Arnaud Beltrame: A Model of True Self-Surrender
A week before Good Friday, Redouane Lakdim committed several Islamist terrorist attacks in southern France. One of these attacks involved Lakdim storming a supermarket to injure and murder civilians and seize hostages.
Lieutenant Colonel Arnaud Beltrame of the French gendarmerie courageously volunteered to take the place of the hostages and it has been widely reported that Lakdim allowed Beltrame to take the place of a female hostage. He died in her place.
What gives a person the freedom to literally lay down their life for another?
Dietrich von Hildebrand’s description of “true surrender of self” in Transformation in Christ can help us understand Jesus’s mysterious and paradoxical words: “those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” As we prepare to enter liturgically into the Paschal Mystery, the heroic actions of this particular French officer, Arnuad Beltrame, bring home to us the startling reality of Christ’s words and invite us to consider them anew.
Hildebrand points out how our “surrender to the call of natural virtues prefigures our surrender to Christ.” Whenever we respond to true values – truth, goodness, responsibility – this demands of us “a certain detachment from our self, a certain subordination and abnegation of self” in favor of the values we affirm.
Beltrame’s act of heroism was not out of character for him since he had first prepared the ground by surrendering to the call of natural virtues through his commendable military service. He superiors had acknowledged his “resolutely offensive spirit when faced with adversity” and his preparedness to “fight to the end and never give up.” In Beltrame’s life we can see how human virtues, such as the loyalty and selflessness he cultivated through his military training and service, prefigured his act of supernatural virtue in laying down his life for a stranger.
Hildebrand discusses how this transformation from the natural to the supernatural presupposes our free surrender to God. Through dying to ourselves, he says, we become empty so that Christ may unfold His holy life within us. This is not a personal achievement, but a gratuitous gift from God.
According to a canon of the Abbey of Lagrasse, Beltrame and his wife Marielle often visited the abbey where they attended mass and other activities for spiritual formation. The canon reported that Beltrame had been raised in a fairly non-practicing family but that he had experienced a sincere conversion ten years ago. After two years of preparation in his mid-thirties, he received First Communion and Confirmation. The natural military virtues he acquired and the strength he developed prepared him to receive something even greater: Christ Himself.
Beltrame’s act was not mere chivalry or a random act of kindness; it was something more powerful than that. As Hildebrand reminds, “We can never bring about of our own volition this state of being possessed by and lost in what is greater than ourselves.” Beltrame clearly believed in something even greater than his own life.
“Whenever anything thus causes us to soar above the habitual plane of our life,” says Hildebrand, “Whenever we are possessed by something that overwhelms us… by its objective superiority, we also become delightfully aware that it is precisely this renunciation of our sovereignty which makes us really free.”
This is the freedom of a martyr who – even in losing his or her own life – still bears witness to that profounder and nobler reality than life itself – the love that triumphs over death.
Hildebrand sums up, “The index of our transformation in Christ consists in the measure of our participation in His love for God and for men.” It is through being enraptured with love for Jesus and being captivated by Him that we might become open to receiving the grace and power of imitating Him.
Arnaud Beltrame left everything and followed Christ, Christ who told us that, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
Like the death of Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish priest who seventy-seven years ago offered to take the place of a husband and father in Auschwitz, may Beltrame’s self-surrender bear much fruit in witnessing to the fact that we love best when we lay down our lives for God and others.
Amanda Achtman studied political science in her hometown of Calgary, Alberta in Canada. She recently completed an MA in John Paul II Philosophical Studies at the Catholic University of Lublin in Poland and has participated in programs hosted by: the Acton Institute, the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society, the Hildebrand Project, and the Philos Project.