Perhaps this review of some "older" books will be of some interest and value for readers during Lent:

Monastic Cross-Bearers
A Review by James M. Kushiner

Regardless of one’s theological or ecclesiastical disposition toward monasticism, a Christian vocation that has endured despite persecution, scandal, repression, caricature, and ridicule, a close look at the monastic spirit provided by three very different books points to a single underlying goal the consecrated life of Christian celibates. If monasticism is anything, it is Romans 12:1 writ large: “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.” In the case of these three books, the particular settings—Revolutionary France, revolutionary Algeria, and Moslem-dominated Egypt—provide fascinating backdrops to illustrate the spiritual potency of the monastic vocation.

SACRIFICE IN THE DESERT: A Study of an Egyptian Minority through the Prism of Coptic Monasticism

by Mark Gruber

Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, Inc., 2003 (278 pages; $62.00, paper)

Mark Gruber’s Sacrifice in the Desert is his second volume on Egyptian Coptic Christianity, the first being Journey Back to Eden (reviewed here in May 2004). Gruber is a Benedictine monk with a doctorate in anthropology and in 1986 and 1987 lived in number of Coptic monasteries in the Egypt.
    In Sacrifice Gruber first presents a anthropological and theological the notion of sacrifice in historical perspective, the separation of the monk from normal society and the role of the desert location as a space set apart for the divine encounter, and the history of the Coptic monasticism.
    The Copts of Egypt go back to the non-Roman and non-Greek indigenous population of Egypt before the advent of Christianity, who were “living in ethnic servitude and suffering.” After Christianity, there were still tensions between them and the between the Greek-oriented Christian of Alexandria, and they were often at odds with what they saw as the Imperial Church. The formal separation of the “monophysite” Copts came after the Council of Chalcedon in 451, and within two centuries they came under the rule of the triumphant Moslem armies, where they have remained till this day. The Copts of Egypt are quite vigorous in their church life, having well-attended Bible and Sunday School classes in their urban parishes.
    Egyptian monasticism also in the 20th century has seen a major resurgence, and in the last 50 years some monasteries abandoned centuries ago have become reoccupied. Who are these new monks? Gruber encountered many monks who have advanced degrees—most Coptic monks now are at least college educated. The resurgence is a sign of the vitality of the Coptic church as a whole, not just the monasteries.
    Most fascinating are several chapters in which Gruber describes the daily life in the monastery. “Coptic monasteries have a lay population which often far exceeds the number of monks who live there, and these inhabitants are a vital part of the social, religious, and economic institution of every deir [monastery].” These laymen work for the monks, in construction, machine maintenance, bookkeeping, hydraulics, engineering, and agriculture.
    The monk does not embrace the asceticism of monasticism merely for himself, but for the world, for his fellow Christians. The spiritual and physical sacrifices made by the monks have enabled the Coptic population as whole remain steadfast under the Moslem:

For Islam, the militant ideal is to die fighting for one’s faith. For the Copts, the ideal is to die while passively accepting persecution with grace. Hence, Christianity can have its martyrs in Egypt without eliciting widespread violent suppression. The ability of the Copts to live and die passively enable the martyrs to reinforce their values even as they rob their enemies of an opportunity to create a spiraling cycle of violent retribution.

The monastic vocation then is part of the identity of the Coptic laity, who as a persecuted minority in Egypt have nonetheless survived with a strong countercultural identity rooted in the same Cross of sacrifice and suffering that the monks heartily embrace.

THE MONKS OF TIBHIRINE: Faith, Love, and Terror in Algeria

by John W. Kiser

New York, New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2003

(335 pages; $14.95, paper)

A notorious contemporary example of monastic suffering in a Moslem context is the subject of The Monks of Tibhirine by John W. Kiser. In this case, seven Trappist monks, some of them from France, were abducted in 1996 from their remote monastery in the Atlas Mountains of Algeria. They were not long afterwards beheaded. The well-written account takes the reader inside the monastery of Tibhirine, named for the nearby village of Muslims, many of whom frequented the monastery and came to love and respect the monks as spiritual fathers of a sort.
    Kiser tells the story of a French policeman, Lieutenant Christian de Chergé, in 1959 who befriended a local Muslim policeman assigned to assist him in the dangerous days of the Algerian war for independence. The Frenchman enjoyed the company of the Moslem because “he could talk unself-consciously about God, unlike in France, where God talk made people uncomfortable.” His friend, Mohammed, rankled him when he said, “You Christians don’t know how to pray. We never see French soldiers praying. You say you believe in God. How can you not pray if you believe in God?” Christian struggled for an answer.
    On one of their conversational walks in countryside, rebel soldiers fell upon them and Mohammed put himself between Christian and their aimed rifles, insisting that the Frenchman was a godly man and a friend of Muslims. The fells withdrew, but “the next day Mohammed was found with his throat slit near his home … where he lived with his wife and ten children.”
    Bishop Duval of Algiers tried to champion rights for Muslims and found himself reviled by the French as “Mohammed Duval.” After much bloodshed, independence for Algeria came in 1962. According to Kiser, Algeria of the 1960s was “one of hope, high expectations, and tolerance.” Islam was the state religion; Christians were allowed citizenship and given some measure of freedom of religious belief. “Christian clerics and Muslim imams alike, were paid a monthly stipend” by the government. The Church was respected—so long, of course, as it didn’t try to convert Muslims. “The government broadcast Christmas, Easter and Pentecost services each year in Arabic, French, and Berber, and still does today.”
    Duval was particularly supportive of the small monastery of Trappists at Tibhirine, which he saw as part of a Christian presence going back to the fourth century—Algeria was formerly the Roman province of Numidia and home of St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo.
    Tibhirine tells the stories of the Trappist monks who came to Algeria in the remaining decades of the 20th century to continue that presence. They were not missionary monks seeking to convert the Muslims, but to pray and offer themselves in service to all in need.
    One of these monks we have already met. By 1964, our French lieutenant Christian de Chergé had become a priest. In 1968 he became a Trappist monk and joined Tibhrine in 1971. As brother Christian-Marie he was elected prior in 1984 and again 1990. Some 36 years after his friend Mohammed had had his throat cut by rebels, Christian himself would be killed by Muslim terrorists along with six of his Trappist brothers.
    All of the victims could have left Algeria for France as the situation in Algeria grew more dangerous, especially after the assassination of Algerian president Boudiaf in the summer of 1992 by Islamic radicals. In 1993 the GIA terrorist organization warned all foreigners to leave Algeria. In 1994 and 1995 seven monks and nuns were killed. But most of the Trappists of Tibhrine eventually decided to stay. But those bent on a radical Islamification of Algeria made them pay for their boldness.
    On May 26, 1996, some 40,000 churches in France tolled their bells after it was learned that the seven kidnapped monks had been killed. Their bodies had yet been recovered. They never were—but seven severed heads were found shortly thereafter.
    On May 31, 1996 the aged Cardinal Duval, who had championed Muslim rights in the 1950s, died in Algeria. A funeral Mass was observed with the earthly remains of Duval, and the seven Trappist at Notre-Dam d’Afrique on Sunday, June. Cardinal Lustiger of Paris and Cardinal Arinze, representing the Pope, attended.
    The killings shocked most Muslims of Algeria and reportedly caused fierce fighting in the terrorist organization responsible for the killings. One of its leaders was killed in an ambush later that summer.
The day after the Mass for the Trappists in Algiers, Cardinal Lustiger thanked local clergy for “the faith of this small but vital Algerian Church, which gives support to a declining faith in old Europe.” The monks had died in some way to keep that vital Church alive.

TO QUELL THE TERROR: The Mystery of the Vocation of the Sixteen Carmelites of Compiégne Guillotined July 17, 1794

by William Bush

Washington, D.C.: ISC Publications, 1999

(244 pages; $11.95, paper)

In speaking of the “declining faith in old Europe,” Lustiger of Paris highlights a secularization that broke out in deadly waves more than 200 years earlier during the French Revolution, the setting for our third book under review.
    In To Quell the Terror, William Bush tells the true story of sixteen monastics—Carmelite nuns—who were sacrificed to guillotine. These Carmelites viewed their impending deaths as a communal holocaust to stem the tide of the Revolution: to quell the Terror.
    Within 10 days of their demise, Robespierre, leader of this most bloody phase of the Revolution, was condemned. The next day, in a great bloodbath marking a turning point in the Terror, the Mayor of Paris and 87 members of the City Council were guillotined, one every 75 seconds for one and three-quarters hours, while eyewitnesses saw a pool of blood flow out in all directions for 50 feet, barely stanched by “countless bushels of bran put down by the executioner’s valet.”
    Bush believes that the Carmelite joint martyrdom was embraced by them consciously as a redemptive act:

For almost two years, the 16 Carmelite martyrs of Compiégne, wishing to save France and her church according to the rites of France’s old order, had daily consecrated themselves for holocaust that such works of darkness themselves be held at bay. And as though the it were a last gasp following Robespierre’s dispatch on July 29, this final massive hemorrhage on July 29 did in fact mark a definitive turning of the tide of official revolutionary blood-letting. Believers might well say that the nuns’ July 17 oblation had begun to quell the Terror.

    Readers may be familiar with Georges Bernanos’ dramatic retelling of the Carmelite martyrdom, Dialogues of the Carmelites, as well as Francis Poulenc’s 1957 musical composition, Dialogues des Carmélites, and Gertrude von Le Fort’s novella, Die Letzte am Schafott, translated into English as Song at the Scaffold. Bush’s work as a historian not only “corrects” some of the inventions of these creations (only four characters have historical parallels, for example). He also challenges Bernanos’s notion that the early phase of the Revolution had not been anti-Church and had only turned bad in 1793. Bush claims that “the destruction of Christianity was blatantly present from the very beginning, as is incontrovertibly proven by the simple fact that on October 29, 1789, no more than three months after the fall the Bastille, the taking of all religious vows was forbidden in France.”
    Bush was granted access to 17th-century archives by the prioress of Compiégne, and writing as an Orthodox Christian, aspired “to present her Sisters’ martyrdom in a way that would be as recognizable to Eastern Christians as to Western ones.”
    Through the next 225 pages, Bush takes us inside the Carmelite monastery, through letters, public statements, signed declarations, as well into the machinations of Revolutionary France, to show the confrontation between what surely must have been demonic forces and the firm faith of the martyrs. It is no confrontation between mere flesh and blood, for, as Bush reminds us, “martyrdom is essentially a theophany, a manifestation of God rather than of man.” After reading To Quell the Terror, I can hardly see it any other way.
    If we fail to fully appreciate the spiritual gift of the Carmelite nuns, not only in death, but also in living the monastic vocation, perhaps we are missing some of the point of Christ's calling of Christians to a life of self-denial and taking up the Cross. It is more than making sure we go to church on Sunday and financially support it. With the martyrs, many of them monastics, where would the church be?
    Ranging from France to Algeria, its former North African colony, to Egypt, spanning centuries under threat of Islam, atheism, and political terrorism, all three books reveal, ultimately, the character of the monastics who seek only to follow after Christ himself, who “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant… and became obedient, even to death on a cross.”