It probably should come as no surprise that a Cistercian monk might consider prayer to be one of the pillars of peace.

What might be surprising is the nature of Brother Christian’s prayer. Brother Christian attests,

We could not keep going if we did not pray and, in our prayers, seek to rid ourselves of the spirit of violence, prejudice, and rejection within us.

What is a peace-loving Christian brother doing with a “spirit of violence, prejudice, and rejection within” himself? Is he merely being falsely humble, or has Brother Christian seen something in the dark recesses of his inner being that most of us would choose to deny in ourselves?

Brother Christian had stood face to face with violence and had looked honestly into his own heart. He had seen in himself the fear that gives rise to “violence, prejudice, and rejection.”

At the end of 1993 The Armed Islamic Group (GIA, from the French Groupe Islamique Armé) had issued ordered all foreigners living in Algeria to leave the country by December 1 or face execution. Twelve Croats were assassinated on December 14, at Tamesguida, two and a half miles from Brother Christian’s Notre-Dame de l’Atlas monastery, because they were foreigners and Christians. These immigrant workers used to attend midnight Mass at the monastery and were well known to the monks.

On Christmas Eve 1993 when the GIA leader Sayah Attia invaded the Tibhirine monastery Brother Christian knew he was speaking to someone who had already cut the throats of 145 people. Attia was referred to in the press as “a filthy beast”. Reflecting on this episode and knowing his own fear, Brother Christian says he felt, a desire to pray for the man who had threatened his life:

After the episode with Attia, I wanted to pray for him.

But how does one pray for a proud killer? What is the appropriate thing to ask God in the face of someone whose life is committed to terror? Brother Christian wondered,

What should I pray to God? ‘Kill Him?’ No, but I could pray, ‘Disarm him.’

But even that does not seem quite right to the gentle monk. And so he seeks a different more honest prayer:

But then I asked myself, Do I have the right to ask God to disarm him, if I don’t begin by asking, ‘Disarm me, disarm my brothers.’ That was my prayer each day. (Kiser, John W. The Monks of Tibhirine: Faith, Love, and Terror in Algeria. NY: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2002.)

The only prayer that leads to peace is the prayer that starts with honesty and self-awareness. The prayer of peace acknowledges that I am not at peace and then asks God to “Disarm me.” Take from me the spirit of revenge,and retribution. Root out of my heart the spirit of anger and unforgiveness.

My lack of peace has caused me to take up arms and reduce my brother to the dimensions of an enemy.

In prayer I seek to open my heart to the reality that we are all one. We are united in our brokenness, our failure, our lack of love. We share a common heritage of violence and hatred. Prayer shows me that, in truth, I am no different than the one I label “terrorist.”

Jesus said,

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire. (Matthew 5:21,22)

The distance between me and the terrorist is primarily a function of circumstance, chance, and culture. I am no different than the one who in fact commits murder. My prayer of peace needs to start by admitting the darkness in my own heart and then opening to that love God bears equally for all people.

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