by Jim Forest
Above: St. Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai (minaret in the foreground)
Love is caring for the needs of another person even though you wish you didn’t have to and even though you have no reason to think he would do the same for you. If a mother fails to feed a child because she is too tired or irritated but then says “I love that child,” who would believe her? Love is first of all how we care for each other, not how we feel about them at the time. Feelings are secondary. Love is communicated by merciful actions. We saw a powerful example of this a few years ago when the Greeks responded with breathtaking generosity to urgent needs in Turkey, the historic enemy of Greece, after an especially devastating earthquake. When Greece was struck by a major earthquake a year or two later, the Turks were inspired to reach out in a similar way. In the process, Greek-Turkish enmity, though certainly not ended, was significantly reduced.
We see an example of this kind of reaching out to an adversary at St. Catherine’s Monastery, located in the Sinai Desert, an area under Muslim domination since the year 639, only a few years after the death of Muhammad. St. Catherine’s has been a place of uninterrupted prayer and worship since its founding in about 550 in a region already long populated by many Christian ascetics. If you look attentively at photos of the monastery, within the wall, adjacent to the monastery church, you will notice a bright, white tower. This is the minaret of the only mosque within a monastic enclosure. The Fatimid Mosque, which I’m told is still used by the monks’ Bedouin neighbors, was originally a hospice for pilgrims, but in the year 1106, more than nine hundred years ago, it was converted to its present use. It must be one of the oldest mosques in the world. No doubt the monk’s hospitality to Muslims helps explain how the monastery survived all these centuries in what became Muslim territory and also how it became the safe harbor for a number of the oldest icons and biblical manuscripts to survive from Christianity’s first millennium. The irony is, it was thanks to being in the Muslim world that the icons survived. In the Byzantine world in the iconoclastic periods, countless ions were destroyed at the emperor’s command. The monastery, with its many generations of monks, offers a continuing witness to a genuinely Christian response to conflict in a non-fear-driven manner. By their act of hospitality, the monks give us a lesson in how Christians can make enemies, or potential enemies, into friends. It’s something like the miracle at Cana at which Jesus converted water into wine.
Let me give another example of how the walls of enmity can be pierced in unexpected ways. A few years ago my wife and I decided to celebrate Pascha in Istanbul, home of the Orthodox Patriarchate of Constantinople. On Friday of Bright Week, the first Friday after Easter, we took a ferry to one of the nearby islands, Buyukada, where we walked to St. George’s Monastery on the south end of the island. It wasn’t clear from the map, but this involved a long uphill climb along a cobblestone path. We were surprised by how much company we had along the way — not crowds, but we were far from alone. We were puzzled – Orthodox Christians are a rarity in modern Turkey. All along the path there were pieces of fabric and napkins tied to the branches and lots of colorful string and thread running branch to branch. We were reminded of the prayer flags in Tibet. The higher we got, the more beautiful the view. Finally we reached the top only to discover the monastery was not currently occupied and its church was locked. But the biggest surprise was that the monastery was still very much a place of prayer, not inside but outside. Candles were burning on every available ledge. Women, men and children stood around the church, often with their hands extended and palms up. It took a few minutes before it dawned on us that we were probably the only Christians present. Everyone else was Muslim. This is one of the many places in the Middle East where Muslims pilgrims worship at Christian shrines. Beyond the church, families, having completed their prayers, were picnicking. We learned that day that we had more in common with Muslims than we dared to imagine. Their prayer inspired our prayer, their devotion our devotion.
But generally speaking we mainly hear unsettling news about Muslims and they about us. “If it bleeds, it leads” was one of the first proverbs I learned as a young journalist. If you are looking for good news, skip page one. We hear about people driven to homicidal rage or despair or both who, in the name of Allah, blow themselves up while killing others, abuse of women in Muslim countries, people being stoned to death after being condemned under Sharia law, etc. In the Muslim world there is a similar concentration of news that fuels hostility — American bombs that have fallen on innocent people, people held indefinitely without charges or trial on suspicion of being terrorists, reports of torture, attacks on Muslims, the burning of Muslim schools, plans to burn Korans, etc. On both sides, events that justify enmity are well publicized. It isn’t that the reports are untrue, only that so much is left out.
This is an extract from a recent lecture, “Remaining Christian in a Time of Conflict,” given by Jim Forest at Orthodox parishes in Tennessee and Kentucky. The full text is posted here: http://www.jimandnancyforest.com/2010/10/20/remaining-christian-in-a-time-of-conflict/
❖ IN COMMUNION / FEAST OF ST. ANASTASIA OF ROME / FALL 2010/ issue 58