Dilatato Corde 1:2
July – December, 2011


Nine Iranian Shi’a Muslims and eleven European and American monks and nuns came together at the Primatial Abbey of Sant’Anselmo in Rome in mid-September for a three-day dialogue on “The Word of God Calling us to Prayer and Witness.” The meeting was sponsored by Dialogue Interreligieux Monastique / Monastic Interreligious Dialogue (DIMMID) and continued a series of Christian / Shi’a dialogues that had been developed by Abbot Timothy Wright of Ampleforth Abbey in England and Dr. Mohammad Ali Shomali from Qum, Iran.

Although a number of monastic communities have engaged in dialogue with their Muslim neighbors or with representatives of local Muslim communities (see, for example, Soeur Gaëtan Seulen’s accountof one such meeting at her monastery in Belgium), DIMMID had not yet organized a meeting between monastics and Muslims at the national or international level. One of the reasons for this was the simple fact that monasticism, as an institution, does not exist in Islam, while it is integral to the religious identity of Hinduism and Buddhism.

However, as DIMMID broadened its understanding of monastic interreligious dialogue to include other partners in the dialogue of religious practice and experience, and as Islam became an ever more present reality in the Western world, it became increasingly clear that DIMMID needed to be in dialogue with a religious tradition that has been shaped by a deep reverence for the Word of God and by the practice of marking the principal hours of each day with prayer.

This first Monastic-Muslim meeting organized by DIMMID took place September 14-17, 2011. It brought together nine Iranian Shi’a Muslims and ten monastic men and women from Belgium, England, France, Holland, Italy, Kenya, and the United States. Benedictine oblates were also represented by an oblate from Holland. The names and background of those who participated are appended to this report.

While the meeting that took place at Sant’Anselmo was a first for DIMMID, it was actually the continuation of several exchanges between Western Christians (including monastics) and Iranian Shi’a Muslims that was initiated in 2003 by Dr. Mohammad Ali Shomali and Abbot Timothy Wright OSB. In a public address that he gave during the course of the meeting in Rome, Abbot Timothy explained how he came to know Dr. Shomali and how their friendship led to a series of interreligious conferences that were held in England and in Iran between 2003 and 2008.

The first day of the Sant’Anselmo dialogue on “The Word of God Calling us to Prayer and Witness” was devoted to the Catholic (monastic) and Muslim (Shi’a) understandings of how the Word of God is revealed and received. On day two we looked at the meaning and practice of communal and individual prayer in our two traditions. On the final day we considered how monastic and Shi’a communities are each called respond to the revelation they have received, whether that be by their way of life within their own religious communities or by the witness they give to those who do not share their faith.

Twelve papers were prepared and distributed to the participants prior to the meeting. These papers presented Muslim and a monastic approaches to the six topics that had been specified for the dialogue: Revelation, reading / reciting, public prayer, individual prayer, life in community, and witness to the world. Each of the six sessions began with a monastic and a Muslim author presenting what they had written and responding to questions. Following a break, there was an hour and fifteen minutes for discussion, sometimes in small groups, sometimes in plenary session.

In addition to the time devoted to formal presentations and dialogue, times for Muslim and monastic prayer were scheduled into each day. We also visited the Pontifical Institute for the Study of Arabic and Islam (PISAI) and took a guided tour of the Sistine Chapel and Saint Peter’s Basilica, graciously arranged for us by Archbishop Pier Luigi Celata and Monsignor Andrew V. Thanya-Anan, Secretary and Undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. Finally, as already mentioned, there was a public lecture given by Abbot Timothy Wright, with a response by Dr. Mohammad Ali Shomali, which was attended by the conference participants and about forty invited guests from the religious, academic, and diplomatic communities of Rome.

Since it was never intended that the conference would end with some kind of “agreement,” no final statement was prepared or issued. The observations that follow are personal impressions of this particular meeting, some of which will very likely be changed, others confirmed, by future encounters.

What especially impressed me was profundity of the Muslim’s reverence for the revealed Word of God, and the way in which that reverence is expressed in every dimension of their religious practice and theological reflection. As has frequently been noted, the Muslim’s understanding of and attitude toward the Holy Qur’an is comparable to the Catholic understanding of and attitude toward the Holy Eucharist.

I have to confess that the way in which this reverence for the Word of God was spoken of seemed to me at times to be overly ritualistic, literal, legalistic, and even superstitious. In one discussion, someone mentioned that a sick person who did not know Arabic was cured when passages of the Qur’an were recited over him in Arabic. There was general agreement among the Muslims that any expression of doubt regarding the divine origin of any word in the Qur’an would be unthinkable. In speaking about prayer, they stressed the importance of preparing oneself not only by being properly disposed, but by the ritual washing of one’s hands, rinsing one’s mouth, and taking care to see that one’s clothing was not dirty or torn.

Dialogue with both the Muslim and monastic participants in the conference helped me recognize how much my impressions are a reflection of my own religious experience and my Western cultural and intellectual formation. As one of the Catholic participants pointed out to me, what I may regard as ritualism or legalism may well be the outward expression of a profoundly mystical relationship with God. A Muslim participant suggested that my willingness to trust someone who said he thought he had received a revelation from God but was not absolutely sure of it may indicate just how much I have been formed by the intellectual tradition of relativism and hermeneutical suspicion that is so widespread in the West. He went on to say that claiming certainty regarding God’s revelation must never be expressed arrogantly, but must go hand in hand with humility, in imitation of the Prophet Mohammad, who was described as the most meek and humble of men. And after listening to the Muslims describe how important it was to prepare oneself for prayer, I had to recognize that more often than not I come to the Work of God preoccupied about all the other things I have to do that day, even though every time I enter the church at Sant’Anselmo I pass under an inscription that reads Ante Deum stantes, non simus corde vacantes. Si cor non orat, in vanum lingua laborat. (As we stand before God, may our minds not wander. If we do not pray with our minds, the labor of our tongue is for naught.)

Overall, as I listened to the monastic and Muslim presentations on revelation, prayer, and witness, I was struck by the difference in our understanding of what is important in the spiritual life. In general, the monastic presentations were much more subjective, emphasizing the way we experience and respond to the Word of God. The Muslim presentations, on the other hand, were objectively stated in the sense that they emphasized God’s Word as transmitted to the Prophet Mohammad, handed down in the Holy Qur’an, and then developed into a totally coherent theological system. Submission to the Word of God was, of course, absolutely essential, but our affective (as opposed to effective) response to that Word was considered unimportant and not really worth taking into consideration.

There was one instance in particular that showed me how much we need to be in regular and on-going communication with one another if we are really understand each other’s spiritual and theological traditions. To conclude the final session of the dialogue, Abbot Primate Notker Wolf and I gave a short concert of duets for flute and cello. After the concert one of the Muslim participants asked me to explain how what we had just done was part of our monastic spiritual practice.

If we had concluded the session by singing the Salve Regina, for example, his question would have made sense—that is, made sense to me. But the thought that our playing a Handel flute sonata might be interpreted as a religious act never crossed my mind. Obviously, music is an extremely important dimension of the prayer life of Benedictine monk, but we are quick to distinguish between what we consider “sacred” and "secular" music.  Most monks would also be aware that while many of Handel’s compositions can be considered sacred music, the sonata for flute with basso continuo that we had just played was not in that category. But our categories for defining “sacred” and “secular,” “prayer” and “entertainment” are not necessarily familiar to those of another religious tradition and a non-Western culture, nor are theirs familiar to us. Hence the need to continue and deepen the relationship that we have begun in order to appreciate one another’s ways of responding to the Word of a compassionate and merciful God that calls us to prayer and witness.

[An interview with the author was made by Vatican Radio.]

Monastic participants

Abbot Notker Wolf OSB, Abbot Primate of the Benedictine Confederation, Sant’Anselmo, Rome.

Abbot Timothy Wright OSB, former Abbot of Ampleforth, England; Abbot Primate’s Delegate for Monastic/Muslim relations; Professor and Spiritual Director, Beda, Rome

Father William Skudlarek OSB, Saint John’s Abbey, USA; Secretary General of Monastic Interreligious Dialogue, Sant’Anselmo, Rome.

Sister Lucy Brydon OSB, Turvey Abbey, England; past Coordinator of the British/Irish Commission for Monastic Interreligious Dialogue

Father Benoît Standaert OSB, Saint Andrew’s Abbey, Belgium; New Testament scholar and spiritual writer; member of the Dutch-speaking commission of Monastic Interreligious Dialogue

Sister Julian Pieters OCSO, Koningsoord Abbey, Holland; Prioress; member of the Dutch-speaking commission of Monastic Interreligious Dialogue

Reverend Anne Marie Visser; Holland;  retired Mennonite pastor; Benedictine oblate ; member of the Dutch-speaking commission of Monastic Interreligious Dialogue

Brother Guido Dotti, Monastero di Bose, Diocesan Representative for Ecumenism and Interreligious Dialogue (Biella, Italy)

Father Finbarr Dowling OSB, Saint Louis Abbey, USA; Pastor of Saint Ignatius of Loyola Catholic Parish, Marthasville, Missouri>

Brother Maximilian Musindai OSB, Tigoni Priory, Kenya; student at the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies, Rome

Brother Godefroy Raguenet de Saint-Albin OCSO; Aiguebelle Abbey, France; member of the monastic community at Notre Dame de l’Atlas, Morocco

Muslim participants

Dr Mohammad Ali Shomali, Director, International Institute for Islamic Studies, Qum; Dean of Postgraduate Studies of the Jami’at al-Zahra; Head of the Department of Religions at the Imam Khomeini Education and Research Institute

Mrs Mahnaz Heydarpoor, PhD student at the Jami’at al-Zahra (Seminary and University for Women), Qum

Ms. Fatemeh Nazari, PhD student at the Jami’at al-Zahra (Seminary and University for Women) Qum

Dr Mohsen Javadi, University of Qum

Mr Morteza Reza Zadeh, University of Religions and Denominations, Pardisan, Qum; PhD student in the International Institute for Islamic Studies

Dr Mohammad Taghi Ansaripour, University of Religions and Denominations, Pardisan, Qum

Mr Taher Amini Golestani, International Institute for Islamic Studies, Qum

Dr Farrokh Segaleshfar, International Institute for Islamic Studies, Qum

Ms Zermina Awan, graduate of the Jami’at al-Zahra  (Seminary and University for Women), Qum

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