No 74 March 2007.2
Women in dialogue
Some time ago, facing the Mediterranean Sea, this sea with its two shores so different, in front of Our Lady of Africa Basilica, a little girl of some eight years of age cheekily approaches me: “So you are a heathen?” This was a rather abrupt introduction to an inter-religious dialogue with a stranger of her grandmother’s generation! She was a little girl trained at her school in a strict religious monolithic nature, and I, an old religious nun, with a life totally oriented towards an encounter with Muslims. How could I in a few minutes help this child to progress with this other person so different, to discover that one can believe in God and worship Him, without necessarily being a Muslim? Did I succeed? At the end of our conversation she would have agreed to accompany me for the prayer with the Christian community in the Basilica!
This anecdote shows what, in Algeria, one can experiment in the matter of inter-religious dialogue whatever the circumstances may be: terrorist violence, natural catastrophe or simply daily life together. In a country where nearly the whole population is Muslim, there are those who are afraid of those who are different after a resistance of a hundred and thirty years of colonial history; this fear is reinforced by the religious education in schools. But there are also women and men who aspire to break the bonds of a monolithic nature that leads to intolerance and violence. Conscious of the spiritual and intellectual fecundity of religious pluralism, they strive to build friendly relations with others who are different. Here the others who are different are the tiny minority of Christians, most of them foreigners, who share the destiny of the country, its sufferings and its joys, its misfortunes and its successes.
It is after Vatican II that the Catholic Church has officially encouraged dialogue with other religions. Forty years later this practice has won wide approval. Theological reflection on God’s nature and His mysterious will makes it possible to recognize the validity and fecundity of other religions in God’s plans. God, who wants to communicate His love to all, reveals Himself through the diversity of cultures, witness the event at Pentecost.
To engage into this process, to accept the other person as different, to recognize little by little the values that animate him, to widen the space of one’s tent, is no mean goal. The primary education establishes the foundations on which a specific vocation can be added. I would like to share in all humility what I owe to my childhood environment. I was born and grew up in a mostly Islamic Algeria. Daily encounters with girls of my generation and their mothers, grandmothers, Muslims of course, was taken for granted. It was not a question of “make do”, but to learn by osmosis and education that there are different ways of worshipping God, as there are different languages to learn in order to establish communication. Those differences committed us to a mutual respect and enrichment and were the seed of a vocation to the inter-religious dialogue, later realized with the White Sisters who have as one of their objectives a care for women and followers of Islam.
After my childhood and adolescence I discovered that in this pluralistic Algeria other young adults, Muslims and Christians, wanted to experiment meetings and exchanges with others who were different. Thus around 1955 an inter-religious group was launched, a real challenge to all at the beginning of the Independence War. The aim was to respond to the need for dialogue expressed by female students and young workers, Muslims and Christians, in order to reflect, share on their different faiths and their concrete commitments. This was, already before the Council, a real group of Islamo-Christian dialogue, as there would be later on in answer to the call of the Declaration Nostra Aetate (1965). That group with its other activities was the expression of an ever present desire of many female Algerian Muslims from all spiritual and ideological circles and choices. Those women have also learnt, by osmosis and education, to taste the richness of dialogue with female Christians, provided that in truthfulness and respect this dialogue open up onto a better knowledge of the other and at the same time of oneself.
The inter-religious dialogue is on the agenda at the same time that violence and conflicts increase because of the radicalization of the refusal to accept the other who is different. Some fifteen years ago, in May 1991, the Pontifical Council for inter-religious dialogue published Dialogue and Proclamation, a document that well defines the different forms of this way of being, basing itself directly on an experience lived at the root level by Muslims and Christians. Inter-religious dialogue is not only a specialist affair. Being a global attitude that covers all life sectors, it concerns every woman, every man living in a pluralistic society. This is a challenge that opens up to a fullness of extraordinary meaning!
A first expression of dialogue appears to be elementary because it is of everyday life. But it is basic for opening up to a civilization of love and peace that John Paul II has insistently promoted in his journeys and writings. It is a “life dialogue” practiced in daily social relations, at the level of the neighborhood, at work, in “mixed” families of Islamo-Christian union. I think of our female neighbors of our community in a small building in the outskirts of Algiers. Often, on their initiative, we meet and exchange on current problems, without philosophizing, but sharing deeply for example on to-day’s crucial problem of the origin of evil in the world, on God or on the nature of things. We can thus experience at first hand the strength of the unfailing patience based on faith and abandonment to the all powerful will of the Creator that the Koran links to prayer and good works.
I would like also to evoke my encounters with a lady trained in her faith in a strict observance school and wearing the Muslim dress that would make one think of fundamentalism and intolerance. It is by chance that we met in an amphitheater equally filled with women wearing the hijâb, and men, each group on their own side. I knew nobody. Making the first step this woman has become a friend: she welcomed me who was the only woman without a veil and moreover a stranger. Our relation has progressively opened up to a faith sharing, a call to a mutual discovery that deepened over our meetings. I could then understand that, under fundamentalist appearances, a deep spirituality could blossom, with the taste of meditating the Word of God which the Koran is for Muslims, and with the care that this lady has for her fellow believers who are also eager to deepen their faith.
In a feminine world the life dialogue is often found in accomplishing together social commitments at the service of the most helpless, for example the physically or mentally handicapped, accompanied and educated by Muslims and Christian ladies united in a common attention towards the poorest. It then becomes what Dialogue and Proclamation calls “dialogue at the level of action”. I have had the occasion to practice this, on a different register, in a team that animates the Diocesan Study Center of Algiers. Many Muslim ladies are members and are desirous to work together at the service of researchers and students who attend our high level libraries in order to offer them a convivial working atmosphere.
Dialogue and Proclamation evokes a third form of dialogue, theological exchanges between specialists that I have truly never practiced. But it is not the same for the fourth form, the “dialogue of religious experience” in which each woman well rooted in her faith shares with the other the richness of her tradition. It seems to me that this type of sharing between Christian and Muslim women has always been present in my personal search, just as it is for many of my female friends. It is truly there that for us the sharing with the other who is different reaches its fullness. The quality of the spiritual life of this other and the quality of her human relations is for everyone a permanent call to conversion of the heart and the deepening of an authentic personal faith. God is so much beyond the limits that one would be tempted to impose Him from the depth of one’s orthodoxy.
In truth, religious pluralism is part of the richness of God’s plans and of His mystery. A concrete and thoughtful experience of dialogue, from person to person, makes it possible to discover something of the infinite divine munificence. God reveals Himself in so many different ways in the cultures of the world. It is through those cultures that He receives varied answers. Just imagine to what fecundity this conviction can lead in a world seeking justice, peace and love!
Lucie Pruvost *
Missionary Sister of Our Lady of Africa (White Sister)
* - Lucie Pruvost, born in Algeria, studied law in Tunisia. Doctor of law, she has been guest professor at PISAI (Pontifical Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies) on questions of family law in Islam (1981-2001). Director of the Diocesan Study Center of Algiers (Les Glycines), she has published Femmes d’Algérie at the Editions Casbah, Algiers, 2002, 367 p., ISBN: 9961-64-344-5).
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