Dilatato Corde 8:1
January – June, 2018
Michael McGee

Orbis Books
At a Muslim-Christian dialogue panel that I recently attended in a neighboring town, one of people in the audience stood up and said to everyone there, “If today’s gathering is not about friendship, we’re wasting our time.” That statement could well summarize the purpose and content of Dialogue of the Heart,written by Martin McGee, Benedictine monk and a chaplain in Worth Abbey School, Sussex.
Dialogue of the Heart is divided into two sections. The first features four monks from the Trappist monastery of Tibhirine in Algeria, a community that intentionally chose to live in friendship with its Muslim neighbors and not to abandon during a time of violent political unrest. In 1996, three of these four were among the seven monks who were kidnapped and killed, victims of the political and social conflicts that were tearing the country apart. The second section of the book offers practical wisdom to readers drawn to dialogue, showing them how the “Algerian Church can teach us in the West how to respond to Islam, how to see the face of Christ in our Muslim neighbour” (p. 77).
Although the four monks featured in the first half of the book lived in community with their brother monks, each brought his own unique expression of encounter to his friendship with the Muslims who lived near the monastery.
For Father Jean-Pierre, one of the two monks who were not killed in 1996, the key and most fundamental way of engaging in dialogue was at the level of everyday life. Dialogue did not mean that one had become someone different from oneself. Rather, “It was necessary to remain what one was: foreigner, French, Christian, monk, and to be accepted as such by people. . . . Interreligious dialogue is about remaining truly what one is and not looking to soften the edges where they exist” (p. 31,32).
Brother Luc, an infirmarian, was a gentle man whom the local Muslim community could trust. His was a quieter form of encounter as he cared for the physical and emotional needs of his Muslim neighbors. Brother Luc “had taken to heart Jesus' parable of the last judgment . . . that we would be judged on our loving service of our neighbor regardless of religious or racial identity” (p. 41).
Brother Michel formed a dialogue group (Ribât) of Muslims and Christians that gathered at the monastery for a weekend every six months. As people of faith, “they had engaged together in their search of God” (p. 52).
Lastly, Father Christian, the leader of the monastic community, exemplified the dialogue of religious experience as encouraged in the Vatican document, Dialogue and Proclamation. Father Christian and his Muslim neighbor, Mohammed, prayed together as friends and shared their experience of prayer as the deepest dimension of their lives, even though what they shared was sometimes difficult to articulate. In a beautiful exchange, Christian asked Mohammed, “‘At the bottom of our well [depth of prayer], what will we find? Muslim water or Christian water?’ Mohammed looked at Christian bemusedly. . . . ‘You know, at the bottom of that particular well, what one finds is God’s water’” (p. 73).
The second part of McGee’s book offers the reader further examples of how the small but vibrant church in Algeria relates peacefully to the Muslim population. The mass exodus of Christians after Algeria’s independence in 1962 and civil war in 1992 greatly reduced the Christian presence in that country.  Inspired by the church’s example of dialogue in the midst of rapid diminishment, McGee wrote the Archbishop Emeritus of Algeria, Henri Teissier, after the death of the seven monks of Tibhirine to offer his support to the Algerian church in difficult times. To the author’s surprise, Archbishop Teissier wrote back, saying, “this movement [dialogue] is reciprocal because we have also to discover the faithfulness of most Muslim brothers to the call which God addresses to them, deep within their conscience, and to accept their witness as a support for our own faithfulness to God” (p. 79).  Teissier’s response inspired McGee to look more closely at the implications of being committed to dialogue, and at the ways this very dialogue could help others develop an openness to people of the Islamic faith.
As we live among people of differing faiths, we are called to take the initiative to know our neighbor and not simply wait for the other to take the first step towards friendship. Dialogue is an encounter with real people. Too often, McGee points out, our understanding of people of other faiths is limited by information we receive from people of our own faith tradition.
 For dialogue to be fruitful, we cannot rely solely on ‘experts’ from within our own tradition. Dialogue must also be reciprocal. In humility, we must be open to receive what our Muslim neighbor has to offer us, and not only be on the giving end. That is what friendship is all about—being able to receive from the other as well as to give of oneself. “Dialogue presupposes the experience, of a gratuitously lived relationship: that of friendship and mutual esteem” (p. 100). If the other were really to become my brother, my sister, my friend, meeting them would make all of us to grow, and our neighbor would grow also, and as a friend, “our eyes could meet, and a real smile would lighten up our faces” (p.141).
Martin McGee offers the reader the profound example of being neighbor given by the monks of Tibhirine and the church in Algeria. We read about their caring for, listening to, and sharing prayer with their Muslim neighbors. In the West, many of us also live as neighbors to people of a different faith tradition. McGee’s book inspires us to reach out to our neighbor, in friendship above all. Otherwise, we are wasting our time.
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