Although interfaith dialogue is a very important part of my life now, it was unheard of when I was young. Born into a time and a part of the country where my own faith-tradition was a minority one, it never occurred to me to think of dialogue with people with a different faith altogether. I had never met such people. Within my Christian (Roman Catholic) background ‘dialogue’ would have meant with other Christians. In those far-off days before Vatican II Catholics regarded themselves as the ONLY real members of the Church.
However, in some parts of England we were known, as “left-footers” that is, people out of step with the rest of society, fringe people. We had our own ethos, prayer life and form of worship— not unlike what I see in Islam now, in fact. We were ‘sufficient unto ourselves’. Dialogue would have meant helping other people to join the “true Faith" (Roman Catholicism).
Fortunately that has changed over the years. For me, the first great insight and opening up to other faiths came with Vatican II and the document Nostra Aetate which paved the way for the very different attitude of the Catholic Churches today. Then, in the late 1970s I began what would turn out to be a life-changing experience. I volunteered, and was sent to Kenya, where we Sisters of Mercy had been asked to establish a school for Maasai girls in Narok district and township. This was where I first came into contact with real people of a completely different faith.
Within the school were teachers of different Christian denominations, and one Hindu teacher. Among the students were girls of several different tribes, not only Maasai, and a number of Muslim day girls whose parents had emigrated from their native countries to Kenya. These girls wore the school uniform (with long socks: the Kenyan girls went barefoot) and did not wear hijab. They attended all lessons. In those days there was no Islamic Religious Education on the school curriculum as there is now; so everyone attended Christian Religious Education (CRE). The Muslim students were among the best in CRE.
After I became Headmistress, I got to know the families of the girls quite well; some of them by shopping for the school, some parents being traders, and others, particularly the mothers, by visiting to discuss personal issues that had come up. For example, how could the students cope with the fast of Ramadan during their examinations? Or to discuss examination results. I was deeply impressed by the fervour of the students who would rather have kept the full fast, even though they were allowed by their religious leader not to do so.
One incident stands out in my mind as a personal blessing for me. On one such occasion while visiting a family, I was left alone for a short time in a room, where the old grandmother was sitting with the Holy Qur’an open on her knee, obviously rapt in prayer. I don’t think she even noticed my presence. I became aware that what was happening here was similar to what happened for us Christians in the presence of the Holy Bible and listening to the Word of God. It was an important stage in my own journey into interreligious dialogue, and remains with me today.
After leaving Kenya, I came into dialogue with Buddhist monks and nuns and something similar took place.
My next contact with Muslims in the way of dialogue was when as a Benedictine I was part of the British/Irish Monastic Interreligious Dialogue Commission, and was invited to the first of what became a series of conferences between Christian monks/nuns and Shi’a Muslims. I have written elsewhere about these conferences which again were life-changing for me. I thank God for allowing me to participate in them. (see www.turveyabbey.org.uk Interreligious Dialogue).
One aspect of dialogue which has been of special significance for me is the warm and very real contacts made with other women. From the very first conference (2003) to the present day a real dialogue journey has been going on with women I met at the conferences, particularly the 2012 conference which took place in Qum, Iran. (For a full account see Turvey Abbey web site)
I found it very interesting, fascinating in fact, that Muslim women should ‘take’ so warmly to a celibate Christian nun! I remain on terms of friendship with some of them and keep in touch with their families. There is a sense that we are somehow of one family, sisters and brothers in our worship of the One Almighty and Compassionate God, Creator and Lord of all.
Although our faith practices differ, there is something about whole-heartedness in religious worship and practice which means that we can actually ‘meet’ and be united in our differences, and rejoice. Perhaps it is love.
Two things are particularly noteworthy for me. One was the 2012 visit to Iran. I have to admit that I went with some misgivings, particularly once I began to make my travel arrangements and found that top of the BFCO list of places NOT to visit was Iran. The difficulties and frustrations of managing to get a visa (from Ireland) was also another very off-putting experience. But these things faded into insignificance once we arrived in Tehran and journeyed to Qum where the conference took place.
Shrine of the Lady Fatimah in Qum
We arrived in the early dawn to the warmest welcome I had ever experienced up to that point! Nothing was too difficult for our hosts who had arranged everything for us. The actual conference in the Institute for Islamic Studies, Qum, was both fascinating and memorable in the forms of dialogue we were able to experience. But for me the best part was the contacts beyond and around the actual conference. And most of these seemed to concern women meeting women (though there were plenty of men around too, of course.)
It was a tremendous joy to renew friendship and visual contact with Dr Mohammad Ali Shomali and his wife Mahnaz Heydarpour. We had met in 2003, and then again in London when we in UK hosted the international Monastic Interreligious Dialogue commissions. Representative monks/nuns from several countries were present. Now to meet on THEIR home ground was a delight. We only had a week but it was filled with fascinating visits and tours outside the conference times.
One visit was to the impressive women’s University of Jami’at Al Zahra, where both Dr Shomali and his wife teach. Meeting the women students and staff was a most joyful experience. Another day I had the personal privilege of speaking to a class of about 35 young women learning English at Al Mustafa University. Their questions to me were open and honest, as were mine to them, and a very real dialogue took place, though in rather a formal setting. We asked and answered REAL questions about each other’s life and faith. It was obvious and very moving that we understood each other.
I was asked for instance, to talk about my “vocation” to the monastic life. The teacher Dr Isa Jahangir said it was not a familiar concept in Islam. But when we got into the idea of “listening” to God, it was clear that we understood each other. Listening like this with the heart not the ears...
Al Mustafa University, with Dr Isa Jahangir, a Turkish Muslim teacher living in Qum.
Several times during that all-too-brief week, I was completely taken aback and won over by the genuineness, openness and humility of questions put to me: “Please give me a word ...” At first I did not understand what was being asked of me. So Mahnaz explained: “A word to help her/them to love God more”. This happened in the meetings at the university classes, and even on a ‘tourist’ visit to Esfahan from complete strangers, women passing in the street. (I could not help reflecting that in a comparable situation in UK I might have been asked: “Why do you wear those funny clothes?”). This sense of an immediate ‘connection’ happened even with women working in the airport at Tehran.
Most of my experiences of dialogue with Muslims have begun in an “official” way (at conferences for example) but have led to personal, ongoing and sometimes rather special kinds of dialogue.
Since 2003 I have been in friendly communication with Dr Mohammad Shomali and Mahnaz Heydarpour, and though everyone is very busy we manage to keep abreast of what is going on for each other, and I think, learn from each other. On rare occasions when they are in England we even manage to meet and have a little time together. These are very precious times.
At the 2010 European Conference of Monastic Interreligious Dialogue Commissions, the main speakers were Dr Reza Shah Kazemi and Dr Shomali. A significant part of the day was a talk and then discussion around Qur’an Surah 5:48, and the idea of interfaith dialogue as “provoking each other to holiness”. Attending the meeting were some other Muslim men and women. Among them a western woman convert, who expressed a wish to continue with dialogue in some way and indeed we have become friends (D:G - "Thanks be to God").
Together we attended a day conference in Heythrop College, University of London, on the contribution of women to Christian/Muslim dialogue. As the only Muslim there, she came in for a lot of friendly and searching questions. This was a plenary session and she spoke very well. It must have been an ordeal! Some months later she visited Turvey Abbey and we had a very special day of one-to-one dialogue. Incidentally, as she was eating with our other guests, they too became very interested in an friendly dialogue between Christians and a Muslim! They had never met a Muslim under this kind of informal circumstances of sharing a meal.
Later, my friend performed her midday prayers and I united with her silently during this time. Afterwards we had a time of “listening prayer” together. We used a method of “Lectio Divina”, the Benedictine way of listening to the Word of God. My friend chose a passage by simply opening the Holy Qur’an and placing her finger on a passage. We read it aloud very slowly, several times, taking turns, reflecting silently on it and “listening”.
Then we shared verbally with each other what had seemed to be God’s word for us in this passage. We each found that the Word of God had ‘spoken’ to us in a way completely compatible with our tradition and spiritual path. We hope to continue with this kind of personal dialogue when time permits. Distance, and business on both sides, are all that prevents a growing understanding.
Interfaith dialogue is for me a moving and joyful experience of unity in diversity and a deep acknowledgement that we are sisters (and brothers), children of One Father, however different our external lives may be.
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Sister Lucy is a Benedictine nun at the Priory of Our Lady of Peace, a Roman Catholic community living according to the Rule of Saint Benedict. Sister Lucy represents her monastic community in interreligious dialogue, mainly with Buddhists and Muslims. The nuns and monks at Turvey Abbey maintain the monastic tradition of offering hospitality to guests from other faith traditions as well as those who share their Roman Catholic faith and host a variety of special ecumenical and interfaith gatherings every year.
So, over to you!
What were your first experiences of Interfaith Dialogue?
Have you experienced Interfaith in another country?