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franciscan - September 1997

© The Society of Saint Francis, 1997

Truth and Love: a Franciscan in InterFaith Dialogue

by Bernard SSF

A great friend of SSF, Father Max Mizzi of the Conventual Friars in Assisi, wrote enthusiastically about the meeting there in 1986 of leaders of the great world religions. ‘They came to pray in peace, in the spirit of love and reconciliation, in the footsteps of Saint Francis.’ Francis’ saintly combination of accepting-empathy with simple-truth certainly can serve as a model for us today.

Religion, alas, has long been the pretext of conflict, war and the persecution of minorities by the powerful. There are many terrible examples today. ‘The Assisi spirit’ means meeting people across divides. Rather than demonising others we can begin to see them as people. As Robert Runcie said about the 1986 meeting, ‘you certainly feel differently about people when you have waited for the bus with them!’

Pope John Paul (who hosted the meeting) wrote in the encyclical Redemptoris Missio: ‘those engaged in this dialogue must be consistent with their own religious traditions and be open to understanding those of the other party, without pretence or closed-mindedness, but with truth, humility and frankness, knowing that dialogue can enrich each side’. The document ‘Dialogue and Proclamation’ usefully lists four forms of such dialogue: firstly, the dialogue of life, where people strive to live in an open and neighbourly spirit, sharing their joys and sorrows, their human problems and preoccupations; secondly, the dialogue of action, in which Christians and others collaborate for the integral development and liberation of people; thirdly, the dialogue of theological exchange, where specialists seek to deepen their understanding of their respective religious heritages and to appreciate each others’ spiritual values; and fourthly, the dialogue of religious experience, where persons, rooted in their own religious traditions, share their spiritual richness, for instance in regard to prayer and contemplation, faith and ways of searching for God and the Absolute.

Genuine dialogue means knowing and trusting the other so that you can hear what is dearest to their heart: I’ll never forget hearing a young Moslem father telling us what he most wanted his son to know about Allah. Dialogue can also set us free to share our own deepest treasures. Some exchanges can disturb us, so that we struggle to know both what we believe and how we can articulate it. Exchanges can also enrich, deepen and correct our own perceptions. Ideally we do not only seek to come where the other is, nor to bring them to where we are, but rather to go together to a place where neither of us has been before.

There was at one time a novice at Hilfield greatly influenced by Hindu beliefs. He saw all things as an incarnation of gods. I found my awareness of God in all things heightened so as to enter more into Francis’ Canticle of the Creatures. I noticed, however, that his brothers and sisters in creation were pointers to God rather than gods: ‘they speak to us of thee’. Francis, of course, is rooted in Christian scriptures like Psalm 19.1 and Romans 1.20 which point to the natural world as a disclosure, a theophany.

Being nourished, then, by the experience of others, I ask myself at what point I offer a Christian understanding of this mystery and about the fullest expression of it: Jesus, the Logos incarnate, the ‘express image of the God’ (Hebrews 1.3).

With Buddhists, we may enter into silent attentiveness. It leads into ‘the mystery of being’ which Francis knew so deeply in his hermit and contemplative times. In the last chapter of the Rule of 1221, after speaking of God as Trinity, Francis ends with a catalogue of words including: ‘invisible, indescribable, ineffable, incomprehensible, unfathomable’. God is always much more than we can describe (is that why ‘the Word became flesh’?) and in silence we adore the mystery-in-communion. I do not understand Buddhist experience and philosophy enough to know whether the concept of losing the subject/object distinction, and merging into the oneness of the ‘more than’ is congruous with the Christian understanding of the distinctiveness of each person. But I note that Francis, in the height of ecstasy on La Verna, prayed: ‘Who are you, my dearest God, and who am I . . .?’ I believe that deep communion strengthens our identity: ‘I am, because God is.’ But the question here is ‘Is the silent contemplation more important than the dialogue about this mystery?’

With Moslems, as with God’s ancient people the Jews, the One-ness of God is paramount. Quickly the dialogue moves into matters of revelation, the Law, practical politics and the like. I asked a Jesuit Moslem scholar once whether I should share in the Moslem prostration prayers, which express their ‘giving over’ to Allah. He replied (but was he right?) that it would be like them sharing with me in Holy Communion. Nevertheless, in the holiness, the otherness of many a mosque, one is glad that one’s shoes are removed, for ‘the place where we stand is holy ground.’ And to witness, as I did once in Safed, an old Jewish man wrapped in his prayer shawl swaying backwards and forwards as he chanted from the Torah, took me to the devotion of the psalms: ‘I have taken greater delight in the way of your decrees than in all manner of riches.’ We meet beyond words.

A young Moslem, in a group in our house here after a good evening, said, “If you could see that the prophet Mohammed is the last of the prophets, we could all be Moslems together.” “Yes,” I replied, “I see just what you mean; for if you could see that Jesus is ‘more than a prophet’, we could all be Christians together.” But we find it isn’t as simple as that! And there is plenty of room for arrogance, ignorance and triumphalism in our attitudes and words. Islam is a missionary religion: and so is Christianity.

But religion is not the same as God’s truth. Indeed, Karl Barth saw all religion as man-made. Certainly, you find similar ‘religions’ in different ‘faiths’. If all our formulations are partial and distorted (‘fingers to the moon’) and they are clothed in different cultures, there is much chance of misunderstanding. The ‘spectacles behind our eyes’ mean we see things our way. Further, I have discovered how followers of different faiths vary as much between themselves as Christians do. Moslems in a group I was with were as embarrassed by the brashness of one of their own as I would be by a Christian fundamentalist. But then again, Francis warned about the arrogance of the learnèd, for God ‘reveals things to babes’ (Matthew 11.25). Again, Francis insists that it is ‘doing the will of God’ rather than talking about it (Matthew 12.50) that matters.

In dialogue with Moslems, it is not long before a very different understanding of Jesus emerges, probably with a denial of the crucifixion, and certainly therefore of the resurrection. This central Christian understanding of God’s self-disclosure ‘reconciling all things to himself by the blood of the cross’ (Colossians 1. 15-20) is for Christians non-negotiable: ‘No other god but ours has wounds.’

In our part of London, dialogue is more likely to be about current community issues than fundamental beliefs, but I find the story of Francis and the Sultan goes down well at school assemblies. Perhaps Francis was still seeking martyrdom, but his bravery in crossing between the Crusader and the Moslem armies made a great impression on the Sultan. It also changed Francis. In Chapter 16 of the Rule of 1221, after quoting ‘sent out as sheep among wolves’, he wrote: ‘The friars who are inspired by God to work among the Saracens and other unbelievers . . . can conduct themselves among them spiritually in two ways. One is to avoid quarrels or disputes and ‘be subject to every human creature for God’s sake’ (1 Peter 2.13), so bearing witness to the fact that they are Christians. Another is to proclaim the Word of God openly, when they see that that is God’s will, calling on their hearers to believe in God Almighty . . . that they may be baptised and become Christians.’ For some Christians today, this is a stark choice indeed.

We all have our choices: few of such stark ones. Belief that the Father’s purpose is to bring humanity to the Kingdom of his Son’s likeness and that the energy of the Holy Spirit works in and beyond the Church to that end, can give us a basis and a confidence. Francis, living in a very different time from ours, exemplifies both the truth of love and the love of truth and shows us that both are gifts of God. §


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