Letter to the Friends of the Monastery of Saint Moses the Abyssinian in Nebek, June 2000

Jens Petzold, who was baptised four years ago in the monastery, consecrated himself to God in the monastic profession during the celebration of the Eucharist on Easter Monday. Boutros Abo did the same on the feast of the Cross, September 14, after almost five years of life in the monastery. The engagement of these two brothers in the community of Deir Mar Musa is an important sign in the context of a larger network of relationships, which already forms a movement that encounters the larger social and ecclesiastical reality.<--break->

Cover Amici 2000c

The particular vocation of the monastery expresses, although not exclusively, a particular field of meaning. This is especially constituted by the absolute of spiritual life, prayer, and contemplation. This takes place within the symbolic references offered by the Oriental Christian tradition, in particular the Syrian tradition, and harmony and communion with Islamic spiritual experience. Thereafter it is characterised by engagement to create the importance of manual labour, which is understood as a base for vast environmental, social and economic implications. These are key elements in an aesthetic of the body of human beings and of the world and in the dialogue of life. Finally, it is expressed in the daily practice of hospitality; where this engagement takes shape as much in the particular Arab-Islamic context as in the providential opening to universality.

At Deir Mar Musa local realities are confronted with an influx of visitors from all horizons. We are pleasantly intrigued that a notable percentage of visitors come from Australia and New Zealand, with a not insignificant influx of Asian visitors. This also raises the curiosity of our neighbours, the inhabitants of the region, and is an opportunity for interaction with the young Syrians who live for extended periods in the monastery.


The Pakistani and Iranian dreams, connected to Paolo and Jens' journey, remain an important part of our perspective for a longer period. At the end of the summer the community will assume the responsibility for a small monastery and  the Syrian Catholic parish of Qaryatein, initially for a trial period of two years. 

Qaryatein is a small desert town of 12,000 people, thirty-five kilometres to the north-east of Deir Mar Musa; while the village has a  Muslim majority, there are also two Christian parishes one Syrian Orthodox and the other Syrian Catholic.  Father Jacques will be the priest of the Syrian Catholic church and will commute between this community and the monastery with a "pick-up." The monastery in Qaryatein may date back to the fifth century and is dedicated to an ancient ascetic, Mar Elian. It is situated 1 km from the village and includes a vast tract of surrounding land. If the archaeological excavation does not hold any major surprises for us, Deir Mar Elian will need a relatively simple and harmonious reconstruction rather than a true restoration. We foresee a slow and gradual development of this project, as it will be essential to share responsibility with the local population, which is thus far occupied with confronting the problems connected with a long drought.

As for the various activities of Deir Mar Musa:

- The construction of the women's monastery is proceeding slowly but surely. The first floor is almost ready, built upon a large basement that is necessary due to the steep slope of the mountain.

- The implementation of the dam and bridge-passage projects, which will unify the ancient and modern buildings, are proceeding rapidly.

- The cultural project has been realised this year as four seminars and in a vast development of the library. The monastery is slowly becoming a part of the theological and inter-religious local panorama.  We hope to enlarge our range of contacts through a site on the Internet (www.deirmarmusa.org).

- In the autumn of 1999 we assisted with preparation for the visit of Cardinal Martini, Archbishop of Milan, to Damascus as part of his pilgrimage to the Holy Land. This event, which involved a group from his diocese, was both an ecumenical and inter-religious success. Now it is necessary to pray and prepare for the announced papal visit to Syria in 2001.

- From the environmental and agricultural (forestry) point of view, our work over the past few years has centred on learning to value the importance of local bio-diversity and acting upon it. This has become the point of departure for larger projects, in which the Monastery has so far only played a small part. From the point of view of the civil authorities and that of the local population, the central issue is the fight against desertification and the possibilities open to us now look promising.

All of this is connected with the way that we receive guests and visitors. This is a delicate question for our vocation. We are happy to receive all types of people at the monastery, yet this must be done in a way that preserves a vocation for the contemplative life, both for us personally and also for this place. Moreover, the great majority of visitors seek here a place of silence and spirituality. When we consider the foreseen arrival of a paved road and electricity within 1/2 km of the monastery along with an increase of tourist interest in this place, it seems to us that emphasising the environmental dimension could constitute a way of preserving the cultural and spiritual significance of a monastery in the desert. We are working with the Ministry of the Environment on a park project where silence and respect for the spirituality of this place will be a fundamental element of the project.

Our social plan with the young families of the parish of Nebek is expanding. This means appreciating the very real risk of extinction of the local Christian community, which would take away much of the significance of our commitment towards inter-religious harmony. Apart from enhancing cultural and theological consciousness we seek to help provide work and housing loans. We consider this limited help as part of a ministry and service which is inherent radically to the mission of the Christian community.

From the ecclesiastical angle, we are enjoying a pleasant time with our new bishop, Msgr. George Kassâb, and with the priests of the diocese. Also, our collaboration with the Jesuit Fathers, among whom Fr. Paolo is included, has increased. Meanwhile, the richness of constructive friendships with so many diverse communities and realities of the Church in many parts of the world is increasingly important. On a more individual level we value highly the grace to have participated in the spiritual growth of many people, above all through Spiritual Exercises of a month or less. Many now desire to commit themselves more radically to the service of the Kingdom of God, often in the realm of ecumenical and inter-religious communion. We should also add that the men and women who visit, many of them solitary travellers, often have an exceptional human quality and a courage characterised by a great universal and spiritual openness. How many and how intense are the faces of the young pilgrims passing by, seeking the Absolute, and how great is the hope that they have given us! Some have expressed the desire to stay here, perhaps after the completion of their journey; others dream of a similar community elsewhere. The seeds of desert plants have wings and the wind carries them far.

In addition to this, we must communicate to you the suffering and perplexity that we have experienced along with Elena Bolognesi. She has decided to leave the community and to seek another way for her commitment to monastic consecration. Elena’s radical need for community life and contemplation led her elsewhere, but her coherence will always constitute for us a testimony and a precious call.

Huda Faddul is the sole remaining professed sister of the community. In fact there are other women present, more or less permanently, and several women are seriously contemplating their desire to join the community with a monastic vocation. Huda has played the important and fruitful role of an elder and spiritually advanced sister. In fact, it is during the difficulties of these last years that we have all deepened our conscience about our will and decision to stay together, men and women, as monks and sisters. We seek to become a sign of the special, radical, evangelical chastity and of the immense fertility of the spiritual love of God, to which all creatures are called to participate in diverse ways. The great anthropological transformation of the twentieth century, regarding relational self-conscience and the social role of women (and thus men) has propelled all of us from a world marked by subordination, separation and diffidence into the harmony of the human community with equality, solidarity and reciprocal, trusting esteem. Those who imagine that this could occur without grave consequences are naïve. These consequences are due to an insufficient consciousness of sin, above all, that of the thirst for power and supremacy and to widespread immaturity as well as compulsion in affective and sexual matters. This is also due to an excessive confidence in ourselves and a closed attitude to the human and spiritual experience of past generations.

Dear friends, in conclusion to the first part of this letter (the second part is a difficult reflection by Fr. Paolo), allow us to express our feeling of gratitude for the assistance that many of you have offered us so that this dream will not fade away. In fact, the economic recession in Syria and the increase in the cost of life, combined with the weakness of the Euro, has made things a little difficult for us. The time in which the monastery can be more or less economically autonomous is still far away. The fact we haven’t found a patron who would want to cover the majority of our expenses is definitely a sign and a grace. The situation dictates that we must continually communicate our dreams and needs to many people and then, receiving aid from so many diverse sources, we are witnessing the foundation of a surprising network of solidarity and of meaningful and responsible friendship.

You should not be discouraged from the sending of a gift that might seem small to you in the face of the size of the projects that we have mentioned to you. Your help is always great and generous in the significance that it expresses; we are all very small in front of the project of God in our life. More than anyone perhaps, we of the community feel small.  We see so many people who turn to the monastery for help, to whom we can give nothing if blessed Providence, through the intercession of Saint Moses and of the ancient monks, does not give us the means through the network of your generosity. 

So far more than 10% of our funds which we can administrate freely are distributed to those who seek assistance. We also receive help explicitly in order to help others in different ways. We try to distribute this help responsibly with punctual interventions related to the social context of the monastery and seeking a more just social order. This includes particular attention to women and the construction of a conscious inter-religious harmony.

Therefore we offer you boundless thanks and as always a cordial invitation to come and visit us or visit us again. 

Prophecy, Person, Futures.

It is opportune to take up again the theme of prophecy, not only in light of the Islamic-Christian reality, but also that of the Mediterranean and the world.

Prophecy and the act of faith represent two aspects of one reality. It involves the possibility and the capacity to welcome the presence and the initiative of the personal God to the bottom of the heart and the summit of the soul, in communion with the Spirit. This presence of the divine Guest in the human person is rational and creative. Adam as microcosm was created, from the Koranic point of view, by the divine order: “Be!” and  “it was” in history until consummation (See Qur. III:59). The angels are invited to prostrate themselves before Adam (Qur. II:34, VII:11, XXXVIII:71-73) who is formed of clay and breath (Qur. XV:28-9, XXXVIII:71-72). As a prophet, Adam pronounces the names and knows the meanings, which God has revealed to him, of which the angels are ignorant (Qur.: II:31-33).

Earth receives form as letters receive meaning. The individual is inscribed like a clay tablet styled in cuneiform.

Adam is taken from the Earth, Eve from Adam. A astonishing correspondence. The Breath penetrates Mary and the Word is formed as a man.

The idea of our Adamic origins are now lost back in the infinite processes of evolution. Meanwhile our vision of the future has become an explosion of the present moment. Because it is now possible and necessary to imagine futures as a progressive human expansion outside of  the planet towards a spatial-temporal dispersion of infinite potentiality. Only the arch of personal life, tied between a creative beginning and a mortal ending, constitutes the surviving key-analogy  for the interpretation of existence.

This is why Jesus the son of Mary, the Person, in the dramatic pretension to destroy and rebuild in himself the Temple, image of the Cosmos, the place of the Glory, proposes Himself as the summit and source of sense, life and light for his disciples. When they recognised in Him, in the arch of his own life, the design of a benevolence that is all-embracing. That is why He, having tasted with Mary abandonment, declared that everything is achieved. But the disciple who recognises the mystical birth of the Church at the flow of the blood and water from the right side of that Temple, declares that only now is everything beginning.

The Qur'an emphasises the analogy, and hence polemically the identity, of Adam and Christ (See Qur. III:59) (And see in the Bible: Rom 5:14; I Cor 15:20-22, 45-49). The discipleship of the Church to Jesus of Nazareth is set between the summit of Sinai - the Mosaic prophecy - and the cave of Hirâ - the Muhammadan prophecy.  And this is because He supersedes the law recreating the person, as the Other of the Relationship, man-woman, God-me. Meanwhile Elijah, the Spirit of Elijah, Enoch and John the Baptist, continually returns and ascends to heaven in a chariot of divine fire.

Moses, to whom God speaks directly, still announces the coming of the Anointed. Thus Muhammad, upon whom the Word descends as an oracle, also announces His final return.

Every prophecy plays out in a particular linguistic environment that is necessarily equivocal. If this does not justify the fundamentalistic absoluteness of this or that prophetic expression, nor does it allow the exercise of a naïve doubtfulness of the truthfulness and the sincerity of the prophetic experience. It is only through a spiritual intelligence, practised in the future of dialogue and communion, that it will be possible, to grasp the truth of such a radical, polemical, apparently anti-christian, monotheistic prophecy, like the one of Mohammed. This will be possible moving spiritually upstream through the current of tradition of devotion of sincere souls, arisen souls, sacrificed souls of muslim saints, men and women, towards the Prophet of Islam.

A disciple of Jesus spoke of the veil of Moses which opportunely descended to obscure understanding of the axial mystery of Golgotha, so that the Mystery is not held prisoner by particularism (see 2 Cor 3:7-18). At the same time this veil is extended by the Koran to prevent, forbid and chastise the usage of this holy Mystery, at the end of its power and its appropriation, by the “christian” world.

There are different post-christianities: that of a post-christian historic prophecy, like that of Islam, or that of the ulterior and constant pursuit of pre-christian religious traditions, such as Judaism, or extra-christian religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism. Finally there is the modern and post-modern refusal of the “pretention” of the witnesses of the empty tomb. This all turns in a centrifugal and centripetal way on this axis to spread a vast shroud over the Christ.

What will they do, these disciples of Jesus, with these post-christianities? They could refuse it as the work of Satan; or they could tolerate it waiting for the final manifestation of Light. Finally they could love in a dynamic of relative functions, some towards others, to build partaken hopes in common futures.

The year 2000 in particular, during which the Churches have been trying to demonstrate the historic centrality of the Christ-event, it seems to indicate on the contrary the historic failure of christianity.  The failure of christian universality nevertheless doesn’t constitute  success for another form of globality, even though it could look much stronger and  more efficacious. At the same time this failure of the christian system corresponds to a process which favours the reconstruction of the discipleship to Jesus as an inter-personal relationship. From this reconstruction springs fidelity to the mystical value, a meta-historical one, of the human person in a divine being children.

Future, eschatology: we will re-write it together, men and women in this time of plurality and dispersal, of globalisation and homogenisation with imperial tendencies.

This man from Nazareth, so peripheral, and his disciples wanted to be witness to the definitive dynamic of the gift, offering, communion, in the efficacious and symbolic place of the passage to the infinite and eternal. Other traditions are witnesses by other paths to these exigencies together with others.

So, this eschatology we will re-write it, we will do it, we will realise it together if we are capable of penance, of pardon, of communion, of tolerant dialogue, of loving relations (ie: to have access through devotion to the truth of the Other, as a condition of witness to the truth which is in Us). That is why it will be good to be able to practice dialectically belonging to plural and dynamic identities with the intention of favouring crossed hermeneutics of futures. This will not be possible other than through attentive welcome and the development of the gift of prophecy at the centre of every personality, through silence, listening and oracle.  Here and now there is an infinite Pentecost of the Spirit in an effort until death, until divinisation by way of relationship, every relationship, from the most mystical until the most material. Spirit, further than the letter in the humid earth of today. In the common body of the Verb, the world.

Humbly, but firmly we will oppose the ghettoes of blocked belongings. At the same time we will remain faithful to the truth of each tradition in his uniqueness and his complementary and corrective interconnections, sometimes punitive, often salvific.  In diverse places and different manners some new identities are appearing as more or less solid bridges. Even more than that, a new cyber-network dresses the world and wears a common and new linguistic habit. This habit is like a new virtual image of a more real and efficacious Communion of Saints. This is the hour of a new prophecy; not just of a new prophet but of all of us as prophets.

When we regard that way behind us and in front of us the open sea, we are filled with infinite emotion, compunction and consolation.

Fr. Paolo.