In 1974, Christophe Lebreton abandoned his legal studies in Tours to enter the Trappist monastery of Tamie in his native France. After a period of monastic formation, desiring a simpler life, he changed his stability to the Algerian monastery of Our Lady of the Atlas. He would likely have ended his days in contemplative obscurity had not seven members of the community, including himself, been kidnapped and beheaded by an Islamist terrorist group in 1996. The story of the martyred monks gained widespread attention mainly because of the prize-winning film Of Gods and Men that chronicles it.

Lebreton was the youngest member of the community. He had been given a notebook as a gift in 1993, which he used as a personal journal from then until a week before his death in March 1996.  during that period as Islamists attempted to discredit the government through widespread acts of terror, especially against those who were not Algerians themselves. The government retaliated with savagery. Lebreton’s religious reflections are punctuated with accounts of murders of foreign contractors, religious men and women, and Algerian journalists and intellectuals, of car-bombings and the vicious reprisals of the Algerian military, providing a constant reminder of the state of near civil war. The monastic community attempted to live within this turmoil without choosing sides, even as police eyed them with suspicion while militants sought medical care from Brother Luc, a physician, by night.

But even neutrality was perilous: Though many, including the nuncio, wanted them to leave, shouldn’t they stay as a gesture of solidarity with their besieged village neighbors? Was it to be refugee status or martyrdom? The question became the subject of many chapter discussions within their cloister. One farmer who worked with Lebreton in the cooperative fields told him poignantly that every morning when he saw the lights still on in the monastery, he felt that there was hope. After much debate and soul-searching, the monks decided they should stay as a visible sign of peace and as an act of community with their neighbors, caught between the demands of the “men of the mountain” (as they called the militants) and the ferocious military, which, as Lebreton notes, had once left the mutilated bodies of a dozen militants displayed in a nearby town square.

Most of the entries in this volume are the monk’s own spiritual reflections, often jotted down as the fruit of his own lectio, in tandem with his comments on his life in community. While his notes on the conflict in Algeria fill in the now-ample chronicle of those sad days, it is in those spiritual reflections that we find sustenance. Lebreton’s poetic touch lends the ring of truth to his reflections on his own faith and his search for spiritual wholeness amid the surrounding turmoil. He had a profound conviction about the grace that had called him to the contemplative life, which he summed up beautifully in a simple quatrain set down on July 7, 1994: “You have received everything as pure gift / Give everything as pure gift / That is what it means to consent / completely and simply to the Gift.”  

In several entries Christophe reflects on the diaries of Etty Hillesum, who was in Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation. While reading her journals I often experienced a sort of dread as she told of the tightening of laws against her fellow Jews, since I knew, as she did not, what her entries clearly portended: Auschwitz. That same sense of impending dread arose as I read this journal; readers know how things will end for Lebreton and his brothers. Fittingly, the last entry in his diary, written on the Feast of Saint Joseph in March 1996, consists of fragments from Psalm 100: “My song is about kindness and justice.... I shall walk the way of perfection. When will you come to me?... I shall walk with a perfect heart.” Lebreton was kidnapped a week later.

Born from the Gaze of God is beautifully translated from the French by Matte Nygard and Sr. Edith Scholl, OCSO, and it includes facsimiles of journal pages and photos of Christophe Lebreton. Some books are read first for instruction and then a second or third time for nourishment; this is such a book, and it is a more than worthy addition to the mounting literature on Christian martyrdom in our time.

Lawrence Cunningham is John O'Brien professor of Theology (Emeritus) at the University of Notre Dame.

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