A Muslim and a Christian on the Road to Emmaus

Douglas P. McManaman
May 2, 2017
Reproduced with Permission

What always strikes me about the story of the road to Emmaus is that the disciples failed to recognize Jesus; while they were conversing and debating, Jesus himself drew near and walked with them, but their eyes were prevented from recognizing him. What was it that prevented them from recognizing him? I think the answer lies at the end of the reading. What was it that opened their eyes to recognizing him? The answer is the "breaking of the bread"; the Eucharist, which is the fundamental and central prayer of the Church; it is Christ in the act of sacrificing himself for us, and it is the act of receiving Christ in this sacrificial act. It is an act of communion, an entering into union with him. It is not in debating that we find him, it is in prayer that we begin to recognize him where we didn't recognize him before.

This reminds me of a great story of a Trappist monk, Dom Christian de Chergé, whose cause for beatification has begun. He was the prior of the Monastery of Our Lady of Atlas in Algeria. Those monks had a great relationship with the Muslim villagers. The monks served them, and the villagers would invite them to their celebrations (i.e., birthdays, weddings, etc.), which the Monks gladly attended. Eventually, however, the monks were kidnapped and murdered by Muslim radicals hostile to the French.

But before that time, before he was a priest, when studying for the priesthood, he was a young staff officer of the French army. He was assigned to a certain district in Algeria and it was at that time when he met Mohammed, whose duty it was to protect the harvest, the roads, and public utilities. They developed a very good relationship, but what really cemented their friendship was their common love of God. What Christian found surprising is that, with Mohammed, he could talk unselfconsciously about God, unlike in France, where talking about God made people uncomfortable. And Mohammad would challenge Christian: "You Christians don't know how to pray. We never see French soldiers praying. You say you believe in God. How can you not pray if you believe in God?" That was a question that Dom Christian says he had difficulty answering.

One day they (Mohammed and Christian) were making their rounds through the villages unarmed when suddenly they found themselves face to face with Muslim rebels, guns pointed at Christian's chest. Mohammad stepped in front of the guns and said: "This soldier is a godly man and a friend of Muslims". The rebels withdrew without harming Christian, but the next day they found Mohammad with his throat slit, lying by a well near his home where he lived with his wife and ten children.

This event had a profound influence on Dom Christian. He said it was the act that sealed his decision to become a monk in the Atlas Mountains in Algeria. He reflects: "Mohammed had given his life like Christ. He had imitated Christ. This act is celebrated in every Eucharist where Christians memorialize the gift that Christ made of his life and where each person is invited to enter into this gift to the praise of the Father." For Christian, every Eucharist signified the gift of Mohammed's life; in other words, in the Eucharistic gift of Mohammed, he recognized the gift of Christ himself.

And of course, there is no doubt about it, in loving Christian and giving his life for him, Mohammed loved Christ. Both of them were on the road to Emmaus; both of them did not realize at first that the person right beside him was Christ. Christian discovered it in Mohammed's sacrifice, and of course he believes that Mohammed discovered, in paradise, that his love for his friend Christian was all along a love of Christ.

Pascal once said that the "heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing". In other words, love takes us into regions where the intellect, on its own, has no access, but once within those regions, the intellect begins to see what it otherwise would have missed. That's why we truly come to know God through prayer. Study is important, but through study we come to know about God, in prayer we come to know God. Discussion and debate are one thing, and they have their place, but they don't take us into the heart of God. Only the heart can reach the heart of God, and it is in the heart of God that we discover who our neighbor is. In other words, only in the heart of God do we discover that our neighbor is Christ. That's a perception that the intellect on its own is not capable of. And that is the problem with all fundamentalism, whether we are talking about Catholic fundamentalism, Evangelical fundamentalism, Islamic fundamentalism, Hindu or Jewish fundamentalism, or the political fundamentalism of the Left and Right. Fundamentalists believe that what they see with their heads only is complete and exhaustive - they have no sense of the limitations of their own way of seeing reality. They fail to realize that reality is much larger and far more complex than what is given through their own limited understanding. And so they take it upon themselves to be God's spokesperson; history is filled with prophets of God who represent Him with great confidence and assurance - and of course they usually end up doing more harm than good.

But it is only within the context of his Eucharistic sacrifice that our eyes are opened, the eyes of the heart. In other words, only through love do we come to know God who dwells within our neighbor, and if we love, we will pray, and if we pray, we enter into the humility of God. With that humility, we begin to see others as God sees them.