Mike Aquilina

Time Travel Agency

Thursday August 14th 2008, 11:14 am

Via Catholic News Service: Syrian monastery gives visitors taste of ancient spiritual life

AL-NEBEK, Syria (CNS) — A sixth-century monastery in the desert of western Syria is giving today’s visitors the experience of ancient spiritual life.

Named after St. Moses, an Ethiopian monk, the Mar Musa monastery is about 20 miles from the nearest town, Al-Nebek. The monastery and its church are staffed with Catholic and Orthodox nuns and priests, and the compound has become a center for Muslim-Christian interfaith dialogue. With its vegetable garden and goat herd, the desert monastery is a model of sustainability.

“I felt like I had a calling to come here, and I felt at home in Mar Musa even before I started living here,” said Father Michel Toma, a Syrian Catholic priest from Homs, Syria, who moved to the monastery several months ago after having visited the remote spiritual oasis several times over the last 10 years. “I love nature. It’s a relaxing and calm place.”

Everyone who visits works to help keep the monastery running. Some tend to the goats and make cheese. Father Toma’s specialty is making candles, something he is teaching the other residents.

He is particularly proud of the monastery’s hospitality to all who visit regardless of race, religion or nationality.

“We welcome everyone,” Father Toma said. “It’s not important that someone prays the same way, but that we all live together. We eat and pray together. That’s the way we live.”

This is what Italian Jesuit Father Paolo Dall’Oglio envisioned when he founded the community about 20 years ago.

After celebrating an energetic Mass in Arabic, Father Dall’Oglio was quick to greet a tour group from Italy.

“Come and see the new church,” he said, leading the group across a bridge and up a cliff to a nearly completed stone church.

When Father Dall’Oglio stumbled upon Mar Musa’s ancient ruins in the early 1980s, the monastery was in severe decay. The site had been long forgotten, known only to a few local goat herders. The ancient monastery is reminiscent of an era when rocky landscapes provided shelters for self-sustaining religious communities.

With the help of volunteers, the Syrian government and international sponsors, the church roof has been rebuilt and medieval frescoes have been restored. More than 340 steps have been added almost seamlessly into the mountain, easing the climb to the monastery for visitors.

According to legend, the son of a wealthy Ethiopian king named Musa founded the monastery. Preferring the monastic life to the throne, he traveled to Egypt, then to the Holy Land, settling in Syria where he became a monk in Qara, southern Syria.

He lived as a hermit in the valley where the monastery is now situated until he died a martyr at the hands of a Byzantine soldier. As the story goes, the king’s family took his body but his right thumb was separated from his body and remains a relic in the Syrian church in Al-Nebek.

Mar Musa once belonged to the Syrian Antiochene rite. It was more than 500 years — in 1058 — before the church was built. The church’s frescoes, which date from the 11th and 12th centuries and depict biblical scenes, are the monastery’s pride.

Restoration work has revealed three layers of artwork: Two are from the 11th century and the other is from the end of the 12th century or the beginning of the 13th century, according to restorers.

The nave of the church is decorated with images of saints, with females on the arches and males on the pillars. A representation of the Last Judgment is depicted on the wall of the nave.

Each evening, there is about an hour of quiet time, followed by a prayer service. The liturgy usually is celebrated in Arabic, French or English.

Recently, the Jameel family made the eight-hour trip to Mur Masa from their home in northeastern Syria, near the Iraqi border, to have their 6-month-old daughter baptized.

During the baptism the priests sang and prayed while a group of about 50 people observed the ceremony. Once the child was dipped in the water, the priests immediately sang a joyful Arabic hymn to the beat of a large drum.

As the Jameel family and other visitors left, a group of French tourists who spent five days at Mar Musa took one last moment to rest under the tent on the monastery’s terrace before returning to Damascus.

Claire-Lise Henge of Alsace, France, said she was pleased with her visit.

“It’s not too strict, not what you’d think a monastery would be like,” she said. “It’s very open here. They joke around and people feel comfortable.”

She welcomed the mandatory participation in daily life, jokingly saying, “It means we’re not just squatters here.”

Carole Perez-Pinard, also from the French group, acknowledged that life at Mar Musa was somewhat of an acquired taste.

“Communal living was a big change for me,” she said. “The first day, I couldn’t imagine staying four nights.”

Like the French visitors, Jane Bornemeier, a tourist from New York, decided to visit Mar Musa out of curiosity.

“I didn’t know what it would be like. But it seemed adventurous, so we did it,” she said.

She admitted it was not what she expected.

“When we arrived, we were dropped off at the bottom of a cliff. When I saw how far up it was that we had to climb, I said, ‘No way.’ It’s much more remote and roughing it than I expected, much more like camping out than I thought it would be.”

But after one night of sleeping under the stars on the monastery’s roof, she quickly warmed to the surroundings.

“It’s an extraordinary place,” she said while helping with a meal for other visitors. “This modern version of an ancient tradition is really something.”