October 16, 2011.
We will gather together for our Badaliya Prayer on Sunday, October 16, 2011 from 3 pm to 4:30 pm at St. Pauls Church in Cambridge, in the small chapel located in the Parish Center. Please join us in person or in spirit as we pray for peace and reconciliation in the Middle East and especially in the Holy Land.
This past summer I was asked about who is living the Badaliya today. There is a list of many Christian souls who are called to share life with their Muslim brothers and sisters and some, like the monks of Tibhirine whose story can be experienced in the recent film, "Of Gods and Men", who have offered their lives. Christian de Chergé has been described as a Trappist monk whose Christian faith was enhanced, "converted" by his engagement with Islam. Following in the legacy of Blessed Charles de Foucauld and Louis Massignon, his story begins with his exposure to the daily prayers of Islam in Algeria as a child. Later, during the Algerian war for independence from France, he served as an officer in the French military.
In July 1959 he was assigned to an administrative social role in the "pacification" of the local civilian population in an effort to prevent them from joining with the fighters in the Algerian liberation army. He became friends with one of the many local Algerians who were working for the French authority in a rural community. Mohamad was a peaasant and father of 10 children. Although he knew that workiing for the French put him in danger from the Algerian freedom fighters he had no real choice. Mohamad was a devout Muslim and the young Christian was profoundly moved by observing his friends response to the call to prayer five times a day. Despite their very different experiences of the colonial occupation in Algeria, they both recognized that they belonged to the same human family in the eyes of God. Christian was taken aback when one day his friend said, " I know that you will pray for me but you see, Christians don't know how to pray." Christian understood this as a challenge to a church that appeared to others to not be a praying community. (p. 14)
Mohamad's loyalty to his friendship with Christian de Chergé caused him to step in to protect his friend when he was attacked and to try to prevent further dispute The next day Mohamad was found assasinated beside a well. It took many years for Christian de Chergé to process this experience but it became a foundational one for the rest of his spiritual life. For Christian de Chergé Mohamad was a witness to Love. Here was the proof of God's love alive in every person, especially in this Muslim man of prayer. The Qur'an says." The one who saves one single person is considered as if he had saved everyone." (Qur'an sura 5:32)
Only in 1972, in front of his brothers in Tibhirine, was Christian finally able to tell the story of Mohamad's sacrifice for him. "Through the blood of this friend, assasinated for having not wished to make a pact with hatred, I knew that my call to follow Christ must find a way to live itself out, sooner or later, in the same country where I had been given this proof of the greatest love. I knew at the same instant that this consecration must flow through a prayer in common to be a true witness to the Church and sign of the communion of saints." (p. 71) From then on there was no doubt in Christian's mind that Mohamad had mysteriously entered into the communion of saints that knows no religious boundaries. He wrote:
" I know at least one beloved brother, a committed Muslim, who gave his life out of love for another, concretely through the spilling of his blood. An unimpeachable testimony that I welcome as an extraordinary opportunity. In fact, from now on I know, in terms of my hope in the communion with Christ of all the elect, how to place this friend, who lived the only commandment, until his death." Christian de Chergé included this non Christian in his theology of salvation.
Christian did a retreat at Assekrem, the hermitage of Blessed Charles de Foucauld and he spent time with the Little Brothers of Jesus who continue to live their monsastic life close by in the Sahara desert in Algeria. Just as Massignon hoped the adherents of the Badaliya would learn to pray the Lord's Prayer and even the Fatiha, the First Sura of the Qur'an, in Arabic, and entered into the Ramadan Fast each year in soldarity with his Muslim brothers and sisters, so Christian de Chergé, as a monk, also shared silently in the life of prayer of the Muslim community. In March 1979, a group of Sufi Muslims and Christians began to meet to pray, each according to his own orientation and then discuss themes chosen by each community. They called their group "Lien de la Paix" (Bonds of Peace) and its model was the Badaliya prayer established in Cairo many years earlier by Louis Massignon. "Just like the members of the Badaliya before them, the members of "Liens de la Paix" find in the practice of prayer, fasting, almsgiving, efforts toward good works and "interior" pilgrimage, the means to express their spiritual brotherhood." (p.151)
This call to live out the monastic life in Algeria, serving and engaging with the largely Muslim local villagers around them was a dangerous choice. The country became increasingly unstable and groups of militia with radical fundamentalist views roamed the area often killing villagers and especially Christians. The decision to stay had to be a daily choice out of love for God and their neighbors. The group of men and women who had joined Liens de la Paix had been gathering to pray together at the monastery at Tibhirine for 17 years. In fact, they were there on that fateful night in March 1996 when seven of the monks were abducted and fifty-six days later, killed. How are we to respond to this witness to God's love and the communion of saints?
Louis Massignon wrote that his conversion to Christ in Baghdad in 2008 was due to the spirituality and the friendship of Muslim friends who offered him extraordinary hospitality and their prayers at a time of intense crisis in his life. Christian de Chergé had an encounter with Islam through a devout Muslim whose prayer life had a profound effect on him and who in the end substituted his own life for his christian friend. Christian led his community into a relationship of two communities praying in their own way to the same God, and on the journey home together.
In December 1978 during a Priest's retreat he said, "This unity of all people in the heart of Christ seems even more evident when we faithfully set ourselves to listening to another person of prayer, where we discover that through him, the attitudes and most simple words of spiritual expression are unaware of the boundaries of religion; that they are a universal language: bodily gestures in prayer, long reflective litanies, a "dhikr", a remembering of the most beautiful names of God, or a "Jesus Prayer." ( In L'invincible espérance, Christian de Chergé, Bayard Éditions/ Centurion, 1997.)
In 1984 at a meeting of the general chapter of his Cistercian Order he wrote: "Tell to all these men of prayer who have come from all over the world, that wherever they are they must pay attention to all the other seekers of God, no matter who they are, to do with them what we do here together, a small beginning of the way toward God and toward others.... It is the mission that God has entrusted to us today, to all who pray, and if we don't inderstand it there will never be reconciliation in the world." (p. 164)
We know others who have made the choice to live as Christians in the midst of Islamic communities throughout the world. Let us pray for the Little Brothers and Sisters of Jesus who have followed Blessed Charles de Foucauld into the desert or the cities to share life with their Muslim neighbors, and for our dear friend Father Paolo Dall'Oglio, S.J. and the community and monastery at Mar Musa in Syria. These witnesses to the essence of the Badaliya and to a call to lives of hope rely on our prayers just as we do on theirs.
Peace to you.
(Quotations from : Ray, C. Christian de Chergé: une biographie spirituelle du prieur de Tibhinrine. Éditions Albin Michel, 2010.)