Friendship at the Heart of dialogue, a Moroccan experience

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This article was written by D Martin McGee (Worth Abbey) who represented MID-GBI at the meeting of European Coordinators in May 2007.


As most of you will be aware, seven of the monks of Notre Dame de l’Atlas, Tibhirine, Algeria were beheaded by Islamic fundamentalists on May 21, 1996 after enduring fifty-six days of captivity. The refounded community of Notre Dame de l’Atlas, located in the Middle Atlas Mountains about 200km south of Fès, gave the MID delegates from all over Europe a very warm welcome towards the end of May, 2007. The two surviving monks of the Tibhirine community, Frs Amédée and Jean-Pierre, both in their eighties, now live at Midelt with the younger Jean-Pierre, a former monk of Aiguebelle in France. Those of us who landed at Casablanca were met by the Archbishop of Rabat, Mgr Vincent Landel, who also on this occasion doubled up as our mini-bus driver on the tiring six and a half hour journey to Midelt. Fortunately there was a good motorway for most of the way and a good one lane road for the final hundred miles or so. Morocco is a country of contrasts. On the one hand there are ultra modern highways and facilities whereas a few miles distant you may encounter nomads living in conditions associated with the Middle Ages.


The Moroccan Church

Vigils started for courageous souls at 4.00 a.m., though I must confess to being one of those weaker brethren who didn’t rise until 6.00am! After Lauds, Mass, breakfast and Terce our meetings got under way at 9.00am. Our first speaker was Mgr Vincent Landel who gave us a detailed account of the life of the tiny Christian community in Morocco and of its relationship with the overwhelmingly Muslim majority. There are 30,000 Christians in a country of thirty-three million Muslims. Christians are accepted as foreigners but a Moroccan hasn’t got the right to become a Christian, nor for that matter an atheist. So for example, Mgr Landel, although born in Morocco and having lived most of his life there, hasn’t got the right to become a Moroccan citizen. The Catholic Church has two archdioceses, Rabat and Tangiers with 25,000 of the Catholic population living in Mgr Landel’s jurisdiction. The Church community is made up of a very mobile population with a 20% turnover every year.

One of the surprising features of Church life is its continuing involvement with education. The Church still runs fifteen schools for 12,000 Moroccan students. Eleven of the head teachers are Muslim as are more than 99% of the educators and students. These schools are very popular as their distinctive ethos appeals greatly to parents. In fact, as a result of parental demand two secondary schools have been begun in the last few years; one has just opened in Rabat and one is under construction in Casablanca. All the other Church schools are at primary level. One of Mgr Landel’s aims is to help Christians who come to live in Morocco to love the country and to have confidence in the local population. His approach to the Church schools shows this policy in action. ‘’What is essential is the dialogue of everyday life where we each recognise that we are on the road to God,’’ said Mgr Vincent.


The Primacy of Prayer

Mgr Vincent is aware of a hardening of the political wing of Islam in recent years. However, while there is not sufficient openness to engage in theological dialogue, he does see openings for spiritual dialogue such as that of the Ribat group in Algeria where Christians and Muslims meet twice a year to share their respective spiritual journeys. For the Muslim, according to Mgr Vincent, prayer is of the greatest importance. Those who pray are much more respected than those who don’t. In this respect it’s worth quoting a passage from a very moving homily preached by Mgr Landel at Valence in France on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the beheading of the seven Tibhirine monks:

"In the Priory of Notre Dame de l’Atlas at Midelt, our brothers Jean-Pierre (the younger), Jean-Pierre (the elder), Amédée and Louis, while remembering, wish to continue to live out this message of Tibhirine. They wish to pursue their commitment 'of praying Christians, pilgrims of friendship, in this Muslim world.’ They are at the beginning of the foundation, but little by little friendships are being made; prayer is becoming the bond which brings them life. You should have seen the pride of Omar, one of their workers, when he, with such delicacy, embellished the monastery chapel. The prayer of the brothers is of the utmost importance. Thus, at the heart of their common vocation to adore God, to praise him and to sing his glory, each person respects the other and esteems the other. As one of them wrote: ‘Fidelity to the rendez-vous of prayer is the secret of our friendship with the Muslims. With them we wish to come into God’s presence, to be true to ourselves in this interior light which silence permits'."

"Thus among the Muslims, who are their first and almost only neighbours, they are the forerunners of the dialogue of friendship; they are the sign of the encounter which can take place in the light of faith in the one God." (My translation from the French)


The Dialogue of Daily Life

On Tuesday afternoon we had a meeting with the three monks of Midelt in which we learned about the history of Notre Dame de l’Atlas and about their daily dialogue of life with their Muslim neighbours. Although the community is in a very precarious position, there are signs of hope as they now have a novice receiving his formation at Timadeuc in France and several other monks who are planning to join them. The life of the community could be described as a life of intense prayer and of dialogue with their Muslim neighbours in the context of daily life. Apart from five or six Franciscan sisters and an elderly parish priest, there are no other Christians in the region. The monks in a very short time have been more or less adopted by the local Muslim population. A few years ago when Fr Jean-Pierre celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of his priestly ordination, about a hundred local men and women attended a celebratory meal in his honour and among the guests were three local imams. The Brothers are the first to say that their rapid acceptance has come about as a result of seventy-five years of presence in Midelt by the Franciscan sisters who, before their arrival, had established a close relationship with the local people.

During the month of Ramadan the brothers are invited by local families to the evening meal celebrating the end of the daily fast. They, in their turn, regularly invite families to a meal in the monastery and attend funerals of neighbours, circumcisions etc. And of course every weekday the brothers gather to share some menthe tea with the monastery workers at their ten o’clock morning break. Paradoxically these uneducated workmen have a much better understanding of the monastic life and the centrality of prayer than would be the case of Christian tradesmen in the West. The Muslim appreciation of prayer and worship provides a common meeting ground with the monks. Jean-Pierre, the younger, likes to tell the story of one of the monastery workmen who said that he would like to accompany him to Errachidia a town about one hundred miles distant where Jean-Pierre had to go to say mass. The workman said he would like to visit his brother who lived there. On the return journey he confessed to Jean-Pierre that his brother didn’t in fact live in Errachidia but that the reason for his journey was to help Jean-Pierre stay awake while driving!


The Challenge of Dialogue

On Wednesday morning the Abbot Primate of the Benedictines, Notker Wolf, reflected on the challenge of dialogue with Muslims especially in the Western world. He sees such a dialogue as the greatest challenge facing the West at the present time. He had this to say:

"Living with people is already a basic form of dialogue. This was the method of the evangelising monks of the past. They always shared a very natural, everyday contact with people through which a kind of osmosis occurred. A second stage of dialogue is intellectual dialogue. All of today’s terrorism is the work of uneducated people or of educated people who suffer from an inferiority complex vis-à-vis the West. The key to the future lies in cultural identity. This is true for all cultures. If you respect the other person, then one can talk. It is the foundation of dialogue. It is crucial that we enter into such a dialogue with the people who live in our neighbourhoods."

The Abbot Primate went on to express his disappointment that few, if any, Benedictine monks, spoke fluent Arabic.

On Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning two presentations on dialogue in the Moroccan Church were given by Père Jacques Levrat. In these presentations we were given the fruit of his many years of working for and among the Muslim intellectual elite in Morocco. For twenty years Père Jacques ran a research library, La Source, which specialises in the cultural patrimony of Morocco. This library contains no Christian material. However, out of this lived contact a dialogue of the heart ensued in which both sides were changed. For Jacques a dialogue is successful when both sides are victors, when both sides have been able to deepen their own religious identity. The Paschal mystery is lived out in any real dialogue as each person is changed in the encounter and in the process experiences a kind of death and resurrection. In this type of encounter people draw near to each other. Jacques quoted the proverb: ‘’From a distance I thought he was an animal, from close up a human being, from alongside I saw a brother.’’ Meeting the other challenges me, works upon me, changes me, said Jacques. He told us how after a particularly long time of drought he had met an old Moroccan woman with a beautiful smile tending her flock who said to him, ‘There’s no rain, no grass – thanks be to God.’


Discovering the Best in the Other

Père Jacques distinguishes dialogue from conversation and negotiation. In conversation we are limited by social conventions and there are things which we don’t say to each other. In negotiation we are involved in a political process where we look for a consensus, a practical solution to a problem. Whereas dialogue always has as its objective the discovery of the other, the discovery of the best in the other. In every person there is a valet and a king. We must address the son of the king in dialogue so that the son of the king will answer us. We must go beyond fear. Dialogue opens new pathways; it never comes to an end. The famous Père Peyriguère, who engaged in dialogue with Islam in Morocco before the Second Vatican Council, used to tell the story of his close relationship with the local imam which came about as a result of both of them working together to improve the lot of the poor. One day the imam said to him, ‘’It won’t be long now before we go to meet our Maker. We will hold hands and whichever of us is shown to be right and enters heaven first will drag along the other person with him!’’

On Thursday afternoon JoVan Haeperen a Belgian oblate from Clerlande, spoke about the Sufi mystic, Ibn Arabi, and of his path to holiness in which he laid great stress on self-knowledge as well as knowledge of God. Jo read to us a beautiful poem called Théophanie de la Perfection (Michel Chodkiewicz, Un Océan Sans Rivage, Editions du Seuil, 1992) which I’ve roughly translated from the French and which perhaps sums up Ibn Arabi’s mysticism.


Theophany of Perfection

O my beloved! How many times have I called you and you haven’t heard Me!

How many times have I made myself known and you haven’t looked at Me!

How many times have I made myself perfume and you haven’t inhaled Me!

How many times have I made myself food and you haven’t tasted Me!

How is it that you do not smell Me in what you inhale?

How do you not see Me, not hear Me?

I am more tasty than all tasty things,

More desirable than all desirable things,

More perfect than all perfect things.

I am Beauty and Grace.

Love Me and love nothing else

Desire Me

That I may be your only care to the exclusion of all care!


Living Among the Nomads

The final day of the meeting was devoted to visiting three Franciscan Missionary Sisters of Mary at Tattiouine. These three sisters – Marie, a French woman in her seventies, Barbara, a Polish nurse and Mary an Irish woman - live among the nomads, under tent in the summer and in a very basic hut-like dwelling in the winter at Tattiouine. This smalll settlement is about 15km from Midelt and difficult of access as there is no tarred road. At one point we had to cross a stream where the water was almost two feet deep. Barbara provides medical help for the nomadic families; Mary, a former professional translator, helps them to market their goods and Marie teaches the children how to read. The three sisters share the lives of the nomads, and of the former nomads now settled in the village of Tattiouine. As the nomads greeted the sisters, I could sense the strong bonds of mutual affection which have been forged. Mary told me that at Christmas they always invite one of the families to share their Christmas meal. Last Christmas some villagers approached them with the request that they invite two families to the celebration, two families who were at loggerheads with each other. The sisters did so and reconciliation was gradually restored over the celebratory meal in honour of the Prince of Peace. Such are the fruits of authentic dialogue.


A Servant Church

In our time at Midelt we had met a servant Church, a Church which is at the service of the dialogue of daily life, sowing seeds of reconciliation and hope for the future. We can learn much about the true meaning of dialogue from the tiny Christian Church which remains in North Africa. Perhaps what we learnt in our time at Midelt is best summed up by these words of the late Cardinal Duval, Archbishop of Algiers 1954-1988, someone who tirelessly promoted dialogue with Islam in Algeria. He wrote:

‘’There is no dialogue except among equals. If I think myself superior to my interlocutor, I have only to remain silent. Who can say that before God, the non-Christian to whom I’m speaking isn’t superior to me in the homage which he offers to the Creator and in his practice of fraternal love?’’ (Chemins de Dialogue, no. 27, p.99, 2006).

Martin McGee, osb, Worth Abbey