Monastic-Muslim Dialogue: The Challenge and the Promise
by Abbot Timothy Wright OSB
Abbot Timothy gave the following public talk during a meeting of Catholic monks and nuns with Iranian Shi’a Muslims that was held at the Primatial Abbey of Sant’Anselmo in Rome, September 14-17 2011. This article was originally published by DIMMID.
These Monastic-Shi’a conferences, of which this is the fourth, began when I was Abbot at Ampleforth. One of our parish priests in Lancashire asked me if he could bring his Muslim friend, Mohammad Ali Shomali, to the abbey. We met, we became friends and I asked him to speak to the monks about Shi’a spirituality. He opened the eyes of many in that address. In response he invited me to visit him in Qum, Iran.
There, at the Ayatollah Khomeini Institute for Education and Research, I was warmly welcomed and invited to give talks and engage in dialogue. During that visit we spoke about holding a conference at Ampleforth. That meeting took place in 2003, with the happy involvement of Heythrop College, London University. They hosted an “open day,” which was followed by a three-day conference at Ampleforth. The papers of that conference and of the two that followed in 2005 and 2007 were published by Melisende under the titles Catholics and Shi’a in Dialogue, A Catholic-Shi’a Engagement, and A Catholic-Shi’a Dialogue. The books have recently been republished and are now happily available in paperback.
This year, thanks to the support of Abbot Primate Notker Wolf and Father William Skudlarek, Secretary General of Monastic Interreligious Dialogue, we have been able to relocate this conference to Sant’Anselmo, this centre of monastic studies here in Rome. This open evening enables us to meet you, our invited guests, and for you to meet the participants and experience something of the friendship we have built.
Muslim spirituality is more closely related to monastic spirituality than to any other Catholic spiritual tradition. Both confess One God, Revealed in Word, whose Creating and Merciful gifts we recognise in prayer regularly throughout the day, as individuals and as a community. In addition we read, ponder, munch and pray the Revealed Word, available to us as Inspired Scripture.
Tonight I want to present three aspects of this dialogue: first, a dream for the future, second, an experience from which we can find a way to fulfil that dream, and third, a pictorial image of how we might the way to this fulfilment.
This pictorial image is easily described: imagine that the followers of Saint Benedict Rule and the followers of the Holy Prophet are like two sets of climbers who are ascending the same mountain, the Mountain of God, but from different sides!
During my travels in pursuit of the Abbot Primate’s request that I examine how the followers of the Rule of Benedict throughout the world were involved in dialogue with Muslims, I have been able to visit many Benedictine and Cistercian communities of men and women in Muslim lands, as well as monastic communities living adjacent to Muslim communities in other lands. Last Christmas I achieved an objective: to engage in Lectio Divina with monks and Muslim imams. All of us who took part found it an enriching moment.
At the same time, through the good offices of the Rector of the Beda College here in Rome, I have been able to undertake doctoral studies through the University of Trinity St David, formerly known as Lampeter University in Wales. As it stands the title of my dissertation is “Can an expanded concept of memory be the foundation of a new style of Benedictine community dedicated to dialogue with Islam?”
After five years of visits, study and research, the title of this talk, “Benedictine-Muslim Dialogue: The Challenge and the Promise,” is certainly a challenge. What promise it holds is still unclear. Two years ago, a questionnaire sent to all Benedictine communities through the kind offices of the Abbot Primate produced, for me at least, a very disappointing result. Of the 70 communities that replied, it was clear that dialogue with Islam is a low priority. Few have anyone qualified in Islam, and the dialogue, such as it is, focuses on friendship and cooperation in practical details, but hardly reaches into “spirituality.” At one level this is understandable: monasteries exist for their local Christian community, and in many parts of the world communities have become smaller as vocations have shrunk.
Let me come back to that mountain. The One, Creating, Omnipotent and Merciful God is confessed by Muslims and monastics. Each climbs this Mountain of God using a different track, facing different challenges, while at the same time keeping in touch with each other as friends, “co-mountaineers,” deeply respectful of each other, and sharing the same goal: ever deep intimacy with the God whose Word calls each to climb the mountain. A different Word, a different view up the mountain and from the mountain, but the same deep conviction that the invitation from that Voice of God is to a state of being far more fulfilling than the one with which each climbs. Therein lie both the promise that inspires and the challenge that requires courageous commitment.
Some of you will have seen “Of Gods and Men,” last year’s prize-winning film about the Trappist monks of Tibhirine, Algeria. At one point in that film the Prior, Christian de Chergé, says, “Wild flowers are planted anywhere; only God can make them grow.” That statement led me to reflect on the meaning of a Catholic monastery existing in the heart of a Muslim country, in the harsh environment of the semi-desert, in the undefined no-man’s land of the Algerian civil war. Why there? The Muslim world has many other places that are more peaceful. The Western world has Muslim communities with whom monks could enter into dialogue
But, as the film shows, in that harsh environment the monks offered the affirmation of friendship, the medical help so many needed, the economic encouragement provided by their agro-commercial skills, all underpinned by a union in faith in a God who cares, is accessible through prayer, and for whom friendship and hospitality are a sign of Divine Presence. Monks in that environment are truly like “wild flowers,” but the friendship and respect that the local Muslim community showed them was a sign that God was making those flowers grow.
Later in the film there is a scene showing Prior Christian and two of the monks meeting with Tibhirine community leaders, asking their opinion as to whether they should stay or leave. The Algerian authorities wanted them to move, lest they too be added to the list of Christians who had been killed. “We are like birds on a branch,” one of them says, “not knowing if we should stay or fly away.” With stunning simplicity the wife of the Tibhirine community leader replied, “No, we are the birds, you are the branch. If you leave, then what becomes of us?”
That one exchange underlined the particular importance of that monastic community to that community of Muslims. The monks lived and shared their simple life, prayed similar repetitive prayers, and offered whatever help they could give. They were not grand beneficiaries, importing a new hospital or school. A divine plan brought these two groups together, who were, from the divine perspective, both profoundly committed to God, Loving, Merciful and Forgiving. In their respective silent spaces, God is remembered as each was open to the divine presence revealed in the neighbour.
Committed by their vow of stability to Tibhirine, the monks still were not sure if they should stay or leave, at least until the violence abated. As Brother Christophe put it, “I did not come to the monastery to be part of a collective suicide.” But then, in the words of a Muslim woman—“If you go, where do we find rest?”—the monks heard the voice of God calling them to be faithful to their commitment. The Divine Spirit within their hearts clarified the issue. There could be no departure.
For the people of Tibhirine, the abduction and subsequent deaths of the monks was a deep shock. Their way of life in that semi-desert environment became more fragile, but more than anything else, their strong faith in God was shaken. The Word revealed to the Prophet, words of Comfort and Love, Mercy and Compassion, had been disfigured: they could no longer share their distress with “their” monks, whose faith affirmed their own. They had lost their branch, and with it the support it gave them, on many levels.
Today, the orchards and fields of Tibhirine still produce crops, fruits are processed and sold, but the monks have yet to return.
Let me come back to the “mountain.” From its peak each of us, Muslim and monastic, hears the Voice of God, but there is an important difference in the way it is revealed. For the one, the Word becomes “Incarnation,” God, Word made flesh; for the other, the Word becomes “Book/Illibration,” God, Word made Speech, spoken in Arabic and written as the Holy Qur’an.
The way of life of the followers of the Rule of Benedict rests on four pillars: structured prayer throughout the day, meeting with God through lectio divina, work to earn their keep and a commitment to their local community. These four pillars echo loudly with the essentials of Muslim life and spirituality. Here is found the unique importance of Benedictine dialogue with Islam.
We can push the Word of God to its limit: not by preaching, but by sharing; not by teaching about the Word, but by allowing the Word to form us; not by debating, but by listening to the inspiration that comes from the other. That is the gift emerging from the shared commitment to the Word of God revealed to each. Sharing insights into the Revealing Voice of God enables each to contribute and each to learn. We meet each other not with loud voices and clever phrases, but with hearts that have been enlarged by the love inspired by the Word of God. Let us not forget Jesus’ encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman (Mark 7:24-30). She revealed to him a truth he did not want to acknowledge. She forced him to remove a wall. When walls are removed, a space is created and in that space it is possible to share insights derived from pondering, munching and praying with those sacred texts, allowing each to be enriched by the other.
Christian de Chergé discovered the gift of Islam in a dramatic way. During his military service, in Algeria, he was tasked with “community relations.” He became friendly with a married man of the local community. They walked and talked together, discussing many issues, and building a deep friendship. On one occasion an armed man sprang from the bushes and pointed his gun at Christian. His friend placed himself between them, and said “This is a good man, don’t harm him.” The attacker withdrew. Next morning Christian’s friend was found dead. Christian saw the intervention of his friend as a Christ-like act of self-giving love. He never forgot that this husband and father of five children had offered his life for the “other.” That confirmed Christian’s faith that the revealed word of Islam is a real word of Love. From that insight each can be encouraged to share that Word of Love with the other and through listening to the insights of the other, enable that Love to be magnified.
The need to listen to one another points us to regular dialogue, but also to an on-going relationship in community with the other, not just seeing the Muslim visitors at the door as Christ, but also listening carefully to their words, recognising that in them, too, we can hear the Word of God and bring those different revelations—God the Word, made Man, and God the Word, made Speech—ever closer to together.
To fully appreciate this, I recommend the words of Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, that giant of dialogue with Islam. He writes that in effective dialogue each has to move out from their own faith position, undergoing a kenosis similar to that found in “Christ Jesus, who . . . emptied himself . . . being born in human likeness” (Philippians 2:5-7). By removing the decorations of our faith, we are better able to appreciate the decorations of the faith of the other, as articulated in their words, not filtered through our own. This experience was confirmed for me recently at a Building Bridges Seminar on the subject of prayer, organised by Archbishop Rowan Williams, another giant of Christian-Muslim dialogue.
The paradoxical gift of Tibhirine was that the assassins achieved something no one else could. By thinking they were purifying the new Algeria of alien influences, they magnified in the public eye the new dimensions that the small monastic community brought to the lives of that local community, simply because they were men of God. The monks of Tibhirine opened a way forward for Monastic-Muslim dialogue. They showed how the Rule of Benedict can be adapted for this dialogue of spirituality with Islam. Their example offers monastic men and women, Benedictine and Cistercian, a new extension to their existing vocation of dialogue. I will call it the dialogue of monastic spirituality with Islam. An extension of their vocation, yes, but also an extension that only they are qualified to do. Herein lies the challenge; herein lies the promise.
If monastics fail to respond, then surely the climb will be more difficult. God’s mountain reveals the voice of God to all climbers. Those who climb that mountain cannot afford to close their ears, for not only will they risk falling off the mountain, but they will endanger the lives of others by failing to offer appropriate encouragement. The promise is attractive, but it also involves risk. Refusal now may seem the easier solution, but the long term risk it entails will return to haunt our successors.
Let us pray that the monastic world, male and female, Benedictine and Cistercian, is inspired to accept this challenge and to reap the rich rewards it will bring. The best view from the top is reserved for those who are willing to take the risk.
Published with the author’s permission.