Honoring the centennial of the conversion of Louis Massignon
"The influence of Islam on the conversion of three great Christians
Louis Massignon, Blessed Charles de Foucauld and St.Francis of Assisi"
by Dorothy C. Buck
May 18, 2008.
On behalf of the Lay Committee on Spiritual and Public Concerns and the Badaliya
Prayer Group here at St. Paul's Church I would like to welcome you to our
celebration of the 100th anniversary of the conversion experience of Louis Massignon.
We have some wonderful guest speakers today who will share the stories of the
influence of Islam on the on-going conversion of three great Christians, Louis
Massignon, Blessed Charles de Foucauld and St. Francis of Assisi. All three
of these men became devoted Roman Catholic Christians, their faith expressed
with the intensity of what we might call "mystical" spiritual experience.
As Christians we know that the spiritual journey involves an on-going ever-deepening conversion experience throughout our lives. As we experience and receive God's great love for all of humanity, and for each one of us, we grow more and more able to love one another and ultimately learn to love and respect all our neighbors of every ethnicity, race and religion. This spiritual journey requires much from each of us as we learn to replace our egotistical and selfish inclinations and desires with loving and generous attention to the needs of others in the world around us. We might call this on-going conversion experience a "conversion of hearts".
Louis Massignon's story of conversion includes his unique relationship with our two other great Christians, Blessed Charles de Foucauld and St. Francis of Assisi. Massignon was born in France in 1883 and brought up in the Roman Catholic faith but long before his conversion he had turned away from his childhood tradition following the intellectual leanings of his father, the artist and sculpture known as Pierre Roche. The young Massignon was a gifted linguist and scholar with a fascination for the Arab culture of the Middle East that included archeology and the sociology of religion.
At the time of his conversion experience Massignon had only received one letter from Charles de Foucauld who was then in Tamanrasset in the southern part of the Algerian desert. The hermit priest was thanking Massignon for sending him his extensive study of the 16th century geographer of Morocco, Leo Africanus. Foucauld ended his letter with a blessing, "I offer for you my poor and unworthy prayers, begging God to bless you, to bless your work and your whole life". It was only some years later that this blessing took on real meaning for Massignon.
In 1907 Louis Massignon discovered an obscure 10th century Muslim mystic, a SUFI known as Husayn ibn Mansûr al-Hallaj. He was intrigued with the legend that surrounded this SUFI saint who was martyred in Baghdad in the year 922 of the Common Era, and crucified as a heretic by the political authorities who were threatened by his preaching in public about his experience of God's love. Massignon decided to make al-Hallaj the subject of his doctoral thesis. In 1908, when Massignon was 25 years old he was sent on an archeological mission to Baghdad by the French government. This was his opportunity to pursue his research on the life and legend of al-Hallaj. He received the hospitality of a Hanbalite Muslim family in Baghdad and had many conversations with his host, Hajj'Ali Âlûsî, about Islam.
In April, he set out on a long journey into the desert gathering information for his archeological mission. He was in competition with two German archeologists who eventually reported him to the authorities as a spy. He was unaware of the political intrigue in Iraq at that time and of the Turkish revolution that was about to happen. He was picked up by the authorities who were anxious to get him out of the country since he was a foreigner. Eventually he was put on a steamer back to Baghdad. He was surrounded by Iraqi and Turkish passengers one of whom whispered to him that he had been accused of being a spy.
Massignon began to panic and was sure his life was in danger. In his fear and growing anxiety he prayed the first words that came to him, in Arabic, "God, God, help my weakness". He appealed to the Captain for safety and gave up his revolver and then tried to escape when the ship made a stop. He was tied up and confined to the Captain's cabin. Years later he wrote, "I began to suffer from myself...look at how I was ending up after four and a half years of immoral behavior...Dying in a terrible situation. My family would be happy to forget me". He attempted to commit suicide wounding himself with a knife which frightened him all the more. On May 3rd, in the midst of his despair, he had an experience of a mysterious presence that he later called "the Visitation of the Stranger".
It left him changed for the rest of his life. He was astonished, left speechless, and powerless and so deeply affected that he could not remember his own name. He was now sure that he would return to Paris unharmed. For the remainder of his life he would refer to this experience as the transforming moment that informed the rest of his life. He was convinced that the prayers of Brother Charles de Foucauld and others for his salvation were answered. But most remarkable was his clear sense that the 10th century Muslim SUFI saint and martyr, al- Hallaj was also responsible for his conversion back to his Christian roots, along with the prayers of his Muslim friend, Hajj'Ali. He had been immersed in studying Islam and Arab culture and language, yet it was to Catholic Christianity that he returned with his whole heart.
One month after his dramatic conversion experience he wrote in his notes: "Suddenly, wrenching sensation of the presence of God, no longer judge, but father, inundating the prodigal son. I softly closed the door to my room with a key and stretched out on the tile floor, finally crying my prayer the whole night after five years with a dry heart". (Le Voyage p.192)
Massignon became one of the most erudite scholars of Islamic culture, advocating positive engagement and relationships among all three Abrahamic faiths, that included a shared Muslim and Christian pilgrimage in Brittany France that continues to this day. His research on al-Hallaj became a 50 year endeavor. He was both a mystic and a scholar. He became a third order Franciscan in 1931 when he discovered Saint Francis' vocation to love the Muslims as brothers and sisters during the time when the crusaders were intent on eradicating Islam. The spirit of Francis and Massignon's many years of friendship and correspondence with Brother Charles de Foucauld informed his statutes for the establishment of the Badaliya prayer movement in Cairo, Egypt in 1934. On April 3, 1928 he wrote in a letter," It was twenty years ago (the exact anniversary will be next May 3rd) that I understood, having become Christian again, how much the ways of God are marvellous and secret: "You [God] have led me as if by the hand". (Jacquin p. 38)
There is much to say about the relationships of Louis Massignon with both Blessed Charles de Foucauld and Saint Francis of Assisi. When Foucuald died during World War I in 1916 it was Massignon who worked diligently to preserve the vision and writings of the hermit priest and safeguard the survival of what now has become well known as the Lay Fraternities of Charles de Foucauld. The first biogaphy of Foucauld, by René Bazin, was commissioned by Louis Massignon and he was a mentor for the first Religious communities of Little Brothers and Sisters established in the 1930's and 40's.
Reverend Leonard Tighe
Reverend Romano Almagno, OFM
Fr. Romano Stephen Almagno,OFM has been a Franciscan for 51 years. He is an emeritus professor of the University of Pittsburgh, where, together with Dr. Toni Carbo, he founded its Information Ethics courses. He is a former superior of the Holy Land Franciscan Monastery in Washington DC. Father Romano was a close friend, and translator of some of the books of the Franciscan Islamologist Fr. Giulio Basetti-Sani. While a student of Louis Massignon in Paris, Fr. Giulio Basetti-Sani was introduced to Massignon's understanding of the prophetic mission of St. Francis for witness and dialogue with the Muslim World. For the rest of his life, Fr. Basetti-Sani would seek to spread and develop Massignon's ideas. Fr. Almagno will discuss Islam and St. Francis of Assisi via the insights of Louis Massignon and Gulio Basetti-Sani. Please welcome Father Romano Almagno.