Kargador at Dawn

Kargador at Dawn
Work in the Vineyard

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Spiritual Journey in the Writings of Christian de Chergé

An appreciation of other religion through the eyes of a friend…
The particular insight of the spiritual journey undertaken by the monks of the Atlas region lies in the innovative and likely to be of interest to the whole Church in the matter of approach to interreligious dialogue.

It is not surprising that “a spirituality of the meeting of religions” should have emerged from the context of monastic life, because interreligious dialogue has its origin in spirituality.

With regard to dialogue, Christian de Chergé relies on the vision of John-Paul II. How can we appreciate the Pope’s thought, his daring? Where does it come from? We must know that John-Paul II lost his best female friend in a concentration camp; this explains how his urge towards interreligious dialogue begins in his own flesh.

As regards Christian de Chergé, the meeting with Mohammed, his friend (an Algerian field-guard) is at the basis of his thought. Christian had developed a friendship with Mohammed and committed himself to a deep relationship based on faith. Christian will state, “Mohammed brought freedom to my faith.” During an altercation in the street Mohammed tried to protect Christian, his friend, and to calm the aggressors.

The next day he was found assassinated. Christian understood this “event” as a sign from God, and this painful episode will never be forgotten. Christian comes back to it over the following years. “I know at least one much loved brother, a convinced Muslim, who gave his life out of love for another, concretely, by shedding his blood. It is an irrefutable testimony that I welcome as an incredible opportunity.

From that time on, in fact, I have been able to place, within my hope for the communion of all the chosen with Christ, that friend who lived, to the point of death, the one commandment” (in Journées Romaines: Chrétiens et Musulmans, pour un projet commun de société, 1989). Several years later, when preaching on the martyrdom of love (31st March 1994), he will say again, “I cannot forget Mohammed who one day saved my life by risking his own, and who was assassinated by his brothers because he refused to betray his friends into their hands. He did not want to choose between these and those. Ubi caritas … Deus ibi est!” (in L’invincible espérance, p. 203)

For Christian, the gift of Mohammed’s life led to the discovery of the Eucharist. The Eucharist means receiving one’s life from another. That is the meaning of the sacrifice: one cannot receive one’s life without giving one’s life. In Christian theology, Eucharist means receiving in order to give, but in the mind of Christian, there is a reversal of the meaning of sacrifice: to give in order to receive. His calling is profoundly Eucharistic, it is essential to him and is deeply embedded in him.

For Christian, “Mohammed gave his life as did Christ. . . . Each Eucharist makes him infinitely present to me in the Glorified Body, for he lived the Eucharist to the end.” And if there is one text of this sort there are many. “The Eucharist is for all people, this very day,” and not just when all mankind will have become Catholic. Christian knew that Mohammed was in danger, and Mohammed, knowing he was threatened, accepted that Christian should pray for him, but he added, “I know you will pray for me . . . but you, Christians, don’t know how to pray.”

We need to discover, in the actual life of those Muslims whom we know, the “Eucharistic signs.” The vocation of Christian is, from this time on, to be Eucharistic, praying among others who are praying, in Algeria which is “That land where the love granted was the greatest.” He wed this land, its people. Once when he visited his mother, she told him, “My son, flowers do not move about to find the sun; it is the sun which comes to visit them.” All this will provide the basis of his Spirituality.

From this time onwards he understands that the vow of stability means stability within a people: to take up stability in the land of Algeria and therefore to be closely tied to the local Church.

Fifteen years later, on 1 October 1976, he made his solemn profession and in his request, drawn up on September 14 of that year, he wrote, “I wish that my brothers who have taken the vow of stability in the Atlas should accept me permanently into their company, in the very name of that continuity, allowing me to live in PRAYER, in the service of the Church of Algeria, listening to the Muslim soul, if it please God, right to the final gift of my death ut in omnibus glorificetur Deus!” The Father Abbot Visitor and the Father Immediate, Abbot of Aiguebelle, wrote to the Abbot General, “. . . and I see in this solemn profession . . . and in the choice of those who have not yet taken the vow of stability to indeed undertake this vow in Algeria, as a conscious response made by the whole community to this action of God” (Report, 2 November, 1976).

A second key event, which took place in 1975, one year before his vows, (recounted in “Nuit de feu” , in L'invincible espérance, p. 33 f.) occurs while Christian is praying in the church during the night. Christian feels that someone is drawing close to him and saying “Pray for me”; and they start praying together the Our Father, the Magnificat, the fatihâ, prayers of praise, of thanks. Then, together with the Christian friend who had come with the Muslim, they pray for three hours. They will not see each other again. But before leaving, the Muslim goes round the monastery four times, dancing, and singing, he is so happy! Christian will not speak of this until his vows; then he will say “this event was not a dream, it is a fact”; it will be the affirmation of his vocation. Concerning this night Christian will say later, “These three hours made me live what my faith, for centuries and centuries, had known was possible.” The issue of hope is found there. The “theology of the meeting of religions” is based on eschatology; it is a matter of rethinking the theology of hope.

In 1979, he experiences a crisis (was he disappointed with the community?) and leaves for Assekrem for three months; he reads and prays a great deal on the Qur’an. By the time he comes back, the Rabat es-Salâm (the Link of Peace) has been founded by Claude Rault: prayer, sharing on themes with a Sufi community, “our Alawiya brothers of Médéa.”

Those are the key moments in the life of Christian de Chergé; we will constantly go from one to the other: from theological reflection to the key elements and vice versa.

2. How does Christian understand dialogue?

In his address given at the Journées Romaines Dominicaines, Christian recounted the following anecdote about his relationship with Mohammed, who used to come regularly to talk with him. One day the latter reproached him for his absence: “It’s a long time since we dug our well together,” to which Christian replied somewhat teasingly, “And what do we find at the bottom of the well, Christian water or Muslim water?” Mohammed replied, “Really, after all the time we have been travelling together, you don’t know? What we find is the water of God.”

Dialogue for Christian is an exodus, an Easter road, a hegira. It is not an activity, a debating circle; it is an interior path, a deep spiritual attitude, and therefore for him dialogue is above all not “theological.” He cannot stand the useless and narrow-minded jousting. He does not reject the four “typical” forms of dialogue mentioned in the Roman documents “Dialogue and Mission” and “Dialogue and Proclamation,” but for Christian it is something else; it goes further than this typology. (Fr. Christian Salenson Bulletin 76, January 2006)

The “What” of Dialogue

Dialogue is a necessity based on the spiritual bonds that draw us together. It is spiritual unity that brings us together. Dialogue is based on the unity which exists between us. It is from this unity that we proceed; from what we have in common, and not from what makes us different.

Dialogue is not “political,” it is “theological” in its scope, in the sense that its purpose is not peace, or agreement. Peace is a result, peace is a gift; it is not a goal. (These days there is a risk of turning dialogue into a tool.) Peace, clear agreement: these are not the purposes of dialogue.

There is a theological necessity of moving towards the other if one wishes to come to God. “To draw close to the other and to draw close to God: these are one and the same,” Christian says. The first step: it is God who takes it towards us. (cf. Ecclesiam Suam, 70-80). We must show the same generosity in this matter; it is not the others who have “taken the first step.”

Dialogue also has the effect of taking us out of our securities, of “emptying our hands”; it is the work of emptying so as to allow Christ to fill. Dialogue strips us of our certainties. We do not know what to expect from dialogue (we risk remaining with the understanding we already have of the truth, locked in the truth). Dialogue is an exodus, a discovery of Christ; it is a matter of “losing what I know about Christ so as to rediscover him in the light of Easter.”

Dialogue, for Christian, is profoundly existential, deriving from a long “living together” and from shared concerns (life, working with neighbors, cooperative action, all done on an equal bias and therefore with people). Tibhirine refuses to tackle social issues; they do not wish to be “bosses” precisely because dialogue means staying on an equal footing. This form of dialogue consists of trivial sharing and of exchanges based on faith and prayer; dialogue is nourished by prayer (the Brothers had lent a room in the monastery to the Muslims). The monastery bell and the call of the muezzin are part of this dialogue, both of them dialoguing, so to speak! On the other hand, dialogue does not mean leaving the monastery; dialogue can be experienced by those who never meet a Buddhist or a Hindu. No, dialogue is an interior attitude; it is a manner of being: one thinks, one prays in a dialogical context, for “the barriers of our closed minds have given way.”