Christian SALENSON, Christian de Chergé: A Theology of Hope. Collegeville, Minnesota: Cistercian Publications, 2012. pp. 190.  $19.95 paperback.  ISBN 978-0-87907-247-6.  Reviewed by Arthur J. Kubick, Providence, RI.

On the night of March 26-27, 1996, six Cistercian monks of Tibhirine, a monastery in the  Atlas mountains of Algeria, were abducted, officially by the Groupe Islamiste Armé, and two months later murdered.  (A complete explanation of the circumstances of their death still remains to be uncovered.)  The story of their deep commitment to a life with and among their Muslim neighbors as “those who pray among others who pray” has been powerfully told in the deeply moving film Of Gods and Men—as well as by John Kizer in The Monks of Tibhirine: Faith, Love and Terror in Algeria.  It is a story that continues to challenge us with its relevance and immediacy to our world today facing as we do questions of difference, religious encounter, understanding and terror.  This modest essay by Christian Salenson, director of L’institute de science et de théologie des religions at Marseille, brings us closer to a hope-filled response to these questions.

            The focus of the essay is the thought of Christian de Chergé who was prior of the Tibhirine monastery from 1984 to 1996.  Through his writings, especially chapter talks and homilies, de Chergé outlines a theology of hope rooted in religious encounter with Islam.  Although he does not consider himself a theologian in the strict sense, he brings out through words and actions a vision of Christian-Muslim relations that grows directly out of the Algerian soil with deep relevance to our contemporary reality.  Especially important here is the connection between biography and context; in no way is it merely a theoretical discussion about religious encounter.  “Dialogue, then, means to keep our feet firmly planted on the ground (or even in the manure) but our head exploring the heavens.”  This rootedness in the local soil reflected the peculiar dimension of the Tibhirine monks‘ vow of stability, a “fidelity to a people, to neighbors, to acquaintances, to Muslim friends, and to the Algerian church” which included “the brothers of the mountains” (guerilla fighters) and “the brothers of the plain” (military).  Theirs is a contextual theology emerging from attentiveness to the realities of daily life.  De Chergé was able to reflect on and articulate this because he listened carefully to his own life experiences.       

            Christian Salenson insists on the importance of understanding the context of de Chergé’s life: (1) a monk, (2) in Algeria, (3) in a precarious situation, (4) in a local church, (5) a theologian, (6) a mystic.  “It is absolutely impossible to separate Christian de Chergé’s thought from his spiritual experience...biography and context constitute the very soil that one cannot leave behind.”  His theological influences include Karl Rahner, Jurgen Moltmann, Charles Péguy, Teilhard de Chardin, Louis Massingnon, Charles de Foucauld, and Emmanuel Lévinas as well as Muslim mystics and theologians.  But perhaps most important are several foundational experiences related by Salenson:  As an officer (and seminarian) in the S.A.S., Sections Administratives Spécialisées, from 1959-1961, he developed a friendship with Mohammed, a family man and devout Muslim who saved de Chergé’s life and was later killed.  (“In the blood of this friend, I came to know that my call to follow Christ would have to be lived out, sooner or later, in the very country in which I received the token of the greatest love of all.”)  The brother of one night, a second event, came about as a Muslim visitor to the monastery asked Christian to pray for him.  They prayed together for three hours, and de Chergé found in this a deepening confirmation of his own vocation.  And finally a dramatic nighttime visit from emir Sayah Attiyah with armed companions on December 24, 1993, “oriented Christian as well as his community toward complete self-gift.”

            This rootedness in the concrete and spiritual is at the heart of the existential dialogue de Chergé speaks of and lives out.  It begins from the experience of religious encounter itself rather than with a priori theories about the place of other religions in the plan of God.  This experience leads him to speak of the particular place Islam has in the plan of God—and to recognze in the Qur’an a particular presence of God’s Word. The richness of de Chergé’s thought here is refreshing.  Salenson draws together de Chergé’s reflections on all of this in a series of brief but compact chapters: “The Place of Islam in God’s plan”; “The Dialogue with Islam”; “Reading the Qur’an”; “A Greater Christ”; “Communion of Saints and Community”; “The Quasi-Sacrament of Difference”; “Eschatology.”  Then under the image of the Visitation, he explores the three functions of mission—or more accurately the mission of God in which the church participates—prophetic, kingly, priestly.  De Chergé chooses to speak of these as witness (“Witness, or The Question of Martydom”), brotherhood (“My Brother’s Keeper”), and prayer (“Praying Among Others Who Pray”).  The book concludes with the deeply moving “Testament of Dom Christan de Chergé” written several months before his abduction and murder. 

            Christian Salenson has brought together a valuable and readable summary of de Chergé’s vision for religious encounter with Islam.  This vision is “from beginning to end a theology of hope,” a theology written primarily in his life, with his brother monks and brother Muslims.  A bibliography at the end of the book includes writings by and about Christian de Chergé and the Tibhurine monks, nearly all in French.  One hopes that soon many of these will be available in translation.  Especially appealing is another book by Salenson, Prier 15 jours avec Christian de Chergé, prieur des moines de Tibhirine. Praying 15 Days Series.  Together they contribute to the necessary encounter/dialogue between Christians and believers in Islam as they share in a common vocation: “to bear witness, each of them separately and both together, to the mercy of God.”