Letter to the friends of the monastery Mar Musa, June 1999.

This year’s letter is composed of two sections:

- The first section is about the news of the community and its projects.

- The second section is a reflection from Father Paolo.

In this annual letter, the monastic community of Deir Mar Musa, would like once again to cordially express its gratitude to those who have assisted us with so many acts of kindness. When we eat and when we dress, when we travel and when we perform the sign of the Cross, when we help those in difficult situations, as we grow and help those around us to grow, we remember those in whose hearts the Lord has placed the resolution to give us a helping hand, and we thank them.

We also give thanks to all of our friends who have written and sent their greetings and their always interesting news. We ask your pardon for not maintaining a more regular and personal correspondence. We would also like to send our news to those who accompany us step by step in friendship. Finally, we would like to inform you of our projects, so that those with whom the desire remains to participate and collaborate with us, may do so.

The news of the community and its projects

The foremost news is that, in the midst of our fatigue and our limitations, we have been faithful to our prayer. Daily at 7:30 in the morning, after taking care of the goats, we gather together to read and pray the psalms, along with biblical and patristic readings, we pray as well for intercessions and we pray the Lord’s Prayer. In the evening, again at 7:30, there is an hour of silent adoration in the church, followed by the celebration of the Eucharist. These communal times, joined with times of personal solitude, are at the centre of our existence, they provide form, nourishment, healing and bring consolation. They are for us our teacher, our source of joy and real fraternity.

In September 1998, after a year of experience and three in the noviciate, our Sister Huda pronounced the monastic profession. Her entire family was present and there was much joy and emotion during the celebration. Huda is Damascene, of the Greek (Melkite) Catholic rite, she has a degree in agronomy and has worked for some time with the Ministry of Agriculture. During the summer, she will participate in a meeting in Rome for Christian groups present in Muslim contexts throughout the world. For the last two years Elena has pursued her theological studies in Milan and has had many occasions, in her encounters with Church groups, to share with the spirit of Mar Musa.

Father Jacques has just finished his third year of liturgical studies in Lebanon. We are happy to have him back with us full time. He is working at insuring the survival of our bee hives in this year of exceptional dryness. Moreover, he will be fully engaged in improving our communal prayer and listening to the many young people who address themselves to him.

We have decided to dedicate the year 1999-2000 to fervently taking up again the study of our Monastic Rule, with the hope of obtaining, during the upcoming year, an initial canonical recognition of our community. This will take place in dialogue with our new Bishop, according to the wishes of our dear patriarch His Holiness Musa Daoud. Furthermore, we would like to consecrate this year to the communal study of several theological questions of our religious life, in consideration of our specific vocation within the Muslim world. We wish also to offer such opportunities for study to other persons, here in Syria, in the hope of assisting them.

The year 2000 will be an important one for Jens and Boutros who will arrive, God willing, at the end of their Noviciates. Boutros is a man of great integrity. This past winter he was in Egypt to collaborate with a community in the south of the country working on behalf of the people of the poorest Copt villages (Copts are members of a Christian tradition in Egypt). He has returned to us more certain of himself and his life project. Jens is engaged in a program of Arabic study in Damascus, nevertheless, he will not forget the goats and the other dimensions of our life. He is in addition, engaged in building a “virtual monastery” in cyberspace.

We give thanks for a number of people, Syrian and non-Syrian, men and women, who are seriously contemplating their desire to join with the community. We are also thankful for those brothers and sisters who accompany us on our path for varying periods, contributing to our community with a spirit of service and gratitude.

Brother Domenico is leaving his hermitage and cottage with the beautiful garden (despite himself) in order to take up his new responsibility as Master of novices of the Little Brothers of Jesus in Lebanon. Nevertheless, the cottage at the summit of the mountain will not be deserted. It will be used by the Little Brothers and Sisters of the Region, as well as by members of the community for varying periods of solitude.

The lay workers too, are a profoundly important part of our community. With them, we form one group in solidarity based on the spiritual dimension of our manual labour. This is especially so as we seek new means of economic sufficiency for all and responsible ecological development of the environment for the good of society.

We have purchased land in Nebek on which to construct houses for local Christian families. We will enter into a contract with individuals which will provide them with an opportunity to purchase a home by way of a non-interest bearing loan (payments they make finance the construction of more housing). The contract however does not allow for the house to be sold, if the family wishes to leave, the house is returned as the property of Deir Mar Musa and an opportunity for another family is made available. Our hope is to be able to lessen the exodus of the Christian population from this area, not only taking into consideration numbers, but more-so, the worth, consciously experienced, of such a minority presence.

When we requested permission to build a stone building for the female contingent of our community from the Syrian authorities responsible for safeguarding historic monuments, we received a flat denial. On the other hand, an alternative proposal to build a complex at a distance of 100 meters from the Monastery in a site called “Magharah al-Hayek” (The Grotto of the Weaver) was accepted. This site is an old hermitage equipped with an ancient cistern and characterised by a rough and severe natural setting. With this new project, the difficulties were multiplied and, naturally, the costs. We had to construct a suspended cable link (of 500 m.) equipped with an electric motor capable of carrying building material from the valley below to the site. This new monastery, which will be called according to the old name “Deir al-Hayek” will be connected to the main building by a passageway in the rock of the mountainside and on top of a dam, that will retain rain water.

When visiting the building site, one senses they are in a place sanctified by the prayers of many generations of hermits. The silence which attracted them then, now draws us in once again. When the project is completed, the ancient grotto of the site of the new house will be part of a large gathering space to be used as a place of contemplation.

In March, we had the second day of study for the agro-forestry, environmental development program regarding the project of creating a protected zone, “The Valley of the Monastery of Saint Moses.” This time, everyone was present: The Mayor as well as the members of the Municipal Council, representatives of the shepherds and the farmers, members of international scientific organisations interested in the program, members of aid and development foundations (especially important was the presence of the representative of the Catholic Committee against Hunger and for Development), representatives of the Ministries of Agriculture, Environment, and Tourism and a good number of dear friends. A permanent commission has been created for the management of a project for the realisation of the protected area that will also include the transformation of the main dump of the Town of Nebek, three kilometres from the Monastery on the panoramic road which leads to Mar Musa from the east, into an environmental park.

Our participation in the above ventures does not indicate that all of our economic difficulties are taken care of, as it is not easy to finance our projects in all of their levels. To provide just one example, we still have not found the necessary financing to replace our worn-out tractor.

It is possible that during the year 2000 we will reopen the Restoration School within the framework of a second stage of restoring the frescos in the Monastery. The European Commission has agreed to fund, but the bureaucratic process is slow. The work will be carried out as a collaboration between the Central Institute of Restoration in Rome and the General Department of Antiquities and Museums in Damascus. In light of the impossibility of using the Church during the restoration and also in order to have a central location for seminars, meetings and meals usable in winter by a considerable number of persons, we have requested local craftsmen to weave a traditional tent, called in Arabic “a house of hair”. It is made out of grey goat hair and is placed on the terrace of the monastery.

The European Commission is also financing part of our program for inter-cultural and inter-religious dialogue. The first real achievement of the program was the development of the Monastery’s library. This type of program requires the participation of other aid organisations who, in our case, are represented by the Giorgio Orseri Foundation in Rome and Solidarité-Orient in Brussels.

We want to emphasise the importance of the Monastery’s engagement in the theological and cultural formation of the members of its community, lay collaborators and members of the social and ecclesiastical communities with which we are involved. This engagement relies, in many ways, on the process of promoting the Islamic - Christian dialogue. Our intention is to organise intensive courses and seminars of study, inviting presenters from the region and abroad, according to their specialisation. We also seek to enlarge the opportunities for formation, as much as possible, of those entities outside of the Monastery. Along with this, we are not going to cease the sending of certain community members abroad for studies, yet we wish to express our desire to develop a formation culturally rooted in our context and especially attentive to deepening our vocation and the relation based on dialogue with the Islamic world.


A reflection from Father Paolo

I write to you this time from Rawalpindi in Pakistan. We travelled by bus through Turkey and Iran; for Jens and myself it was an intensive pilgrimage among poor people. Our desire was to propose and try a way of significant solidarity with believers in Jesus among the churches founded and disseminated throughout the vast Islamic world of Asia.

I was also in Albania in February and Egypt in April. The complexity of the Islamic world has dug out a vast space in my heart and it is there that I actually find my home and my country.

Even more explicitly, the Spirit of the Lord has rooted us in a vocation that has taken shape by our vow and by free choice. We have decided to help Christian minorities in the Islamic world to become, with a patient love, the Gospel leaven in an Islamic dough. Our objective is to accomplish, through the concurrence of free choice and the sincere engagement of many - of all, the desire of God to be all in all.

This implies the consideration of the value of religion and Islamic societies in the realm of global evolution and of its meaning. It consists of a will to include effective Muslim participation in global processes: we seek to encourage the leaving from polemical positions tempted to violence, to the collective witness of essential Islamic values within the larger dynamic. In this sense, this also means helping Churches to understand and to welcome this Muslim contribution with its originality and its differences.

One could think that we have not yet renounced the cultural, social and religious position of superiority. We may try to respond, but it is only real life which must prove that our spiritual aspiration is a desire to understand by which path Islam could assume a role in the eschatological accomplishment of the human community’s religious history. This comprehension cannot be arrived at in advance by theory, on the contrary, it will be given to us through interaction and dialogue that corresponds to the Christian minority presence, within this Gospel metaphor of leaven within the dough.

In fact, being a disciple of Jesus anywhere, is becoming more and more the equivalent of being in a minority, and thus, being leaven, yet this is not an exclusive elite, possessed by a superiority complex. This occurs through different situations, either where Christians are minorities in society, as in Pakistan or Syria, or where they imagine themselves to be a majority, as in Europe or the Philippines. The church that lives this experience will be ready to convert itself into the action of the Spirit in the dialogue, to recognise the Spirit, and to be transformed and re-evangelised by it..

This operation of the Spirit of God remains unforseeable and indeterminable in advance, just as it is encountered, implored and announced in the spiritual gift of prophecy within the Church and Islam.

We have arrived at the conviction that religious traditions need not be considered as separate and impermeable bodies. Thus we would like to give preference to a more effective communion of gifts, while proposing and welcoming the witness of faith in language, symbolism and the intimate spiritual experience of religions. This does not diminish the awareness of the Church as the universal sacrament of salvation. On the contrary, it may nurture her roots in what is hers, together with a serene participation in what is common and deepen the respect for that which is specific to other faith communities. The measure of this is for her to be alive and capable of proposing a dynamic intimate, shared and continued conversion from darkness to Light.

Balucistan Prayer 1999

As our bus, traversed the vast desert of Baluchistan, loaded with a mountain of poor merchandise, while making stops at humble mosques for the Islamic canonical prayers, the book I was reading offered me a very appropriate thought:

“This is why divergent interpretations do not have the function of freezing each person in their differences, rather, taking the worry of unity as a sign of rallying, each corrects each other, aiding each other to progress towards the inaccessible centre where one becomes ‘the same thing’. A universal history of mysticism ... has a goal, on the contrary, of retracing the infinite variety of original itineraries by which men, exiled to the four corners of the universe and alienated by always unique socio-historical conditions, knew how to create in order to journey to the promised land of unity. This history does not pretend to understand in advance the place of their convergence, as if it could already perceive it after from an aerial observatory. It remains on the ground, going back and forth among caravans while progressing independently, noting and comparing successive positions of these and those, being attentive to discover, through incessant rectifications and extrapolations, the ideal site for their definitive encounter” (Michel Hulin, “La Mystique sauvage,” Paris 1993, 282-283).

I believe that the ability to accept inter-religious dialogue comprises, as an existential interaction, that which was clearly said in relation to the study of mystical experiences in different religious traditions. Thus I ask myself how I believe in a faith in which the definitive “site” of meeting is essentially, meta-historically, that expressed by Jesus in the Gospel of St. John “When I am raised from the earth I will gather all to myself” (12,32). Moreover, I understand this elevation as that from the Cross until the opening of the heart and the ascension to the Father after the Resurrection (it should be added that the “Elevation of Jesus” is taken up in a mysterious fashion in the Qur’an, with the perspective of the Second Coming, and the “scandal” of the Cross is refused). The mystery of this “Elevation,” mysteriously within faith, is universal for me. This, I believe, is the basis of the tendency and capacity of the heart to contemplate the Universal. Despite this, my limited heart does not pretend to impose anything to anyone, rather, it makes a witness of light which is presented to him as the “Light of Each Person”. This does not prevent the heart from recognising the numerous and beautiful lights that shine in different niches which all take from a unique and inexhaustible source.

Islam has a strong and polemical consciousness of constituting the final call to unity in the obedience of the Law of God and to the thirst for Justice for all humanity which will consist of a Community (Umma) in solidarity, adoring the One, the Merciful. Thus Islam presents itself as a great and beautiful light, conscious of a universal vocation but also obscured by fog and smoke. Our hope as the monastic and ecclesiastical community at Deir Mar Musa, and our life, is that of providing a witness of the truth that is in us and in the other.

A light makes your heart rejoice by the fact that it returns to you and inhabits therein. This fact occurred to us when we saw the light of Muslims, that, believe me, did not obscure the baptismal light, but on the contrary revived it. I am happy to think of our vocation in the Islamic world as a participation in the carrying out and realisation of the universal vocation of Islam. This carrying out and realising is, I believe, an essential aspect of the universal dimension of our Christian vocation. The idea that these particular passions for the universal might conjugate and integrate, without becoming confused or diluted, is a very dear spiritual hope of mine.

We left the ancient capital of Syria, Antioch of the apostles. We travelled through the homeland of Abraham. We arrived at Mount Ararat and celebrated the Eucharist in the splendid Armenian monastery of Saint Thadeus in Iran. We visited the Little Brothers of Jesus and the Sisters of Charity who serve those afflicted with leprosy in Tabriz. We marvelled at the Armenian churches of Esfahan, decorated with frescoes that bring together the art of the European Renaissance with Eastern Christian art, as well as that of Persia and India. We admired the alluring and luminous beauty of the mosques and monuments in this majestic Venice of Asia and we prayed contemporaneously with the canonical prayer of our Muslim travelling companions.

Then we contemplated the mystery of universality along the banks of the Indus, the great river of wisdom that Alexander reached. We discovered there the sacred sites of the ancient Brahmans, we visited the remains of the syncretic Hellenistic/Buddhist civilisation of Gandhara. We entered with respect the monasteries and calmly fixed our gaze on the very pure traits of Illuminated Buddha. We entered into the sanctuaries of Muslim Sufis and mixed among the crowds of the mosque. We discovered here the remains of ancient Christian passages along the tracks of the apostle Thomas of Taxila, of Assyrian Christians and Armenians throughout Persia and we recognised the signs of their presence throughout the centuries of local Christian communities. We prayed among the old ruined tombs of the Missionary Sons of Saint Francis from the colonial epoch and we were united with touching prayers of poor Christians in their marginal quarters. Finally we attracted the gaze of Afghani refugees in their dwellings and there, with humility, their suffering, softness and greatness of heart and gratitude overwhelmed us. We experienced a sense of communion and unity in Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of Mary, the “Individual”, the New Adam who makes us divine.

Now we are taken by the intuition of the duty and desire to found one day an Oriental community of prayer, work and hospitality here on the banks of the Indus. We dream of other foundations that will become like stations on an ideal pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Christians in Asia and that will be a gesture of gospel solidarity with the Islamic world, within the horizon of a common engagement for the well-being, the consolation of the poor and those thirsting for justice.

Through the media we hear the echoes of the terrible explosions of the war in Kosovos reach us even here and affect us intensely. It is as painful for those who feel a profound solidarity with the Orthodox Churches as for those who feel the same for Muslim populations. Yet this does not disillusion us. On the contrary, it confirms the goodness of the choice which Providence has proposed for us.

The profound understanding between us, travellers and the Pakistani Christians we met encourages us to the point that we envisage a time of experience for some of them at Deir Mar Musa.

Of the sites that seemed appropriate to us for the foundation, of a new monastic community, I would especially mention the village of Dalwal, near an old, semi-abandoned rural school of the Capuchins situated high on the hills, mid-way between Islamabad, the capital, and Lahore. It would entail doubling the ministry of prayer and the gathering of a group particularly dedicated to the afore mentioned themes of development and the environment. The Bishop of Rawalpundi-Islamabad welcomes our purpose, which is realistic of the realism of faith. That is because we see the Lord, who has called us, calls others and, as we were able to respond despite our many limitations, others also might be able to do.

I embrace you with the friendship of Jesus.