A turning point in Massignon’s life and the onset of his personal relationship with Islam began at the approach of dawn on May 3, 1908. While being held prisoner aboard a steamship on the Tigris River, accused of being a spy, Louis Massignon received a visit from a “Stranger without a Face” who took away everything he was and gave him everything he would become. Many years later, when he tried to describe this experience, Massignon stammered and resorted to metaphors. Massignon wrote that he saw himself as God, his judge, saw him at that moment – depraved and pretentious, worse than useless, undeserving of love or mercy or even of existence. He had abandoned the faith of his childhood; he was an active homosexual, a slave to his passions.
Massignon reported the execution of this judgment was suspended due to the prayers of five intercessors: Massignon’s mother, the writer Joris-Karl Huysmans who had prayed for Massignon on his deathbed, the Saharan hermit Charles de Foucauld, the tenth-century Sufi mystic al-Hallaj, and the Alousi family, pious Muslims who had given Massignon hospitality in Baghdad. It was thanks to these intercessors, both Christian and Muslim, that he was able to receive pardon. Massignon would later marvel that the prayer that spontaneously came to his lips after the mysterious visitation was in Arabic: “O God, O God, have mercy on me in my weakness!”
— Jerry Ryan, “The Mystical Vision of Louis Massignon,” NCR 12/17/04
The recent news from the Middle East is distressing, especially the murder of the Italian priest Andrea Santoro in Turkey. The death toll in demonstrations against the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad has now reached nine, and Iran (where protestors threw stones and petrol bombs at the Danish embassy) is still in a nuclear stand-off against the West. Are these the only narratives we have for Christian-Muslim relations? It is very easy to reach for Samuel Huntington’s prediction of a “clash of civilizations” – his 1993 article already spoke of “the perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both.” But we should remain wary if lurid images of a “battle against Islam” seem to attract us. Our fascination with conflict is deep-rooted and understandable, but poisonous. As the former war correspondent Chris Hedges has warned us, “An emotion we will all soon feel when we go to war … is comradeship. The ecstatic glow that makes us in war feel as one people, as one entity, is real. But this is part of war’s intoxication.”
And although the recent news should be cause for realistic concern, it is not the only narrative we have for Christian-Muslim relations. The following comes from an article in Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations by Fr Sidney H. Griffith, ST of the Institute of Christian Oriental Research at the Catholic University of America.
Thomas Merton’s thought on Islam was guided by the works of the scholar, mystic, and Melkite priest Louis Massignon, among them his Essai sur les origins du lexique technique de la mystique musulmane. In this book, Massignon explained terms in Islamic mysticism by setting them side by side with earlier Christian usages and also comparable Hindu and Buddhist expressions. In 1968, Merton was especially struck by the intention of Massignon, who, as we have seen, claimed to have received the intercession of al-Hallaj, to be after “experiential knowledge”: to search “beneath outward behavior of the person for a grace which is wholly divine.” Already by that time, Merton had searched for that grace in non-Christian religions. He wrote to Czeslaw Milosz on January 18, 1962:
I cannot be a Catholic unless it made quite clear to the world that I am a Jew and a Moslem, unless I am execrated as a Buddhist and denounced for having undermined all that this comfortable and social Catholicism stands for: this lining up of cassocks, this regimenting of birettas. I throw my biretta in the river. (But I don’t have one.)
Merton claimed that he would be “less a monk” if he excluded the “experiential knowledge” of these non-Christian influences, noting in his journal that “Massignon and Foucauld were both converted to Christianity by the witness of Islam to the one, true, living God.” In 1966, Merton stayed up late on the 27th night of Ramadan to pray in solidarity with Muslims. That same year, he actually met a Sufi master who had come to Gethsemani. One of Merton’s biographers writes that he “sensed that he and Sidi Abdeslam were able to communicate beyond the translated words.” Merton wrote to Dom Jean Leclerq, “We had a true Sufi master from Algeria here. A most remarkable person. It was like meeting a Desert Father or someone out of the Bible.”
Merton had also engaged in a very personal correspondence since 1960 with a Muslim student of Sufism in Karachi named Ch. Abdul Aziz, who had read Merton’s The Ascent of Truth and gotten the author’s address from Louis Massignon. Merton always ended his letters with an invocation such as
I believe that our friendship is a blessing from God that will bring much light to us both, and help Him to be made known through us. All glory and praise by to Him Who shows himself in all things infinitely merciful and a lover of all that He has created.
And, indeed, as Fr Griffith notes, in an October 28, 1964 letter, Merton anticipated Vatican II’s Nostra Aetate, asking, “How can one be in contact with the great thinkers and men of prayer of the various religions without recognizing that these men have known God and have loved Him because they recognized themselves loved by Him?” Regarding the salvation of non-Christians, Merton wrote to Abdul Aziz
Obviously the destiny of each individual person is a matter of his personal response to the truth and to the manifestation of God’s will to him, and not merely a matter of belonging to this or that organization. Hence it follows that any man who follows his faith and his conscience, and responds truthfully and sincerely to what he believes to be the manifestation of the will of God, cannot help being saved by God.
Merton did say that some ways to God “are more perfect and more complete than others,” but, given his belief that Muslim contemplatives could truly meet God, he suggested a new form of encounter between Christians and Muslims:
Personally in matters where dogmatic beliefs differ, I think that controversy is of little value because it takes us away from the spiritual realities into the realm of words and ideas. In the realm of realities we may have a great deal in common, where in words there are apt to be infinite complexities and subtleties which are beyond resolution. It is, however, important, I think, to try to understand the experience of divine light, and first of all the light that God gives us even as the Creator and Ruler of the Universe. It is here that the area of fruitful dialogue exists between Christianity and Islam.
When Abdul Aziz did ask about a doctrine, specifically that of the Holy Trinity, Merton tried to find a spiritual common ground:
The question of Tawhid [the confession that God is one] is of course central and I think that the closest to Islam among the Christian mystics on this point are the Rhenish and Flemish mystics of the fourteenth century, including Meister Eckhart, who was greatly influenced by Avicenna. The culmination of their mysticism is in the “Godhead” beyond “God” (a distinction which caused trouble to many theologians in the Middle Ages and is not accepted without qualifications) but at any rate it is an ascent to perfect and ultimate unity beyond the triad in unity of the Persons.
Regarding Our Lady, Merton saw a mystical connection in the devotion to Our Lady of Fatima, since the town of Fatima was named after Muhammad’s daughter. Merton, a self-confessed “pilgrim and exile in life” had the mission to be the “friend and brother of people everywhere, especially those who are exiles and pilgrims like myself.” As Fr Griffith writes about Merton’s interest in Islam, “Throughout it all Merton was becoming not less a monk but more a holy man on the model of the desert heroes of Christian antiquity whom he so much admired. Typically they encountered the Other and returned to the society they left to communicate what they learned.”
When the inquisitive Abdul Aziz asked about Merton’s own methods of meditation, the usually reticent Merton was even able to reply with language drawn from Sufism, showing the real depth of his interest in Islam:
Strictly speaking I have a very simple way of prayer. It is centered entirely on attention to the presence of God and to His will and His love. That is to say that it is centered on faith by which alone we can know the Presence of God. One might say this gives my meditation the character described by the Prophet as “being before God as if you saw Him.” … My prayer tends very much toward what you call fana. There is in my heart this great thirst to recognize totally the nothingness of all that is not God. My prayer is then a kind of praise rising up out of the center of Nothing and Silence.
The invocation of fana shows that the heart of Merton’s spiritual life was close to the heart of ascetical Sufism; Sufis speak of the need for “annihilation” (fana) of all that is not God in oneself and of the mystical presence of God (baqa) dwelling within the saint as a witness to the Real. Merton wrote to Aziz that “there is in my heart this great thirst to recognize totally the nothingness of all that is not God.” And it would be from Louis Massignon, the scholar and mystic converted to Christianity by the witness of Islam, that he learned the phrase le point vierge, so important for his own spiritual experience. Massignon himself derived it from al-Hallaj. Merton would write of le point vierge:
At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. It is so to speak His name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, as our sonship. It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely.
And, so, Merton found a “grace wholly divine” in Islam. If, in the distress of the present, we can only imagine Islam as “an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage,” this is a grace that will be lost to us.