MAR MUSA – Oasis of Peace in the Syrian Desert

Meridijani, December 2009

“Ahlan wa sahlan! Ahlan wa sahlan wa marhaba!” Father Paolo would thunder hoarsely each time a newcomer would appear on the terrace of the stone monastery Mar Musa. Like a fortress, it rises from a cliff along a dry riverbed and watches over a great expanse of the Syrian Desert. He would then immediately drop whatever he is doing and rush to welcome his new guest. This grey-haired and bearded, burly monk with impulsive gestures in an ascetic gown would then tightly squeeze his guest’s hand in a bear-hug of a handshake, and smile warmly. He would repeat this procedure each time a new guest would crouch through the only entrance to the monastery, a small and low gateway. That Friday, a holy and nonworking day in Muslim nations, many local Arabic Muslims and Christians visited the monastery. Among them were also a few Jews, a delegation of Armenian priests with long black beards, several people from Northern Europe that had come for spiritual retreat, a group of Japanese tourists, and a few romantic travelers on an epic journey around the world without a penny in their pockets. No matter who would come, be it a stylish old lady or a poor local wearing the only gown he owns, be it dignitaries of a church or vagabonds that sleep under open skies and walk the earth barefooted, father Paolo would approach each of them with equal enthusiasm and welcome them with an equally warm smile. Some guests whisper to themselves how father Paolo’s serenity, goodwill, and warm heart give the impression that he is a saint, or at least a wise man. And the many deep wrinkles that spread like waves from the corners of his eyes from years of hearty laughter, just confirm this.

Father Paolo dall’Oglio (54) came to Syria to study Islamic culture after he had finished his regular studies and taken his vows in Italy. He learned Arabic and dreamed of working on increasing understanding between Christians and Muslims, with the utopia-like vision of achieving world peace, and oftentimes he retreated to the desert to pray and meditate. During one such retreat in 1982, he came across the old ruins of a monastery whose walls still held Byzantine frescos. Through the next seven years, he often visited the monastery together with other enthusiasts. These visits increased with frequency, until finally he decided to settle there and start a community. While they built new homes and restored the old ones, a group of archeologists and team for restoration worked on the monastery. They discovered that people had settled in that region during prehistoric times, when the climate had been completely different.

The monastery is situated eighty kilometers north of Damask where the Anti-Lebanon Mountains meet the Syrian Desert, at an elevation of 1320 meters above sea level. Not so long ago, rivers and streams flowed down these mountains, and green plant life flourished. However, with time, the desert spread and drove away almost all living forms. The barren stone slopes around Mar Musa are rich in caves that had once been home to ascetics, desert nomads rapt with their personal search for God. Legend has it that Musa, the son of Egypt’s king, accompanied them. He renounced his secular kingdom, benefits, and marriage, and dedicated his life to searching for God’s kingdom. After having traveled through Egypt and the Holy Land, he set roots in the desert caves near today’s monastery. Because of miracles that had occurred after he died a martyr’s death to the Byzantine army, The Church proclaimed Musa a saint.

The numbers of ascetics living in these caves increased with time, and eventually they formed a desert community. They built their first monastery in the sixth century, but the one whose ruins father Paolo found was built in the same area in 1508. Besides the year of establishment, the inscription that is witness to this reads, “In the name of God the Gracious, the Merciful.” The frescos along the walls of the small church within the monastery date back to the eleventh and twelfth century.

Every day at sunrise and sunset, the entire community of Mar Musa gathers for prayer and meditation in that little church. Rugs for sitting cover the floor of the church, and a few candles illuminate the dim room. Sounds of fifes and flutes break the serene silence, and the scents of incense fill the room. Among the clergy and laic are Muslims, Christians, and Jews. The basic ritual is Oriental Catholic meditation that is often supplemented with Muslim prayers. The community of Mar Musa formed a special Catholic order that the Vatican officially recognized in 2006. The spiritual basis and main inspiration of this order is Abraham.

After one morning prayer, while we ate a breakfast of olives with goat’s cheese, father Paolo explained to me how Abraham is the central point of all three great monotheist religions – he is recognized and respected by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Unfortunately, through history people have isolated themselves from each other, especially in the Near East, and live with a lack of understanding for one another. There are very few Jews in Syria, but there are many Christians among the mainly Islamic population. These Christians are the direct descendents of the original Christians that had not converted to Islam when it was founded in the seventh century. For centuries, the Muslims and Christians nurtured a positive and equal coexistence, but in recent times, this balance has been disrupted. Many problems and misunderstandings arose that resulted in increasing emigration of Christians. Father Paolo believes that Abraham is the common denominator through which members of all three greater monotheistic religions can renew inter-religious understanding and a healthy coexistence.

Mar Musa Monastery is the brightest spot for inter-religious meetings in the entire region, and people of all three religions go there for inspiration. And all the while, in Golan Heights only a hundred kilometers southward, a cold war between Israelis and Syrians continues, and everywhere throughout Syria, Muslims abhor Jews. In Mar Musa, these disagreements are solved in a completely different manner – here Christians, Muslims, and Jews pray for peace together. Enthralled by the peace that emanates from the desert and this community, some people who visit decide to stay for months, or even years. For example, Kabira Naitraiss, a twenty-eight year old professor of Islamic history.

“This is a Christian monastery in an Islamic country, and I am a Muslim in a Christian monastery!” She laughed, and then with a serious tone explained how her experience in Mar Musa helped her become a better Muslim. “Father Paolo helped me a lot in following the teachings of Islam, although he is a Christian! He says that a true Christian must do his best for a Muslim, and he is a living example of this!”

Kabira led me to the monastery’s library where she volunteers. She showed me the shelves of books in Arabic, English, French, and Italian…Over 10 000 books cover mostly religious matters and relations between religion and culture, but there are also books concerning politics, history, psychology, and art. The most popular books here concern Christian mystics, Kabira explained as she showed me books by Origen, Saint Ignatius of Loyola, Saint Theresa of Avila, and Saint John of the Cross.

One man was sitting on the couch, deeply engrossed in a book he was reading. Kabira said that he had come from Norway for spiritual retreat. He spends most of his days in a cave outside of the monastery, and comes to the monastery only for a humble meal and an occasional visit to the library where he reads about works of the mystics. At the table sat a Syrian priest with a long, curly beard - brother Jihad, a young Frenchman, David Masotto, and a Czech, Lukas Glogar. They sat at the table discussing spiritual questions, and I asked them to tell me about themselves. David described how he left his wealthy family, renounced his material wealth, burned all his money, and headed on a journey around the world without anything. Lukas embarked two years earlier, on a pilgrimage by foot to the Holy Land. When he came to Mar Musa, he liked it so much that he stayed, and has been here for two months now.

The goal of the seven priests and nuns that form the basis of the Mar Musa community is to create an atmosphere in the monastery where people can meet, where “open door” politics is practiced, and where everyone is welcome. “We don’t want to allow it to happen that we close the door to someone because maybe to that very person the experience from Mar Musa could be of outmost significance!” Brother Jihad explained. For this reason, every person that visits Mar Musa must participate equally in chores within the community, no matter whether they are visiting for a day or for a year. And there are always many chores. The community is mainly self-sustained, and most food is grown on irrigated terraced gardens. There are also many domestic animals, as well as a herd of goats that are led daily to pasture. Most energy is provided by solar panels, and most water comes from deep wells. In an ambitious effort, the priests and nuns once built a small dam in the dried riverbed, but the little rain that falls during the winter rarely ever fills it. And when this does happen, the water remains only for a short period of time. New homes are constantly being built, because more and more visitors come, and at the base of the monastery a hotel is being built for tourists.

“During the summer months we sometimes have about thirty regular guests and a hundred tourists that just pass by to take a peek,” Father Paolo joked one afternoon when we all met in the monastery’s porch where the view spread far into the desert expanse. “We constantly need to adjust the conditions here so that our doors can always be open to everyone! With so many people and so few resources, the ecological issue is of fundamental importance! If we don’t have a strategy, and if we don’t learn about ways to revive the environment, then we would be endangering the very possibility of survival of this place of spirituality and community, this oasis of silence and beauty available to everyone!”

He continued speaking energetically like a visionary, and the words just flowed from him with much force and ease. “I am happy when I create this symbolic place of peace, understanding, rest, spirituality, and acceptance of all. Look at this beautiful desert…” He thundered with enthusiasm and elation as his eyes shined dreamingly as if this were his first time seeing the landscape that he woke to every morning for already half of his lifetime. “In many traditions, especially in the Bible, the desert is a place for being with God, a place for spirituality, for intense feelings and mystical experiences. All of that is the desert! It is also a place for solitude, where an individual gains significance as an individual, before God, before himself and towards others. These stones that you see around us…that is earth without clothing, naked! You are forced to confront your explicit, primordial feelings!”

I asked him if it were possible to visit the Norwegian that came to spend a month in Mar Musa for spiritual retreat, and who spent all of his time in an ascetic’s cave. Paolo gave me permission, so the next day I went to see him. Numerous caves dot the whole landscape above the monastery, and some of these are furnished for those who wish to spend several days in fasting and prayer. Each of these is equipped with a stiff bed, a small fireplace for cooking tea, a chest filled with holy books, pots, spices, some dried food, holy icons, and a few candles. Some even have doors in the entrance and a stove for heating during cold winter days. I found the Norwegian in front of one such “luxurious” cave. Øyvind Borgsø, a thirty-nine year old theology teacher, comes to Mar Musa at least once a year to spend a month in spiritual retreat in these havens.

“Each of us has to do the laundry every so often, right?” He enigmatically explained why he comes so often, “This spiritual retreat is some sort of cleansing. It strengthens me so I can confront life. All our life we run from confronting ourselves, we sweep everything under the rug until the pile is so high we trip over it and break our necks. From time to time we need to do some tidying!” Øyvind said how he spends his time in the cave reading the Bible and meditating. Sister Huda, one of the nuns in the monastery, is his mentor, and she visits him every so often to share a word or two as guidance for thought and meditation. He explained how he tries to bring all his sinful tendencies to conscious, to free himself of stereotypes, pride, prejudice, aggression, and destructive thoughts, all in order to come in contact with himself and with God. “There are no other stimuli here, so you are your own mirror. You are forced to face yourself! The desert is a large mirror!”

After a pleasant conversation, I left him to meditate in solitude, and as I exited, I noticed he had a great view. From his seat on the terrace in front of the cave, the view spread far across the desert mountains, all the way to the next mountain chain in the horizon. “I like how I can see those mountains in the distance,” he added with a warm and soft smile, “It’s nice how these mountains form boundaries around the desert, so that it isn’t all open, so that my soul does not wander into infinity!”

Towards the end of my stay, I felt I had befriended everyone there, and I asked father Paolo if he ever went to a cave to meditate. “I do, not as often as when I was young, but I go!” He answered, “I dig into myself and search to see if there still exists some door that I haven’t opened, then I look to see how I can open it!” I wondered what could still bother such a strong and wise man that has an answer for everything, a solution for every dilemma, and a smile for every guest. He passionately strives to bring peace to people in the Middle East, and at times he is surprised, intrigued, and saddened by the human factor.

“Just recently in the neighboring village, a Christian lady ran away with a Muslim man!” Father Paolo began telling a story, “Here Muslims believe they may marry Christian women, but not the opposite. But love is stronger than all borders, so the young couple ran away. However, her brother caught them and killed both of them! How can we understand that? If we want to help them, if we want to change them, first we must understand them! We have to understand why a man from a Christian family is ready to partake in such a crime? But why? Because of identity! Fear of losing identity is greater than love for one’s sister! It’s all about the symbols and identity!”

“More and more people come to Mar Musa, more and more people know about this oasis for peace!” The burly wise man continued, “It has become a symbol for reconciliation, and a living example of how coexistence is possible! And we must continue creating symbolic structures in order to reinforce a long-lasting value of peace.”

“On the one hand, we have reality: conflict! On the other hand, we only have hope, yet hope is not real…” Father Paolo spoke from the porch of the ancient monastery that he has been renovating from ruins for decades, in the midst of the naked and lifeless desert that he had revived. That inexhaustible visionary spoke with his contagious smile, with eyes twinkling like a child’s, and stretches of wrinkles spreading from the corners of his eyes like waves, “However…Sometimes in history, it was hope that changed the world!”