By Ephraim Radner
“Few meetings are the result of chance.” So said Christian de Chergé, a Trappist monk in Algeria who, along with six of his companions, was martyred in 1996. De Chergé’s “chance” encounters with several Muslims determined the course of his ministry and, finally, of his life and death. My own encounters with de Chergé, through his writings and witness, have, if not determined, at least illuminated and confirmed an important aspect of my own ministry within the Church. I have been renewed.
Encountering de Chergé’s ministry has been, for me, an evangelical jolt. De Chergé’s life was one of engaging Muslims and Islam, as an utterly committed Benedictine Christian. That life, which involved finally common prayer with Muslims, was one of long conversion for him. It led him towards an opening to divine grace and human hope, to personal humility in the face of the infinite generosity in Christ, and finally to self-donation into the arms of God’s unfathomable promises. De Chergé came to discover God’s love, in Christ, of the Muslim, pure and simple. Author Christian Salenson describes his final and violent death in the midst of Algerian religious strife as a “martyrdom of charity.” Encountering the Spirit of Christ in this servant of our Lord, I am struck to the quick by his challenge, but also enlivened.
To put it briefly: I have come to realize that continued life in the Episcopal Church is not merely about ecclesial integrity, or mission, or cultural apologetics. It is all these, of course. But most of all, and from its depth, it is about charity; it is about putting oneself in, or allowing oneself to be taken up by, the current of Jesus’ love that sweeps us towards and with the stranger, the unreconciled, the halting, the erring, the malevolent: with them, into the “secret joy” of Christ’s renewal of our common life of often opposed difference into his image. This is the embodied message of de Chergé’s final “Testament,” published after his death, in which he both forgives his likely murderers and hopes for a common place with them before the throne of God’s grace.
Is it possible to engage the prayerful energies of separated faith out of a love for those whom God loves in Christ? That was his experimental conviction, and it is possible and, I would argue, necessary to press it in all directions, including that of our own ecclesial divisions. De Chergé’s dependence upon Roman Catholic magisterial teaching allowed him to recognize in Muslims a common worship of the same God (according to Vatican II decrees and papal pronouncements). By organic analogy, this reality must be extended to other Christians. Not out of rational logic alone — if this, then at least that — but out of the very proddings of divine charity.
De Chergé approached his Muslim neighbors on the basis of a common prayer to a common God. His underlying hope was simple: let us pray among and as far as possible with those who pray, and wait for the self-revelation of Christ within this context. This approach was essentially non-strategic, in that there was no predicted or manipulated outcome to the practice. But just because of this, it permitted him and his brethren, as monks, to continue in a particularly Christian life and witness, now with, not over against or specifically in place of, their Muslim neighbors. De Chergé’s non-proselytizing commitment is questionable as a principle — it is wrong, in fact. But for his context, it was probably right: for the time and place, and the time-being and place-being, it was the witness called for.
I believe the same is true for our internal Christian ecclesial lives in this time and place as well. And love for one another, even enemies, has no contextual limitations in any case. Applying some of de Chergé’s outlooks to our life together as Anglicans here and now, we might say this:
1. We have a common God
Here the “at least” of de Chergé’s Muslim outreach applied to Christian division is most evident. The Roman Catholic Church has made it clear that Muslims and Christians pray to the same God. Obviously, not all Christians accept this. But it has been a widely held Anglican view as well, up to the remarkable career of Kenneth Cragg, and it goes back at least to the Middle Ages. The placement of other religions within the category of “heresy,” with Jews and Muslims standing side by side Protestants and Catholics with one another, had terrible consequences in many ways; but it points to a common sense of filiation. We can today draw upon this contested tradition in a constructive way, by acknowledging that our prayers can at least be seen as commonly directed and drawn, however problematically so.
The point here is that the same God calls forth, listens, receives, and responds. It is the placing of prayer in the hands of God, rather than in our own. This is a limited but also profoundly expansive admission. Even where we pass into strange rites it is hard to efface, with the most extraneous verbalization, the fundamental trace of a faith in God derived from Christian roots. They pray to a God who, with us, we know seeks them in love.
2. Our God, incarnate and active as Christ Jesus, exceeds our comprehension
This, and the next element I list, are the hardest to engage from a traditional stance towards “foreign gods” and heresies. The point in the claim is that God can and is doing something good with these diverse religious expressions and attitudes. For de Chergé, Islam has a place in the economy of salvation for good, and not only as a scourge to the Church or vehicle for reprobation. There are, of course, places in the Old Testament especially where this understanding of other religions can be seen (Deut. 32); and in the New Testament, though less obvious, there are a few places where a window opens to these possibilities of the past (Acts 17).
But the most pressing element in this claim is historical and political: “diversity” is here to stay within our historical experience, and we want at least its political conditions to be such as to allow this, if only selfishly. Diversity, in this sense, is providential: something discovered and learned in the face of blasphemous resistance to its reality in the past (coercive mission, colonialism, communism, fascism, Islam, and Christendom at their worst). God’s love in Christ is so much greater than our understanding of it, and thus we can say in the face of seemingly intractable difference, “God would have us let it be.”
We cannot say “why,” however. And that is both a guard against hubris, but also a guard against our own dilution of the Christian faith, as we are tempted to turn the particularities of Old and New Testament, of Israel and Jesus, into vague principles and hopes. The “bigger” God is simply a way of saying that we do not yet “understand,” but in Christ will be understood (1 Cor. 13:12).
3. The particular gospel of Jesus Christ is broader than our grasp
Here the point is not to change the gospel as we have received it. It is rather to allow the gospel’s enunciation to stand in a place where others contest, deny, provide alternatives to it, in the faith of a God whose life in Christ goes beyond our ability to fathom and predict.
The gospel itself is “bigger” than our own thinking thus far has been because, recognizing the place of diversity in which we have been historically and politically fastened, we now are called and pressed into engaging aspects of the one gospel we had not noticed before, or been touched by before. Every Christian’s gospel is “too small,” in that we hear only what we want to hear often, and deploy arguments and methods that suit only our motives.
Here, it is God who gives us new ears (not a new Gospel!), new hearts even. In what way? This we must await! If de Chergé represents some more common discovery of God’s grace at this time, perhaps it is a new willingness to encounter others in their difference and opposition. One expression of the gospel, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself,” needs to be heard anew: Where? How? Which “world” and who within it? The woman weeping and wiping Jesus feet: this too is called a part of the “gospel.” But which woman is this? From whence her tears? And with whom do we stand that we too might be a part of the same gospel? We shall each and together need to discover this for ourselves. And we can only do so here, not in some other place.
4. Patience and stability constitute a greater grace and openness to grace in our day
One of de Chergé’s central intuitions was that he — and the Church herself in this age and place — had been offered a vision of a more radical grace than heretofore he had understood: God must take the initiative in this encounter with Islam and with Muslims. And from there, with all people. Something new was happening, and needed to happen, de Chergé argued. Yet because it was an act of God rather than a strategic human project, it meant waiting for God immovably in the one place of encounter where God had set him and his brothers. This is why, in part, they refused to leave their Algerian priory, even as the violence around them escalated.
The monastic vows of stability in community and locale, and the wider Christian calling and fruit of patience, were key here. God will provide the ram, as Abraham promised his son in the face of imminent death! For de Chergé, we wait upon Moriah, in the face of the greatest sacrifice of our own hearts. For us within the Anglicanism of the 21st century, as waves of turmoil batter our commitments, Moriah is our church itself.
5. This kind of witness to charity within difference is, paradoxically, a more powerful counter to the relativism of our culture than is separation
De Chergé and his companions are viewed as true martyrs by the Roman Catholic Church, at least on the informal basis of the pope’s personal attestation. Salenson, in Christian de Chergé: A Theology of Hope, stresses their particular witness as one of “love,” rather than, say, creedal confession. Love for another, but in a specifically Christian articulation: love for another only because of the preceding (“preventing”) grace of God in Christ first given for the world, for them. Only because God in Christ is indeed the truth, and the effective truth that changes all things, could the kind of life of prayerful engagement by a Christian with a Muslim happen. De Chergé’s encounter with Islam, praying among those who pray, was not a giving up of the Christian gospel. It was a giving over of that gospel in utter faith to the God to whom it belongs.
And in this world, where the human manipulation of power in the name of God is not only suspected by all but suspected on the basis of much sorry historical evidence, giving over the gospel — to the God whose gospel it is — is perhaps the best and only way to preserve the image of its absolute truth before the eyes of a world whose diverse claims and hopes cannot trust yet another human insistence.
Praying among — and with — those who pray: this is perhaps a seminal vocation, not simply a serendipitous spiritual idiosyncrasy. Perhaps it is the way that Christian witness is required. And it is perhaps required precisely because “this is love, not that we loved God, but that God loved us and gave his Son for us, as a propitiation for our sins,” “that we might live through him” (1 John 4:10,9).
Some wonder how we can live this out within a church where bishops and clergy are brought up on charges for publicly enunciating the truth as they have received it. How can we do this when fellow Christians, including priests and bishops, violate, in their expressed conviction and practice, standards of life and scriptural teaching or the tradition’s explicit and universal claims? How could this be so even when the Eucharist is sometimes cast before those without baptism or commitment, formation, or expressed love? How can we pray among and with those who have opposed and subverted our deepest loves and acknowledged truths?
De Chergé’s witness tells us that this is not only possible, but that its doing is a fulfillment of God’s deepest life. Continue to pray with those who pray, for God calls forth our prayer; not we. Perhaps eucharistic communion is sometimes not possible, due to angers and estrangement: so be it. Perhaps refusal to go along with this or that practice is necessary: surely it is and will be! Our prayer can only go so far as Christ will allow us — not in terms of geography, but in terms of our own limited faith. Yet within that faith Christ presses us to every attempt to accommodate the faith of others as something oriented to our God, whose power is yet unknown to us, but whose love is grasped and grasps us by the gift of that faith that we do have. “I believe! Help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).
De Chergé’s witness, however, also emphasizes our stability as a people in this staying and praying. And this involves the ongoing mutual support of a community of devoted friends in Christ, even across many places. In his case, it was the Trappist order and his immediate brothers. What is ours? This is perhaps one of the great weaknesses of our current position: most of us live as individuals, and see our Christian lives as but the aggregate of life with the like-minded.
De Chergé shows us, however, that the core of stability lies in the lived discipline of a common life of mutual devotion that, like marriage, stands at the center of the Church’s more wide-ranging and porous interactions, which include its dioceses, organizations, and so on. Those who stay in the Episcopal Church must have friends in Christ with whom they can maintain such an extended common life of witness. An order? A cenacle? A sodality? An “institute,” in the Catholic sense? Such ecclesiolae in ecclesia have historically been at the center of renewal movements. De Chergé shows that they are at the center of love itself within our fragmented and divisive world. To pray with others who are praying one must have first learned how to “pray with” in the deepest sense and over the longest time. And one must continue to do so even as one moves towards an unknown prayer that Christ can carry with him to the Father. It is time to devote our lives to others in this movement.
Christ is the “same, yesterday, today, and tomorrow.” Yet this unchanging truth of his being comes to us, encounters us, in ways that are accommodated to our times and needs. Today it comes, not by chance, according to the witness of someone like Christian de Chergé, as indeed of others we are called to seek out as pioneers in the divine advent. Anglicans and Episcopalians especially have had few martyrs or witnesses of this kind to which we can point. But perhaps we have not looked carefully enough, or been willing to find ourselves thus called.
The Rev. Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College, Toronto.