Ilona Sābera – portfolio

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Searching for a dialogue in a desert: hospitality of the Christian community at Mar Musa

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Published on EMAJ Magazine

After a lonely and silent climb up the desert mountain, you enter an isolated microuniverse. A group of young people are clearing the table, others are cutting vegetables. Suddenly you are at the table, refreshed after a climb with some water, Syrian bread, tea and goat cheese are brought to the table by a volunteer of unknown nationality. Everyone here takes part in a system which hinges on solidarity.

The ancient monastery Dier Mar Musa el-Habashi of the Syrian Catholic church is located 80km from Damascus and 1320m above sea level. The uniqueness of this place  is due to in its hospitality: open to every visitor, from day trippers who come  to see the 12th and 13 century frescoes to the authentic spiritual pilgrims.
Nun Deema Fayyad speaks about the role of the Christian monastic community in a mostly Islamic society. “What does the presence of an Islamic majority mean here? Its is not just a coincidence: we want to express the love of Jesus Christ for everyone, including Muslims.

Feel welcomed and exchange the ideas

An important characteristic of Mar Musa is the good relationship between monastic and everyday secular lifestyles  and openness towards others. Jessica Belding, an American student of Arabic came here thinking  to visit the monastery and save money, but she has found more than she expected: “It’s a very nice balance being in the church and having time to meditate but also  being in the community with some really amazing people. I’ve seen Muslims here and I talked to some of them. I think it’s a really nice place for dialogue, because its welcoming  even to people who don’t have any religion.

The visitors are welcomed and feel part of the community. An Italian student Giulia Capellari  spent  only one day at the monastery on her first visit: “I fell in love at once with this place, which was so beautiful in the evening, you could even see the moon over the roof of the church. It was full of people in August, everybody had meals together and talked in all languages – English, French, Italian…” She has come back several times since then and has decided to devote her final university thesis  to Mar Musa.

Mar Musa has become a much talked about place for the people from all over the world (young European and American backpackers, Arabic students from Damascus, Syrian Muslims, travelers from Asia and Australia etc.). “It’s very nice to see so many people discovering and becoming part of the place, to see them surprised about the concept. People from all over the world are exchanging ideas about the humanity…” comments Cecil Massie, a French volunteer who has already spent 7 months at Mar Musa.

Daily work and the lack of rhythm

The ruins of the monastery, constructed in the 11th century and abandoned in the 19th, were rediscovered by an Italian Jesuit Paolo Dall’Oglio in 1982. With his initiative in 1984 in collaboration with Syrian state, the Syrian Catholic church and a group of European and Arab volunteers began restoration. It was completed in 1994 in collaboration with the Italian government. The monastic community foundation was started in 1991.

One of wishes of father Paolo today is for Mar Musa to become a place of initiation for young  people: “We can’t initiate you into  dogmas, closed structures or systems of power. We need to offer you initiation to a creative movement which requires a lot of generosity, sacrifice and the ability to suffer. Many young people are unable to make the sacrifices. The fear of mistakes  kills generosity. Maybe this valley is a testimony to this absurd dream, realizing in some way it is a motivation for  hope.”

Everyday life in the monastery consists of prayers, meditation, work and meals together. There are 2 nuns and 6 monks in the community, there are also 3 workers and 2 long term volunteers. Each day around 30-35 people visit and sometimes spend nights there. Cohabitation of man and nature is expressed in fact that around the monastery there is a protected environmental area. The monastery has a small garden, goats (for cheese) and chickens. Foundations and individuals help maintain monastery projects.

Cecil is working as a volunteer in project management for the monastery (one of the projects is to create workshops for Palestinian and Iraqi refuges). She says : “They make you feel like part of the family.  The duties are always changing. It took me a while to understand that there is no rhythm.” After the end of her stay she wants to change her lifestyle, return to her region in the south of France and take part in other initiatives.

Gratitude of the spiritual life

The spiritual dimension at Mar Musa is an essential part of daily life. “I have learned simplicity from the monks. In the beginning I was surprised to see people leaving the church during the Mass and coming back for the communion,” says Cecile. For many this is a place to be in harmony with a world outside and inside. For the nun Sister Deema  it was a chance to be by herself for the first time: “It is something very strong, very important and difficult. I was drawn by the silence here.” She has been  at Mar Musa for six months, has done a retreat guided by father Paolo, and eventually decided to stay at the monastery.

One of the initial ideas of father Paolo was  to not oppose the spiritual and the material. this should be a place where: “The individual liberates from obedience  to corporal needs and instincts – power, money, sex – and is oriented to becoming a body with mountains, under the sky, a person oriented towards spiritual transparency of the universe. It is a dimension of transparency, of going over, going into the funding of this material world. It is the gratitude of the spiritual life.”

Sharing – liberating from the fear of unknown

With its activities of inter-religious dialogue, the Christian community of Mar Musa has found a group of Muslim collaborators, interested in the continuous realization of this idea. Each year an event lasting 3-4 days takes place at the monastery with Muslim and Christian participants. The purpose of it is the discussion  of a particular subject in search of common points in the different religions. “It’s not only a conference, we come to a share spiritual moments together, Christian and Muslim traditions. We read the Koran and the Bible together. There are moments where we try to understand the meaning of the other faith. It helps to understand, because human beings are always afraid of  the unknown.” Most of the Muslims come from Syria, but there are some from Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.

Although there are around 10% Christians in Syria, Mar Musa is the only Christian community which is working on dialogue with the Islamic community. The result, however,  depends on individual will, affirms father Paolo: “The impact is wide when we are meaningful to  ourselves, then we can be meaningful for many others. But  we always need to start from personal necessity. We are not here for the strategies. Later the strategies come out, but as the answer to a passion and not as an instrumental design.”

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