Barely recovered from jet lag, the first event of my third year in Rome was a presentation on Muslim-Monastic dialogue at the Primatial Abbey of Sant’Anselmo on the Aventine hill.
For years, the monastic interfaith dialogue focused on the Buddhists, particularly in its Japanese Zen form, and one can remember easily the relationship of Thomas Merton and Tich Nacht Hanh. In the last decade though, there has been a general realization that we need not look so far from home, so to speak, and the Benedictines decided to initiate a dialogue with Islam… in this case, with Shi’a scholars from Qom, the study center for the Shi’a in Iran.
The public lecture was part of the schedule of the official dialogue, and our host was the Abbot Primate of the Benedictine Confederation, the Rt. Rev. Notker Wolf… also known for being a rock star. Literally. It was organized and introduced by Fr. William Skudlarek, the Secretary General of Monastic Interreligious Dialogue.
The lecturer was Abbot Timothy Wright, OSB, Delegate for Monastic-Muslim Relations, and the respondent was Dr. Mohammad Ali Shomali, Director of the new International Institute for Islamic Studies in Qom – a center which focuses on brining in western students to study Shi’a theology and jurisprudence in Iran.
Abbot Timothy highlighted the common core values of monastic spirituality and Shi’a Islam, though, to be honest, there was little that seemed to me to be particularly monastic about the spirituality he mentioned:
- Affirmation of God revealed in Word
- Day and night punctuated by prayer
- Exercise of opened word – lectio divina, e.g.
Though, the shared lectio divina he described sounded not unlike the scriptural reasoning programme in Cambridge and elsewhere. Yet, with the rule of Benedict as a guide, it certainly does not hurt to have monastic engagement.
Dr. Shomali responded with an affirmation that the key to good dialogue is the building up of good relationships first, in which dialogue can happen. Relationships rather than events, should drive our encounter with the other… though obviously events can provide for the beginnings and deepening of relationships with people we might not otherwise encounter.
“Dialogue is not a formality or fashion but a part of my religious obligation. Neither is it dependent on reciprocation or appreciation. In this it is like prayer and fasting. If no one appreciates my prayer and fasting, I do not stop!”
His advice to those interested in dialogue was simply to be a good listener, and shared the story of Moses and Pharaoh from the Quran, in which Moses objects to God sending him to waste his time trying to dialogue with someone not interested in dialogue: Pharaoh.
“Go and speak softly”, instructs the Almighty, “ for even in him there is a chance of his heart being softened.”
Consider this then. The most difficult dialogue is with the person who does not think he/she needs to dialogue with anyone – the person with a hard heart. But if there is even a chance of the heart of pharaoh being turned by soft-spoken dialogue, then there remains hope for everyone. In Dr. Shomali’s words, dialogue requires you to master being a good listener and gentle, soft and wise speaker.