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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.
The city of Sarajevo sits in an area that has been inhabited since the Neolithic age, with a medieval settlement in the region large enough that a cathedral was established by the early 13th century. Sarajevo as it is known today is traditionally said to be established in 1461 under Ottoman rule. It is known as the Jerusalem of Europe in part for its location between east and west, and for its concentration of major religious houses of worship in such close proximity. Within less than a square kilometer one can find the Catholic and Orthodox cathedrals, the Emperor’s Mosque, and the Sephardic Synagogue, as well as other mosques and churches. We toured several during our first evening.
On the second day of the conference, we took a bus tour through Herzegovina, visiting pilgrimage sites of each of the major religious groups. Our first stop was a Tekije (A Dervish house, like a monastery) in Blagaj, overhanging the source of the Buna River. The Tekije (or Tekke) was built in the 16th century, and also houses something rather unusual for Muslim holy places, which is a Türbe, a tomb or shrine, of two of the sheikhs who had lived here.
We then moved to the Žitomislić monastery with its Church of the Annunciation, a community of Serbian Orthodox monks, which had been originally established in the late 16th century. It is a site of martyrdom, as well: the monks here were all killed during World War II by Axis-allied Ustaše (Croatian Revolutionary Movement) and the buildings razed. It was rebuilt after the war only to be destroyed again in 1992 during the Bosnian wars and the collapse of Yugoslavia. The most recent reconstruction began in 2002.
Međugorje was our next site. It had been pouring rain all day, and it was already dark by the time we arrived. Until the day before, I had not realized we would be coming, so I had not brushed up on the apparitions there, yet as the only Catholic theologian in the group, I was the default expert. Several people had not heard of the site, and were not familiar with the Catholic tradition of Marian apparitions, though some did know of either Lourdes or Fatima. There were few pilgrims in the church, and between the dark and the downpour we could not see or get up the hill. Since 1981, there have been claims of apparitions here, and the Holy See has not yet made a final decision regarding the site (and will not until the apparent apparitions abate), though the initial investigation by the local ordinary, concluded in 1986, was critical. The current status is that it remains open, and that no one is forbidden from going unless and until the message is determined to be false. At its best, the Church would never require anyone to believe in the messages, as general revelation ceased with the apostles, but would allow veneration.
Finally, we ventured to Mostar, a 15th century city known for its Stari Most (“Old Bridge”), which stood from 1566-1993 when it was destroyed by Bosnian Croat forces during the war. A new Old Bridge has been reconstructed using the same technology and local materials as the original. It was inaugurated in 2004. Since 2005 it has been on the World Heritage List. It was another great city that was unfortunate to visit in darkness and a downpour that would contribute to the flooding of the region in the days to follow. We had a pleasant local dinner and sampled Bosnian wine before heading back to Sarajevo.
A former student-resident of the Lay Centre returned this semester as a visiting professor at the Pontifical University Gregoriana (the Jesuit university down the road). Dr. Esra Göezler is a Turkish Muslim who had studied in Rome and returned to co-teach a course with Christian and Jewish scholars, and as a scholar-in-residence at the Lay Centre.
Near the end of the semester Esra sat in a panel presentation at the Lay Centre with a German Jesuit and an Italian Jewish reporter titled “Abrahamaic Religions in the Dialogue of Life in Rome” in which each participant shared their experience of living in the Eternal City in the daily life dialogue with the other Abrahamic faiths. The Lay Centre and PISAI – the Pontifical Institute for the Study of Arabic and Islam, another Jesuit faculty in the City – featured prominently in the discussion.
Over the next few days, Esra provided further opportunity for dialogue and encounter, as the Lay Centre hosted the (brand new) Turkish Ambassador to the Holy See, Professor Kenan Gürsoy and his wife for dinner on 25 May. The following evening Padre Miguel Ayuso-Guixot, director of PISAI presided at our final mass and community night of the academic year. We were honored by the presence and insights of all three distinguished guests by Esra’s initiative.
At around the same time we heard good news about our housemate, another extraordinary Muslim scholar, Rezart Beka of Albania. Rezart has been in Rome this year on scholarship from the Nostra Aetate Foundation, set up in 1990 by Pope John Paul II for non-Christians to study Christianity at the pontifical universities in Rome. Scholars usually stay for one semester, and Rezart was already granted an extension. Facing the possibility of losing him as a student next year as the scholarship came to an end, a donor has set up an entirely new scholarship for Muslims to study at PISAI and Rezart is the inaugural recipient!