A love for Islam - our heritage

A love for Islam - our heritage

I lived in Paris for most of my youth.  I wanted to enter the Little Sisters of Jesus from a very early age.  My generation was very marked by the Algerian war.  We thought about it practically every day. I also had student friends who were Algerian.   So when I entered, the year after Independence, I expressed my desire to live in Algeria.  I knew Muslims but hadn’t a clue about Islam.  I was really concerned to find out about these people who had suffered so much in their thirst for dignity and freedom.  I imagined l would live in an Algerian slum but I was sent to El Abiodh Sidi Cheikh, in the desert.   It was where the Little Brothers of Jesus began and had also served as a training place for the Community of the Little Sisters of Jesus.  Today, to be acquainted with the places and the reality of those first communities in Algeria is part of our training in as far as possible.

Touggourt tea timeTouggourt tea time

Founding friendships

So first of all I was a postulant in El Abiodh then in Touggourt, where Little sister Magdeleine (1898 – 1989) our foundress, had started the first community of Little sisters with the help of our first friends both sedentary and nomad. The tradition of taking tea with them every Saturday afternoon has been faithfully kept. Our foundress loved to repeat what this friendship meant to her: “The builders and some of the nomad families were truly among the very first friends at the time of the foundation. They were my only friends at the very beginning. I was condemned by everyone so I would go to their tents for consolation. They had such confidence and such faith.  I believe that in God’s plan they had been chosen to collaborate with me from the start.  I worked and I suffered with them over the founding of the Community.

Between myself and them there was such a great love that can never be equalled  because they were my very first friends and I lived for a time completely alone with them.  Around  me people said I was mad but I was so sure of them that I believe this very confidence protected me”

Little sister Magdeleine had an unshakeable belief that friendship was always possible between human beings no matter what obstacles there might be between them.  She wrote: “I want you to believe that true and deep friendship is possible between two people that do not share the same religion,  race or background.”

She wanted our friendship to be full of deep respect, total confidence and absolute sincerity.

We are convinced that what happened at the beginning has marked us in who we are today.  Likewise Father de Foucauld’s vocation would have been other if he hadn’t lived alone in Tamanrasset among the Touaregs.

This way of friendship and sharing of life was what influenced me at the start of my religious life and I keep it as a precious inheritance.  I see that today the little sister novices who came this year to Touggourt had this same experience with the children and the grandchildren of those first friends who wanted to carry on living that same friendship.

Bishop Gabriel Piroird, the Emeritus Archbishop of Constantine took part in the celebrations for the fiftieth anniversary of the foundation, he wrote: - “What struck me most was the presence of those very first friends.  They were Muslim by religion but they understood that little sister Magdeleine had something of special importance, something which was beyond their grasp but which had to do with them.  Her project was as much their “affair” as hers.  If that is true, the congregation is not primarily the work of little sister Magdeleine but the fruit of her friendship with the people of Touggourt.  This is unique and a first in the history of the Church.

Most Congregations were founded to respond to a need in a particular place or in a given age. A charism is the putting into practice, from inside the Church of a particular aspect of the mystery of Christ.

It seems to me that the Congregation of the little sisters was born from an encounter between people of different origins, background and religion.  We have all remained who we are. In point of fact the friends Little sister Magdeleine met in Touggourt in 1939 remain Muslims and as far as it’s possible to judge, their faith is quite classical.   Yet, this encounter, where all concerned remain true to themselves, has given rise to a new Congregation.

El Abiodh in our tentEl Abiodh in our tent

Our inheritance is the outcome of a covenant which began in this land of Algeria, where Little sister Magdeleine dreamed of living for many years without ever realising her dream – the Promised Land?   In any event it was about encountering Muslims and also those who were nomads, who were very poor, semi-sedentary, living at the edge of this little village. When I arrived in Touggourt we were no longer among nomads, but the little sisters were constantly repeating that we must not forget that we were made to share the life of this marginalised people, not in order to make them settled, but rather to become one of them.    So much so, that after my first profession, when we were making plans to reopen the tent which had been closed during the war, I asked to be sent there.

A nomadic life

 The nomads in the region around El Abiodh rear cattle and they go from place to place with their camels and donkeys. They also have lorries which are used to feed their flocks of sheep and goats.  We were part of a clan who adopted us and we had a small flock of sheep which we looked after ourselves with a few donkeys. We moved from place to place in the vicinity. Having communities of little brothers and sisters in the nearby village made it easier to buy food and to celebrate the Eucharist together.  We made a chapel out of in one of the tents.

El AbiodhEl Abiodh

We had to learn practically everything about this way of life and our friends showed us how to manage with much patience and indulgence.  You see in the desert it is not possible to live alone. One is utterly dependent on others.  Many of the jobs are done together like going to look for wood or fetching water or repairing the tents.  We were also able to provide some medical help.  Living in France makes one think one can easily be on top of everything.  Not so in the nomadic life.  One lets events be the guide, because they are sent by God: rain or sunshine or an unexpected guest.  Each one is called to live abandonment to God in all that makes up daily life.  Rich pastures or drought are all willed by God. I recall grumbling one day over a fierce sandstorm which brought down our tents, blinded us and dried up the pastureland.  At least when it rains we suffer a bit for a good reason because we know it will make the grass grow!   However a neighbour replied sharply “But who are you to say such things! What do you know about it?  God alone knows.” Islam is an invitation to be abandoned to God.  Nothing escapes Him. He holds everything in His hands.  It’s true to say that putting everything into His hands entails a certain offloading of responsibility.   However this realisation of the transcendence of God made me more conscious of my own Christian faith: it was my Muslim friends who made me aware of this.  When times were very dark and difficult, their faith enabled them to make the hard decisions to send their children to school, to go out and leave for work.   They had to keep on telling themselves “My own life and that of my children are in God’s hands.”  Not long ago, one of the little brothers died in an accident in Beni-Abbes.  Everybody came to offer their condolences saying: “It was God’s decision.”  It really consoled me to have the support of their friendship and of their faith even though our way of reacting would be different and we have the right to cry out our pain...

Beyond their ritual prayers, I’ve discovered their personal relationship with God. I remember an aged neighbour alone in her tent being asked by a little sister if she didn’t get bored.  She replied: “I pray.”  “But what do you say to God?”  “I tell Him that He is beautiful”

The Algerian authorities would not allow us to remain living in the tent when the situation became violent, and we still can not return, but we keep in close contact with our nomad friends whether they are settled or still living in the desert.

 “We are made for Islam”

In the early years of the Community, Little sister Magdeleine used to say “We are madefor Islam.”  She was afraid that we would abandon Islam.  In fact, there were some little sisters who asked to go and live among other peoples rather than among Muslims.  After a time of prayer at St. Baume near Marseille, Sister Magdeleine understood that we need to open out to the whole world. She wrote:  “On 26th July 1946, at St. Baume, I understood for certain, it was as if an interior bright light came to me- that the Community had to extend to the whole world and so become universal. It meant that I should renounce a very dear idea of the Community of the little sisters of Jesus being consecrated exclusively to our Muslim brothers and sisters. However, we continue to offer our lives as a living sacrifice for them and a quarter of our communities are established among Muslims.”  Later she was to write “I’ve widened our orientation. We are a “Universal Community” but Islam will remain at the heart as a centre for unity.  This centralisation will prevent any dispersion of strength both morally and spiritually.  As far as we’re concerned it’s something which is both vital and essential.”

In IraqIn Iraq

A love for a particular group does not necessarily exclude others!  Her love for this small nomadic Algerian people in the Sahara was the start of Little sister Magdeleine’s travels to the near East.  A good Egyptian friend, who had become a little sister, introduced her. (later on Little sister Magdeleine was to make a tour round the world).   Love that is sincere cannot be closed in on itself.  As she came into contact with the Arab Christians of the near East she not only discovered a people of Arabic culture and language but she found a Church of living witnesses to the Christian faith since the foundation of Islam.  As far as she was concerned witness to Christianity was always rooted in the ecclesial community.  It concerned God’s plan.  One of the patriarchs of these Eastern churches put it like this: - “Our life alongside our Muslim brothers and sisters down the centuries represents a fundamental experience and there’s no going back on it.  It’s part of God’s plan for us.”

We’re in a time when the Arab world is going through such shattering events, when the Christianity of these countries runs the risk of disappearing.    Why are we there and what are we being called to?

Spirituality of Nazareth and Bethlehem

Little sister Magdeleine always thought of herself first and foremost as a disciple of Father de Foucauld.  Brother Charles found God through his contact with Muslims, chiefly during his explorations of Morocco.  He even claimed he had been tempted by the simplicity of the Muslim faith.  The people who welcomed him into their “Zaouis” (homes) also saved his life. During his travels he lived in very poorly and doubtless experienced scorn.  I’ve often thought that on pilgrimage in the Holy Land having rediscovered his Christian faith , which took him to Nazareth, he must have been reminded of Morocco and said to himself that Jesus had also lived that scorn.   He wrote in a letter to a friend:  “The Incarnation has its source in God’s goodness.  However there’s something which springs to mind that is so marvellous, so astonishing that it shines out like a beacon.  It is the infinite humility which such a mystery expresses”.  Nazareth was precisely that – a facet of God which dazzled him.  He went down to Nazareth with them.  His whole life through he did nothing but go down.  He went down at the Incarnation, went down when He became a baby, went down by being obedient, went down by being poor, abandoned, in exile, when persecuted, having to beg and by always taking the lowest place.”

This same passion  for the Incarnation, for human beings and for identifying with them in the way that  yeast is mixed in with dough is passed on to us by sister Magdeleine.  For her the doorway is not Nazareth but Bethlehem: - “God, out of extreme love wanted to live the condition of the powerlessness of a newborn infant.  It is the only state which puts a being into another’s hands in a state of total abandon.”   In the light of the Incarnation, just as at Nazareth, we see the face of God in a humanity which is simple, poor and wordless.

Brother Charles wanted to “Cry the Gospel by his whole life”

What does that mean if it is not to allow Jesus to become flesh in us?  To do with us as He wishes.

Touggourt with Little sister JeanneTouggourt with Little sister Jeanne

Heart speaks to heart

What we live is not the result of any inter religious dialogue, besides we do not encounter Islam as such but rather we become friends with the people who live it. The "children of Islam" as Christian de Cherge would have said. It is more a sharing of life where each one gives and receives. Cardinal Duval who was the Archbishop of Algeria used to speak of "a dialogue of hearts" and what follows gives you an example:

- A very good Muslim friend of Father Claverie told us:  "In Algeria there is a Muslim church. It consists of all those women and all those men who recognise one another in the message of universal love. It is much more numerous than you imagine, moreover, you can only live in Algeria because we exist.

- At a time when we were accused of proselytising, somebody I did not know stopped me during a journey to say: "l just want to tell you that I have a deep respect for the people of your religion." He added that he was friendly with a Protestant pastor and his family.

- One of the first friends of Little sister Magdeleine, who is still alive, speaks of a "divine" friendship i.e. a friendship willed by God. Coming from God and which will last as long as we are faithful to God.

- Brother Milad who was one of the first little brothers of Jesus and who spent all his life in El Abiodh declared: "When our friends are dying and they meet Jesus they should be able to say: "But I know who you are, I've met you already."