LAST FEBRUARY, during a reporting trip to Iran, I was unexpectedly invited to see Ayatollah Khomeini. The encounter occurred at Khomeini's quiet home in Jamaran, a small village set on a mountain just north of Tehran.

The visit offered a rare portrait of Ayatollah Khomeini as he talks with friends and supporters -- quiet, religious, critical of the Soviet Union -- rather than the bombastic personality familiar to Western audiences. Seeing Khomeini in this setting was especially valuable for me, as a Christian whose cultural and religious heritage varies so widely from that of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

I was the only Western journalist present. The other visitors included leaders of the Afghan mujahedin, some senior officials of the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah, and some Islamic fundamentalists from Egypt. One of the Hezbollah men was the father of a suicide bomber who had attacked an Israeli facility in South Lebanon.

Security was strict: Guards kept my watch, pen -- even my ring -- until I was ready to leave. As we waited for Khomeini, the room was filled with excitement. The Hezbollah members were chanting Khomeini's name and shouting anti-Israel slogans.

Khomeini entered with a sure step and a fresh look, belying Western reports that he is a sick man on the verge of death. Although his face was impassive, his eyes fixed sharply on each person. The meeting lasted roughly 30 minutes, after which Khomeini left as energetically as he had entered.

For that half-hour, Khomeini held the audience spellbound. The visitors sat transfixed as he spoke. Wewere silent, except for those who wept. Each was conscious of the powerful presence of a man who had dramatically changed the history of the last quarter of this century and perhaps beyond.

Khomeini talked of the meaning of martyrdom in Islam, and the war against Iraq. He was accompanied by his son Ahmad, his constant companion. Next to me sat Hojatollislam Muhammad Khatami, the minister of Islamic guidance.

The imam addressed us in a strong, clear voice. "You are fighting for a divine cause," he told the Hezbollah and mujahedin men.

"When you draw your sword for the cause of Allah, this is a divine and precious motive. But if you draw it for Satan, then it is devilish and has no value," he declared.

"It is a pleasure to be martyred for Islam, which is why our youths are going to the war fronts to welcome their martyrdom. Death is always to be treasured when met for the Almighty, and all worldly acts should be done for His sake."

The leader of the Islamic Revolution drew a comparison between his own movement, which ousted the shah in 1979, and other world revolutions. "It is important to understand the cause which led to the revolution, and to survey its accomplishments," before assigning its value, he explained.

The French, Russian and other popular revolutions were inspired by purely secular ideas, Khomeini stated. But, he said, the Iranian revolution "has been for Islam: It was not for the country, nor for the nation, nor to establish a state. Rather, it was to save Islam from the evil of the superpowers, of the foreign criminals."

Khomeini contended that this religious principle applies on the battlefield, as well.

"Iranian troops die for the love of Islam and the cause of Allah," he told us, while Soviet soldiers would go to the battlefront merely to "conquer a country."

Martyrdom has claimed Iranians of all ages -- including men, women and children -- without diminishing the spirit of their survivors, Khomeini said. He claimed that Iraqi attacks against civilians have only increased popular resolve to fight until victory.

As Khomeini spoke of the war and Islam, his voice was calm:

"You are witnessing Iran's daily exposure to bombardment, to the death of many children, old people and other peaceful civilians, with their houses crashing down on their heads. Yet in spite of all this, they come out from under the debris chanting and shouting that the war must continue until victory.

"This is the driving force our youth possess, and which we hope will reach all of us, too. In fact, whenever I hear what these young people say, or whenever I see their joy and happiness at the front, in the frightful battle lines, advancing in the face of obstacles and fire with joy, pride and high morale, I am full of admiration, and at the same time dismayed not to have reached this level.

"Let all the forces that drive you be Godly and try to put this spirit in your people not for territorial gain, not for this world, so that they may imagine this world is everlasting. The days of this world will linger, then they will vanish. 'All that shall remain will be that which is for God and for His ways: What you have shall come to an end, while that which God has shall endure.' The phrase which God has in this verse {from the Koran} means those acts which a person performs for God's sake. These are the acts which remain eternal. Acts done by man for the sake of his desires and for worldly goals shall decay and disappear.

"Therefore, I invite you to look closely at the conditions of the Iranian people, with the hope that these same divine driving forces shall find them to the point they can be rid of foreign intruders. I implore God to make our youth the victors, these youth who have dashed into battle from the first day in order to see Islam win, rescued from the evil of the great powers, and the devious ones within Moslem states.

"I ask God to lead them by the hand until there are Islamic governments in all places and that all be blessed with Islamic justice. What we mean by Islamic justice is that the governments that exist in the Moslem world shall rule by Islamic standards. We hope that this will be realized slowly in all corners of the world, under just governments.

"I ask God in all his glory that Islam be the victor and that He show pity to the martyrs of Islam, who have dedicated their lives in its service and for the fulfillment of its noble goals. I also ask God that He cure with haste those who have been injured, and to free those who have been taken prisoner in the war, so they may return to their relatives. I ask God to look after all and everyone in this world, and in the hereafter.

"May God's peace and blessings be upon you."

Then Khomeini was gone. As he departed, some in the room shouted "Long live the imam." The rest were silent, but for those who still wept.

The visit with Khomeini was a reminder that for all the strategic importance of Iran, the motivations of its leader remain intensely religious. Although charismatic and clearly in command, Khomeini is detached from worldly objectives. Where most Mideast leaders live like kings in splendid palaces, Khomeini still lives humbly. He remains devoted to his cause, which is Islam and Allah. George Nader is the editor of Middle East Insight, a bimonthly magazine that covers contemporary Middle East affairs. A longer account of Nader's trip to Iran appears in the current issue of his magazine.