Holy men share their wisdom

The holy men of the Middle East - the men in black dresses, as Yvonne Seng refers to them - more often than not present a forbidding, austere, and humorless front to the world. Steeped in tradition, they can appear anachronistic.

Yet in a series of rare interviews with these "wisdommakers," Professor Seng found their sense of the world and the future to be surprisingly hip, humorous, inclusive - and unexpectedly open.

"I was truly surprised by these men in the desert," Seng says of her travels through Syria and Egypt.

Her desire to talk to these Muslim clerics, Coptic archbishops, and Sufi mystics was to ascertain "the state of the human soul in this new age of technology," she wrote in her book, "Men in Black Dresses: A Quest for the Future Among Wisdom Makers of the Middle East" (2003).

What she found, across faiths, was a pragmatism, a willingness to embrace the future, and an unexpected inclusiveness - including the idea that there are many paths to God.

Although the perspective of these religious elders may seem at odds with the region's apparent growing fundamentalism, Seng says they represent a broader thought. "If you have the bell curve, they're the whole center of the bell," she says. "These are the people who guide the majority of the populations."

Yet their voices and views rarely reach the Western press because they grant few interviews and shy away from making political statements. Seng was granted audiences on the understanding that politics would not be raised. "I wanted to speak to them about more enduring matters," she says.

When presented with the ethical dilemma of cloning or the possibility of aliens in outer space, or miracles happening today, says Seng, their response was usually, "Why not?"

The reason for this receptivity, she believes, is the region's sense of history.

In Damascus Syrians walk The Street Called Straight that Paul stumbled along in his blindness. In Egypt, the Copts refer to themselves as the sons of the pharaohs.

Their sense of identity and the long history of invention in the region - the earliest writing, alchemy, and geometry began there - mean that these new scientific discoveries and decisions are part of long continuum.

This openness to modern science, she says, also grows from their belief that "everything has been created. Man is just discovering it. And if we're not discovering it," she says, "it means we don't have the right tools or the right attitude."

Ultimately, though, these wise men see humankind on a self-destructive path, Seng says.

The grand sheikh of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Mohammed Tantawi, says man's role is one of "caretaker." "The earth we are polluting and destroying comprises the spiritual and physical raw ingredients for the creation of future generations," Seng writes in summarizing his view.

Yet the two critical factors in our downward trajectory, these holy men say, are the indiscriminate use of technology and the loss of social glue.

All those she interviewed embraced technology as a means to benefit humanity, Seng says. But unless scientists have discretion, morality, and ethics, they will eventually bring about the destruction of the planet, these holy men believe.

Added to this is the dissolving social glue. They see communities breaking apart as people lose their core values - mercy, kindness, and respect.

Bishop Musa, a Egyptian Copt in charge of the church's youth ministries, concedes that negotiating the future will require more discernment. With the hourly onslaught of information and nothing off limits on the Internet - especially pornography - discernment is critical, he told Seng, and something we must teach the young. The communication and information revolution is out of control. "It's like a car without a driver," Seng says. But the pragmatism among these men took her aback. "I expected them to say, 'no, no, no. We're not going to let the kids on the Internet.' "

Instead, many of them have their own websites, and Bishop Musa runs a cyberconfessional. At the same time, however, he worries that culture is geared increasingly toward feeding the mind and body rather than the spirit.

Wisdom comes from the heart, these religious thinkers unanimously said to Seng. This doesn't mean education isn't highly valued. But because people are not thinking with their hearts, they're forgetting how to be more open to others and care for them, she says. "We put a price tag on everyone. We debate instead of cutting through all the dogma," she says.

That intellectualism, along with materialism and the pace of life, would make America a hard place to have a spiritual life, surmised Dr. Adel Beshai, former assistant to Pope Kyrillos, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Dr. Beshai said of spiritual people: "They don't talk a lot, don't lecture."

But how do you learn to think with the heart, Seng asked.

Archbishop Damianos, known as Father of the Desert, like many of the holy men, advocated silence. He told Seng: "You can have a desert in the heart." In other words, Seng explains, you can build a quiet place for yourself among all the noise and static - and that's where you learn to think with the heart.

When Seng asked these wise men what peace looked like to them, she sensed their exhaustion, she says. "The person who summed it up for me was the Syriac Orthodox pope.... He sagged, and said: 'Peace is a tired old man.' You could see the struggle in him," she says.

The Syriac patriarch, Pope Zakka, sitting in his dusty cathedral in the Old Quarter of Damascus, voiced what Seng had heard from others - the desire to bring about peace in a tangible way was centuries old and these people, although positive themselves, were struggling to keep the center.

"Inclusiveness is the key to our survival as a planet."

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