Letter to the Friends, December 2004


Very dear friends of Deir Mar Musa, of Deir Mar Elian and of the Studentato San Salvatore – Cori, first of all, best wishes for this coming Christmas and New Year!

Mar Musa Amici Cover 2004

It is a fact that the Italian handwritten draft of the 2003 letter did not have the opportunity to be typed on a computer, even less to be translated and so, could not reach you. Few parts of this letter would still be up to date and we promise you to publish them “one day”.

Our intent is to wish you a happy New Year, to inform you briefly of our path and to ask, one more time, for your generosity.

The Cori community still numbers three, four if we count Don Ottaviano, who welcomes us in his parish with a real evangelical and already Arabic hospitality.

Sister Huda, having passed the two years of philosophy, started this year theology in the Jesuit University of Rome, also known as the Gregorian. She studies with great enthusiasm, feeling that her studies help her to develop her natural gift for helping people spiritually. Step by step, she accepts more clearly to be called to play a founding part for the feminine group of our community. She intents to come back permanently in Deir Mar Musa in 2007 but she already maintains her responsibilities, in particular by email, and is back home, in Deir Mar Musa, every summer.

Jens, having also finished his philosophy degree, goes on with a year of studies about the Oriental Church and interreligious dialogue. After which he will start his theology degree. An old religious friend meeting him in Rome after a few years said that he had acquired a good monk’s head.

Jihad, who pronounced his monastic vows in Deir Mar Musa in September 2003, among his family and friends from his village, is now in his second year of philosophy and deeply appreciates his studies.

In the meantime, restoration has started in the old chapel and priory of San Salvatore that is meant to become ours. It already looks very nice! Even nicer is the solidarity around us and from the Latina Diocese.

19/12/04 14:01

In Deir Mar Elian in Qaryatayn, we face surprise after surprise. The British Syrian archeological team excavated beside the tomb of Saint Elian, and a centuries-old mud brick church reappeared by miracle. The stones of the 1932 church have been numbered and we will rebuild it next to its previous place, whereas the newly discovered church has been restored in a very simple way. We find in it a touching atmosphere, which speaks to us of the monastic spirituality and of the humble fidelity of this ancient Arabic desert’s Christendom.

The parish church has been renovated and embellished in many different ways, including a beautiful mosaic on the church pediment, created by a group of young Syrian artists, representing a copy of the Annunciation that had been destroyed in Deir Mar Musa in 1983. The whole gives on impression of oriental pop art, naïve, pious, and pleasant. In Deir Mar Elian, once the 1932 church is rebuilt, we will resume the construction of the monastery’s new courtyard. The old one and all the ancient buildings, once the archeological excavation is finished, will only function as a vocation, beside which we have a strong desire to have a small living community.

We believe that a positive answer to the development question in Qaryatayn constitutes a condition to the upholding of an Arabic Christian minority in this Muslim area of the Syrian Desert, which, culturally and tribally spreads until Iraq. The Direction of the Steppe (Ministry of Agriculture) collaborates with us to make us Mar Elian monastery’s vast lands.

A French DCC volunteer, Diane, shares her agricultural engineer’s commitment between Qaryatayn and Nabek, and takes an active part in our way of life.

Claude and Mathilde, enriched by the arrival of their little and delicious Yona, and inspired by Father Charles de Foucault’s Nazareth ideal, have put down roots for three years now in Qaryatayn, participating in the social neighboring life, agricultural work and parish activities.

Qaryatayn, half way between Deir Mar Musa and Palmyra, will play a more important tourist role in the future, once its archeological richness brought out (some of it coming from the third millennium B.C.).


Father Jacques, founder with Father Paolo of our monastic community, priest of the local Syrian Catholic parish, is strongly engaged in all this. However, he has also had take care of his mother’s health. With the help of a few friends, things are better now, and Jacques reinforces his commitment in the community with a face of hope and experience, even if marked by important challenges.

Let’s talk about Deir Mar Musa now:

Speaking in terms of the community level, we think we have matured. The fact is that the maturation is most often the result to suffering. And when neither on is a victim nor complaining, finally one ends up more mature and a new joy springs up.

Boutros, who lived out of the community for a year, put on again his monastic habit in August 2004, to everybody’s joy, after a year of “penitence” among the community.

Ramona left us for good (the definitive of men not the one of God) in June 2004. It was hard for her and for us. What a big mystery to see, the heart wounded from love, the intimate relation between God and human appearing in our limits, fidelities and hopes of the sometimes foggy, contradictory world.

In September 2003, Dima, from the Byzantine orthodox community in Homs, joined the novitiate. Graduate in English in Homs, where she first met Jesuits, she is engaged with three other persons in the Ignacian month of spiritual retreats, conducted by Father Paolo. She was the first to live permanently in the new al-Hayek convent, over the bridge. If everything goes on well, she will, perhaps, start her studies in Cori-Rome in 2006.

Frederic, our second year novice from Savoie in France (the novitiate includes three years after the “experience” first year), is back from a pilgrimage in Mount Athos and in the Balkans. He concludes with enthusiasm from his trip that our monastic life, while realizing a part of the Catholic universalism, especially in the relationship with Islam, acquired some the oriental monasticisms fundamental characteristics. Through its defaults as much as its qualities, Deir Mar Musa seems to him a little Athos. Here, he started biological beekeeping. That activity allows him to keep good social relations. It is not vain to underline that for Muslims, bees are a monotheist believers people because they are gentle, well organized and work for the common good. He will also, from 2006, be in Italy for his studies.

Simon, a young Lebanese in his fifties, is trying his hand at living our life for the second time. Aniela, a young Polish girl in her thirties, is doing the same. More news, Inch’ Allah, in the next Letter to the friends.

A word now about our lay partners: one must mention Mehyar’s wedding (our electrician and computer scientist), as well as Bassel’s wedding who resumes his Oxford tourism studies. We keep hope that Bassel will find his place in the service of his country’s development.

The great Amin, happy father of his third child, transforms more and more Deir Mar Musa’s different building sites into educational sites for young Nabkees who learn from him all kind of building “arts”, so they can find a job more easily later.

Marwan and Marwa had their second child. We would like, in Nabek as in Qaryatayn, to create together something social, economic, and cultural, for all these mothers who are not likely to do anything other than stay at home and therefore lose their potential and capacities.

Some of you might have heard Elias’s adventure who, fallen from the top of the monastery down to the bottom of the valley, was miraculously saved by a combination of circumstances. He has even resumed his work here with us.

As for Khouloud, young girl from Damascus who worked here for nearly a year in organization and hospitality, she is about to change her qualifications and consider herself on a monastic trial.

Since September 2004, our team has been enriched by the presence of Eglantine, a volunteer SCD, philosopher, who engaged herself in reorganizing our library and promoting the monastery’s cultural activity’s development, especially for interreligious matters. In fact, she often finds herself helping Paolo with things to think and to write, among these, this letter.

Helene, from Paris, just left Homs and feels herself in a sabbatical year with us; to be followed…

The Deir el-Hayek building site goes on well. Nine rooms are already occupied, five permanently by sisters and women. The covered yard in front of the hermit’s cave is almost done. Our prediction is to complete our work in three years in order to have about thirty-five rooms and services for the women community as well as for retreats and seminars. We have inaugurated the reception room (between one hundred and one hundred and fifty seats), though uncompleted at that time, to host our spring seminar.

This year 2004, the seminar was entitled “Historical Monuments and Bio-spheres” because we were also celebrating the end of the restorations of Deir Mar Musa’s church. Yes! This great restoration adventure began in 1983, when we had picked up the heavy iron door down in the ravine, which we hid in a hole inside the monastery. The European Community helped us in 2002/2003 and astonishing frescoes and discoveries appeared then. The place’s historical and artistic value gets increases. Thanks to the Lord and thanks to all those who participated to this adventure!

Nuova travatura 2

Do not be surprised to notice that we used, since the beginning of this year, forty-eight thousand plastic cups (meaning around thirty thousand visitors with a majority of local people, especially Muslims). Of course, we would like to find a more ecological solution to refresh our hosts. Any suggestions are welcome!

Interreligious formal activities slow down a bit also because of our monastic community’s evolution. However, we organized, of course in the new reception room (baptized “Mary Khalil”, the Egyptian founder with Louis Massignon, of the Badaliah, a Christian Association about love of Islam), a four-day seminar, in July 2004. The subject was: “The problem of the recognition of the Other”. Representative friends from Islams as well as Churches shared experiences and ideas. We still have the desire to publish old seminars and to do, in the future, more and better.

Finally, we managed to have the Ministry of Agriculture declare a large Natural Protection Area (but also Cultural and Religious) around the monastery (about six square kilometers). A Ministry’s Commission will run the direction in strict collaboration with us. It is an important step in organizing the tourist flow, which must deal with activities able to promote sustainable development, but in such a way to profit spiritually all of us without destroying our monastic vocation.

Soon, our goats will have to move due to grazing being now, although temporarily, forbidden inside the protected area. Outside of this area, to the west, on the old garage location, we are creating a sheepfold, including the shepherd’s family’s house. We keep spaces for us because we do not want to stop working with the flock. On the monastery’s land, out of the protected area, we have planted a lot of local grazing plants. We hope that this activity can become more important and profitable in the future.

On November the 17th, Paolo celebrated his fiftieth birthday, surrounded by the affection of the present ones but also of the absent ones. Among others, he received as a gift a historical collage relating some of the most important stages of his love story with the Lord, above all, maybe those,

which pulled us too, into this adventure. Among all of these stages, we must underline his last Jesuit vows, in July 2003, after twenty-eight years of religious life, in the Jesuit spiritual exercise’s house in Touffaha, with the shared joy of his Jesuit and Marmusian friends.

The day before his fiftieth birthday, he had already a bit senile madness by swimming across the dam lake that was full due to the amazing pouring rain and hail of the past days. The dam is becoming almost watertight with the help of the important clay deposits, brought by the torrent, but also with the hay and sawdust we dropped into the water. We can start then using its water. If the watertightness improves even more, we will start breeding catfish… for the pleasure of our pet felines.

The community engaged itself, during summer 2004, in rewriting completely, on the basis of the Vatican’s important and constructive observations, the Italian translation of our monastic rule that had been written in Arabic in 2002, recorded in Italian in the Vatican in 2003. This marks our path’s important step in the Church. We feel confident in moving forward, especially after the new Damascus Apostolic Nonce’s nice visit when he shared our life during one pleasant weekend.

Moreover, our founder involves himself in a deep and confident dogmatic dialogue with Rome, on questions important for us such as Muslim-Christian dialogue, Islam’s religious value in humankind spiritual history and, in fact, how one can be a disciple of Jesus, today, among Muslims. We believe that this dialogue is a grace for all of us because it helps us to refocus on our Church commitment, in our particular call’s testimony and fidelity.

We would like to share a dream with you, and entrust it to you, your prayers but also your ideas. The point is to participate in the organization of a permanent route (to be covered by foot mainly, as, in a way, the Compostelle path) that would be named “Abraham’s Path”. Such initiatives already exist as signs of the desire for reconciliation between the sons of Abraham. Pilgrimages were organized from Europe, and, in fact, we often receive here pilgrims on foot or on bicycle going towards the Holy land. The innovation would be to create a fixed and organized route from Urfa and Harran in Turkey, then through Syria (of course with a stop in Deir Mar Musa), and going to the Holy Land through Jordan (and maybe one day with a variant through the Golan and the Hermon) reaching Jerusalem and finally ending in Hebron, in Arabic al-Khalil (God’s friend), place of the Patriarch’s tomb, Father of believers. There, Isaac (considered by Jews as their Father) and Ishmael (considered by Muslims as their Ancestor) embraced each other on their father’s funeral day. The dream which grows up in hearts, everywhere in the world, is to have a pilgrimage for not only Jews, or Muslims, or Christians, but a path for all believers, from any tradition, who could walk together, hand in hand, in the brotherly and mutual enrichment with the biblical-koranic Abraham tradition’s children.

In conclusion to this letter we would like to entrust you two preoccupations: first of all, the most important is not to give up, every one of us, the non-violent fight for peace and justice: effort, eternal jihads, stubborn, with a geological patience and a total existential thickness. You, readers of this letter, are from many different cultural, politic and religious traditions and environments. It is only if we throw ourselves, dynamically, over any frozen faith or belonging – push each other forward, with a strong desire of harmony and beauty which, we believe, attracts us all – that we will meet as brothers, allies, accomplices, wet from the forgiving tears of one another. This is not the place to describe the list of horrors all around the world today. The fact is that we are, in Syria, right in between Iraq and Palestine-Israel, in oasis so fragile and exposed. Stunned by the terror cries and dumb by the dead-end feeling, we only can return to prayers of intercession.

Our fight is in our daily effort to renew joy, to share what we have, to be a community in an often-bankrupt space. There we live our second preoccupation. To be honest, we only can thank, our face on the ground, the good Providence that meets our needs, our collaborators’ and some among the poorest ones’. We express our full gratitude to our friends, institutions and private individuals’ generosity. The monasteries (in Nabek, Qaryatayn and Cori) are still in a foundation stage. We appeal to your desire to share our dream. We would like to exchange with you the joy in participating to create and develop a reality, which means in practical terms: scholarships, funds to build and organize welcoming structures and eco-tourism infrastructures, but also helps in aiding those is need: young families, those who live on the fringes of the society, the victims of injustice, especially against the freedom of conscience. We certainly do not have now enough money to live through the year 2005, but we are rich in your confidence.

We do not pretend we can recall every face and name, but we experience everyday this intercession, solidarity, friendship and poor prayer’s net.

The al-Khalil community.