauvois.

Fill the Void, 2012. Directed by Rama Burshtein.

It is not easy to convey the notion of vocation in a secular world. Modern men and women tend to think of life as consisting in a series of choices, to be made by the individual in a linear fashion, according to what attracts or repulses them. If those choices turn out to be wrong, you make new choices. Your life evolves according to your feelings, or if it be something beyond that, something ‘rational’, it is reason based on what you know, not what you don’t know.

Vocation, on the other hand, predicates another voice. A voice which calls you from beyond the confines of your present life. A voice which is not your own. It is not easy to talk about this in the abstract. But the medium of cinema can be a perfect vehicle for this dialogue between the I, and the ineffable Other. Two films released in the last five years, one French, the other Israeli, demonstrate this perfectly. One is a film about the Christian religious life: Of Gods and Men. The other, Fill the Void, is a film about marriage, in the context of Hassidic Judaism. The first is made by a man, the second by a woman, each from a very different culture. Taken together, they say some important things about the dynamic of vocation across all cultures.

Of Gods and Men tells the true story of a group of french Trappists from the monastery of Tibhirine in the Atlas mountains. In the midst of the civil war that raged in Algeria during the late 1990s, seven of these monks―practically the whole community―were abducted by unidentified armed men. This was in March 1996. Two months later, they were found dead: decapitated, in fact. The Algerian government blamed the insurgents. French investigators later claimed that responsibility for their deaths might actually lie at the door of the government itself.

Be that as it may, the crux of the story is what these men lived through as the threat of death drew closer to them. The film portrays, with great clarity and sensitivity, the rhythm of their everyday lives. Days of work on the land and pastoral care of the people who lived around the monastery, most of them Muslims, punctuated by community prayer and Mass in their simple chapel. The word of God threads itself throughout the action, as the liturgical year punctuates and gives resonance to what the community is experiencing. This life of peace and order is disrupted by the approach of heavily armed terrorists, who break into the monastery one Christmas Eve and demand that Brother Luke, who is a doctor, go with them to treat their wounded fighters. In a scene of incredible visceral tension, the Prior, Brother Christian, faces down Fayattia, the leader of the insurgents. He insists that Luke is too old and frail to go with them. In addition, he explains, their scarce medical supplies are needed for the local people, who depend on the monastery for medical assistance, something the monks give to all, regardless of creed or social position. Finally he cites the Koran about respect for men of God. The courage and integrity of the Prior impresses Fayattia, and he leaves the monks alone, later sending in a wounded man for treatment during dispensary hours.

Now the monks are caught in a politically compromising situation not of their own making. For the local army leader starts to suspect them of sympathising with the insurgents. The French attaché begs them to leave the area before harm can come to them. And when Fayattia is killed by the army, all protection on the side of the insurgents is withdrawn. The army searches the monastery and questions Brother Luke’s patients, before being roundly told off by him for harrassing women and children. An army helicopter hovers closely over the monastery, making it difficult for the monks to pray. The community responds by drawing closer together so they can continue to hear each other’s voices. It is an apt image for the true threat that hangs over these consecrated men: the diabolical threat of ideology and violence. Collecting wood, cooking in the kitchen, planting vegetables, the brethren valiantly try to carry on their normal routine in the face of the calvary coming to meet them.

But what is most remarkable about Of Gods and Men is the interior struggle each man must go through as he faces up to the possibility of literal martyrdom. The opening of the film contains the words of Psalm 81 (82), which explains its title: “You are like gods, all of you. But you shall die like men.” Several of the monks are shaken to the core by this knowledge. The portrayal of their dread is beautifully done: it is not a question of abstract commitment to an impossible ideal. It is a question of facing, in the core of one’s own being, the fear of physical assault, pain and death. Timor mortis conturbat me. Even a devout Christian, if they are honest, cannot escape this existential challenge. “I did not become a monk in order to sweetly let myself be gunned down,” as one of the community puts it. Yet when the Prior and his companions speak to the local Imam and other friends in the village about leaving the monastery, the true discernment emerges. The image of birds about to fly off a branch is used. It is a woman who gives voice to what’s really at issue. “We are the birds, and you are the branch,” she says. “If you go, we will not know where to put ourselves.”

And so it becomes obvious to all the monks that it is not just their duty, but the very incarnation of their vocation, that they must remain in their place, come what may. “Since when do Christians give way before the force of arms?” “We have not yet fulfilled our mission here.” As Brother Luke puts it more succinctly: “To leave is to die.” And as he explains privately to Brother Christian, it is his interior freedom which is at stake in facing down the fear of attack. “Make way for the free man,” jokes the elderly monk, as he refuses his Prior’s help in standing up after their conversation. After an extraordinary scene where they share a last supper full of silent, paschal significance (the old doctor puts on a tape of Swan Lake and uncorks two bottles of good french wine), the terror finally materialises. The last scene shows the seven prisoners disappearing amidst a landscape shrouded in snow. And they have washed their robes white in the blood of the Lamb...

On the surface of it, Fill the Void couldn’t be more different. Set in the closely-knit Hassidic community in Tel Aviv, the wider world barely intrudes into the drama. A young woman, Esther, dies giving birth on the Feast of Purim, sending her family into a terrible period of mourning. Her widowed husband must now decide what he should do for the good of his infant son. His mother-in-law, desperate to avoid losing contact with her only grandchild if he re-marries abroad, conceives the idea of him marrying her younger daughter, Shira. In the Austenesque drama that unfolds from this, we watch both Jochay and Shira struggle with this possibility. In the process we gain a vivid insight into what the vocation to marriage actually is.

Even within the constrictions of this traditional society, the individuals have to make a discernment. They have to be ‘free men’, just like the monks of Tibhirine. At the beginning of the process, Shira lacks the maturity to carry this through. She is aware that in marrying her brother-in-law (or her sister’s husband, as she puts it, revealingly) she will be foregoing the possibility of being with a man for whom she is the only woman he has ever ‘known’, in both the biblical and the psychological sense. In a desperate ploy to gain some sort of space in the face of Jochay’s suit, she puts the thought of another, older woman forward, something which hurts his feelings deeply. But then Shira realises that the other man she might marry, who is closer to her age, is actually a rather superficial character. The depth of Jochay, with all his suffering, and his importunate desire to know what she is really thinking, suddenly comes into relief. And yet she is terrified. Questioned by the wise rabbi of their community, Shira blurts out that she is willing to marry Jochay in order to do her duty by her family, which has nothing to do with love. But it has everything to do with love, responds the Rabbi, nonetheless commending her for her honesty and calling her by her familial name: Oh Shira, Shira-le, Shira-le. In order to make her parents and Jochay understand, he cites Rabbi Nachman: “Blessed be he who says one word of truth his entire life”.

The mysterious waltz of courtship, the network of family relationships, and of wider friendship in the community are all beautifully delineated in Fill the Void, and the acting is superbly nuanced, especially from Hadas Yaron who plays Shira. The anguish of a woman past her prime who has not yet found a husband, the wisdom of the maiden aunt who has never married because she has a congenital birth defect (such is the power of her personality that only gradually do we realise she has no arms): all of these are essential parts of the tapestry. On several occasions one character says to another “you are pushing me” or “you are pressuring me”: a necessary warning when such close relations, filled with the constant ritual reminders of God’s presence, could threaten the authentic movement of one human soul, as the Rabbi recognises.

All of this bears witness to a world that secularised culture does not often get to see. Unfettered freedom―that is freedom outside of a context where vocation and commitment are protected―is ultimately fruitless. But this does not mean that freedom is irrelevant. “You’re too close,” says Shira to Yochay during one of their anguished exchanges. “I could have been closer,” he replies angrily, as he begins to make preparations to take his second marriage option. Yet in the end, it is not an imposed closeness that brings Shira to her knees. For all her fear, for all the tears that she sheds amidst smiles on her wedding day, her emotions are a profound part of her acquiring the maturity to see what is good for her, as well as for her family. The tears, the fear, even the conflict, echo the deepest emotions stirred in man, made in God’s image, at the decisive moments of his or her life.

There is a scene in Of Gods and Men when the Prior cannot sleep for the sound of one of his brethren’s cries, as he passes through a dark night of the soul. Later on he will have a conversation with this same monk, reminding him that his life was already given when he made his vows. But what is crucial here is that the religious superior doesn’t disdain the other man’s struggle. What settles the terrified man’s soul, finally, is the knowledge that they are doing all of this for love. As the love of Christ dawns anew in him, the younger monk’s face acquires an expression which can only be described as transcendent (again, the acting in this flawless movie is but one of its many delights). There is a similar scene in Fill the Void, when Shira, worn out with the decision she has to make, lies on her bed and prays in anguish to God: “Help me, help me to stand up.”

And stand up she does. Not in order to become a different person, a person with no fear or anxiety, but a person who puts on courage in the face of fear. Who is ready to embrace that terrifying otherness that calls to her from the deep, freely and with her whole being: to know Jochay as her husband. Neither marriage nor the religious life are comfortable states of being. To see them through to the end does take courage. But if seeking only to be comfortable is the kiss of death, then embracing the unknown, making a commitment, is what gives us life. It is what makes us, not like gods, but like God.

Leonie Caldecott is the UK editor of Humanum.