Today is the anniversary of the death of Charles de Foucauld who, in many ways, opened up the path to the possibility of dialogue between Christianity and Islam. On the face of it, Charles’ life was not one marked by success: in his lifetime he saw no new monastic foundations and no new followers, and his death, though in many ways a martyrdom, remains something of a mystery. But after his lifetime, his example did inspire many to follow in his way of utter simplicity, universal fraternity and faithful ‘hiddenness’. Indeed, his influence extends to Pope Francis, whose latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, owes much to the spirituality of Charles.
In the realm of dialogue with Islam, which is surely one of the most vital works of inter-faith understanding in our day, Charles’ influence on one of this dialogue’s most significant pioneers, Louis Massignon, is immense. Charles’ approach was one built on fraternity, but also on the fundamental necessity of conversion. Indeed, his own conversion to a fuller embrace of the Christianity of his birth was directly a result of his encounter with Muslims. Although his desire in living among the Tuareg of Algeria was to bear, for them, the presence of Christ, his desire was to understand, not to make converts. He lived without any European or Christian companions and sought simply to be present among the people as a hermit whose simple dwelling was known as a place of hospitality as well as brotherhood.
Although not seeking to make converts, Charles embodied the truth that dialogue depends on conversion – one’s own. We cannot enter into a truthful dialogue unless we are committed to allowing ourselves to be changed by it, probably in ways we cannot anticipate. The same could, of course, be said of all Christian life, that it is a constant process of growth, of conversion, of being conformed ever more closely to the image of Christ. But there is something particular about inter-faith dialogue, which brings us face to face with God through language and practices that are not our own, challenging our assumptions and revealing to us new insights that might not have been shown to us if we had chosen to remain with what is familiar.
In dialogue, do we also seek the conversion of the one with whom we are in dialogue? No, but it is likely that they have also entered into this transformative space with the same commitments as we have. Our responsibility, however, is only ever towards our own attitude and our own readiness to be converted by the God we will meet in new ways through our sister or brother.