The martyrs of Tibhirine show up Ian McEwan’s banal approach to death

Lambert Wilson and Jean-Marie Frin star in Of Gods and Men, a film about Cisterian monks who were murdered by Islamists in Algeria (CNS photo/Sony Pictures Classics)

I learnt from the Sunday papers that Ian McEwan is “our greatest living novelist”. Then I learnt that, according to the historian Niall Ferguson, the West, which has dominated the world for the last 500 years, is in decline. I decided that if the great drumroll of the English novelists – Austen, Eliot, James, Conrad, Trollope etc – has ended up with McEwan having to be the standard bearer for the glories of our literature, then Ferguson is right.

Still, this blog is not about McEwan’s merits (or not) as a novelist; it is about an interview he gave to Nigel Farndale. He agreed that, like his best friends Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, he is an “avowed atheist”. The conversation – in which I must admit McEwan sounded much more likeable than his two best mates – turned to life after death. He remarked:

“Do you think they really believe it? I’ve been to funerals where I was pretty sure the majority were atheists and they listened to the vicar say the deceased had gone to a better place and everyone’s toes curled. We can’t prove it’s not so but the chances that it is, are rather meagre. If they did believe you all meet up again in this big theme park in the sky why were they crying? How can you say you believe in the afterlife and weep at the finality of death?”

This is so shallow a remark and even so lacking in imagination (coming as it does from “our greatest living novelist”) that I hardly know how to respond. Not “refute”; you can’t refute atheists with argument. I decided the most effective way to combat so banal a response to the mystery of death and the hereafter would be to contrast it with the approach to death of a Christian martyr – specifically the seven Cistercian martyrs of Tibhirine in the Atlas mountains in Algeria.

In the same afternoon as I was reading the McEwan interview I happened to read an informative CTS booklet all about these seven men. (There is also the recent film about them, Of Gods and Men, shown to cinema audiences to great acclaim, which I have not yet had the opportunity to see.) In particular, I was deeply moved by the testament of the prior of this small community, Christian de Chergé. Written to his family in 1994, two years before his death by beheading at the hands of Algerian terrorists, a death he anticipates, it was unsealed and published when the news of the executions became known.

I think this document stands among the great testimonies of Christians throughout the centuries, facing certain and violent death yet filled with hope in eternal life. De Chergé writes, asking his family to “accept that the Sole Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure”.

“I ask them to pray for me – for how could I be found worthy of such an offering?… I should like, when the time comes, to have the moment of lucidity which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God and of my fellow human beings, and at the same time to forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me down… For this life lost, totally mine and totally theirs [the Muslim population of Algeria], I thank God who seems to have willed it entirely for the sake of that joy in everything and in spite of everything.”

Finally, addressing his future murderer directly, he concludes: “And may we find each other, happy good thieves in Paradise, if it pleases God, the Father of us both…”

I have not quoted the whole of this testament, though it is not actually very long; I strongly recommend that it be read in full. What I want to convey is the love, the trust, the forgiveness, the joy and the hope that is the witness of a profoundly Christian approach to death. This is the complete antithesis of dreary funerals or a cheap joke about a theme park in the sky. Indeed, their authors seem to come from different worlds.

And of course we weep at the deaths of our loved ones. Tears are part of life, of being human, and none flow faster than when the life ends of someone you deeply care for, especially when it has been premature or violent. Our Lady is called “Mother of Sorrows”; and Christian de Chergé’s family would also have wept – even as they believed their son was now united forever with the Master he had longed for all his life. Perhaps I should send McEwan a copy of the CTS booklet? It won’t make him a better writer but it might make him more reflective before agreeing to another interview.