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A Review of
No Peace Without Prayer: Encouraging Muslims and Christians to Pray Together, A Benedictine Approach
Paperback: Liturgical Press, 2014
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Reviewed by Amy Gentile and Liz Strout
Notes: This review, a fitting one for the Feast of St. Francis this weekend, was co-written by Amy Gentile and Liz Strout, who grew up in the same Baptist church and later converted to Eastern Orthodoxy and Sunni Islam, respectively. We read and discussed this book together, requesting it for review as we found the topic both timely and personally important.
Through the advent of technology, the world has grown increasingly more connected. We no longer have the privilege of remaining in isolated, homogenous communities (ethnic, religious, or sociopolitical). Ultimately, we would argue that’s a good thing, but it is not always easy, especially when there is a long-standing history of conflict and even violence. We must move forward with avenues of dialogue and peace-making, even when it is difficult. It is in this vein that Abbot Timothy Wright writes No Peace Without Prayer: Encouraging Muslims and Christians to Pray Together, A Benedictine Approach. He brings his experiences organizing dialogues between Catholic monks and Shi’a Muslims as well as a generous spirit to this text, setting forward a “framework, adaptable to the widely differing situations in which Muslims and Christians live side by side.” (16) This type of dialogue—whether between Christians and Muslims or any other differing communities—is a necessity in a globalized age, and we should all be echoing the call for dialogue, compassion, and ultimately peace.
Wright’s book contained so many helpful points about creating a healthy space for dialogue between the Muslim and Christian communities. The first third of the book was the most beneficial in that regard. In this section, Wright touches on two points in particular that we found to be extremely profound and insightful suggestions for communities wishing to build strong dialogue: “healing” negative memories and the shared concept of “remembering God.”
Wright doesn’t shy away from discussing the difficulties in fostering strong dialogue. He spends a chapter discussing the need to address past grievances and painful wrongs. This seems especially necessary in communities where different groups were not merely historically separated but marked by violence and oppression. Wright notes that “the healing process requires an admission of guilt and assurance of forgiveness in the sure understanding that the One God is a God of mercy and forgiveness. Once forgiveness has happened, quoting Paul Ricoeur, ‘memory is liberated for great projects. Forgiveness gives memory a future.’” (30) Though it would be simpler, we cannot just move into a place of dialogue by ignoring the past. Yet dealing with the past means acknowledging wrongs done by both communities and choosing to move forward together into forgiveness. This seems to be a prerequisite for dialogue, and especially for peace.
Wright also discusses memory in another context, this time as a shared practice of remembering God together, especially through Muslim and Christian scriptures and prayers. Wright specifically describes the practices of lectio divina (Christian) and dhikr (Muslim) as ways to constantly keep God in mind, to remember God in every action and moment. This shared concept of remembering God and being aware of His presence through reading scriptures and praying together can help us to recognize the work of God in the other. As Wright states, “the Revealed Word continues to inspire, encourage, and affirm, while creating something new between us. For the work of God will not be finished until every Muslim and every Christian can look each other in the eye and recognize God, alive and active in that mind and heart.” (79) He adds later that, “in the never-forgetting-mind of God, there is space for all. The richness of the Word inspires participants, opens them to its meaning, from whatever page it is read or from whichever mouth it is uttered.” (87) Wright asserts that we should approach these dialogues with an openness of mind and heart, being willing to listen for the “echo” of God in each other’s traditions.
However, while this willingness to listen, to read Scripture, and pray together is essential for building good dialogue and healing relationships, there were a few places in the book where it felt like Wright almost leaned into universalism. He suggests that despite their differences, God speaks to each religion but in different ways, “As dialogue continues…the voice of God is heard from a different, unfamiliar direction. What has been two traditions of spirituality now comes together in the firm conviction that the revealing God speaks to each through difference,” (81) a line of thought that is echoed several times in the book. This may prove to be an area of concern for many Christians and Muslims who might be ready to discuss differences and learn from one another, but would feel uncomfortable with language that implies that God has somehow equally inspired the other religion.
On a related note, we were confused at points as to the intended audience of the book. That made it a little unclear to gauge how readers of differing Christian and Muslim traditions would be able to resonate with Wright’s points. For example, there was a heavy focus on Sufism throughout the book. Just as Benedictines are a very small minority in Christendom, Sufis are a minority within the Islamic world, particularly the hyper-ethereal version of Sufism that is detailed in Wright’s chapters on mysticism and dhikr. While non-Benedictine Christians may struggle to relate to the Benedictine practices mentioned – lectio divina, Camaldolese mysticism, and even the routine prayers of the Divine Office – non-Sufis, who comprise the majority of Muslims, will not only find the material unrelatable, but likely even heretical to their own beliefs. We imagine that the majority of Christians and Muslims picking up this book to gain insight on how best to dialogue with one another will end up looking elsewhere for resources focusing on the major points of doctrine and practice that are common to most adherents, rather than a select few mystics and monks, who, while it is vital to include them in discussion, represent only a small fraction of the two faiths.