I am reminded a couple of days ago of the start of the Muslim Ramadan, a 40-day fasting
akin to the Christian season of Lent. The reminder brings me back to a book I am almost agonizingly trying to finish, halted midway since 2 months ago, for reasons I am still trying to figure out. Have you had started reading a book only to shelve it for a while even if it is gripping of your attention? Perhaps – this book is asking too much of me, asking the hard questions that Christians like me would instinctively shelve into some dusty corners of creedal belief and exclusivism? WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO LIVE MEANINGFULLY WITH OUR MUSLIM BROTHERS AND SISTERS?
My interest in the Muslim culture/s, at least an intellectual one, started in college when I opted to enroll in a semestral course on Muslim for my elective (the other one is Spanish). I enjoyed the course and got an excellent grade. The more I studied, the more the Filipino Muslim culture fascinates me. The term that was most etched in my memory is the minaret where the call for communal timed prayer started like the peal of the Christian church bell. It fascinates me how the call for prayer could itself emanate out of a human voice of the muezzin. It makes me think maybe I am fascinated by the human beckoning because I was once a “muezzin” back in my high school days, everytime I rang the church bell for a sacramental. I was the hand behind the beckoning.
Back to the book.
It is a historical one, though not written from a historian’s quill but from a storyteller named John Kiser, a frequent MBA writer for Harvard Business Review and other corporate journals. It revolves around 9 Trappists monks, the most ascetical of Christian contemplatives, who decided to devote their lives for the Muslims in war-torn Algeria:
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“In the spring of 1996 armed men broke into a Trappist monastery in war-torn Algeria and took seven monks hostage, pawns in a murky negotiation to free imprisoned terrorists. Two months later, the monks’ severed heads were found in a tree; their bodies never recovered. The village of Tibhirine had sprung up around the monastery because it was a holy place protected by the Virgin Mary, revered by Christians and Muslims alike.”
The monks, under their abbott named Christian, had a choice to leave as Algeria was in disarray towards their own democracy after being colonised by the French. But they chose to stay, shedding their lives both for the Christian church and the Muslim believers who embraced them in return.
“They lived from the produce of their garden, the sale of honey, donations from guests.”
During Ramadan, Christian, with his exemplary modelling, would also fast for 40 days, and developed the habit of taking off his shoes upon entering the mosque or chapel. At one point, the construction of the mosque was right in front of the monastery, and builders would ask the monk to leave their materials inside the monastery. Some monks raised their brows for possibility of encroachment of their space but not Christian who challenged them: “Christ love is not an exchange, nor is it limited to a category of people. It is gratuit.”
“In the midst of the lush, dense shade of the cedars, cypress, and pines with cones the size of pineapples, the grasping wisteria, the flowering chestnuts and almond trees,” these monks happily lived out their vocations. In utter simplicity.
John Kiser wrote this impression:
“I also began to better understand why my exposure to the Trappist culture had a certain resonance for me. Simplicity is one reason. Doing less, not more, and doing those fewer things more intensely, are values in perpetual struggle for survival in a world that is always offering more – more activities, more choices, more means of communication, things that distract and require decisions. Trappists have stripped their lives down to a simple triad of prayer, study, and manual labor. They have made only one decision: to love and praise God in the Trappist way. Their way is that of obedience, humility, and charity, practiced in a working community of brothers wedded in Jesus Christ.”
How on earth could these brothers live and die for their Muslim neighbors when they had the choice to run away from the chaos? Only through inner peace cultivated in long solitude and deep silence. Christian himself loved to quote this from a Jewish mystic Etty Hillesum:
“If there is ever to be peace, it won’t be authentic until each individual achieves peace within himself, expels all feelings of hatred for a race or group of people, or better, can dominate hatred and change it into something else, maybe even into love – or is that acting too much? It’s the only solution.”
For you friend –
WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO LIVE MEANINGFULLY WITH OUR MUSLIM BROTHERS AND SISTERS?