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From the New York Times: Modern-Day Pilgrims Find Interfaith Bond in Ancient Syrian Monastery by Robert F. Worth
DEIR MAR MOUSA, Syria — As darkness falls over the vast Syrian desert and the first winter stars emerge, a trail of modern-day pilgrims is slowly climbing the stone steps of this remote cliff-top monastery.
They are a motley crew of religious seekers and backpackers from a dozen countries, some hoping for divine wisdom, others merely curious. But all are hoping to meet the Rev. Paolo Dall’Oglio, the burly and dedicated Jesuit priest who has made this ancient sanctuary a center of Christian-Muslim dialogue.
“Some say this church looks like a mosque,” said Father Dall’Oglio, as his guests warmed their frost-stiffened hands over a wood-burning stove. “We are very proud of that.”
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Father Paolo, as he is known here, presides over a group of 10 monks, nuns, and volunteers who welcome guests year-round and struggle to build harmony around a religious fault line that has only grown more volatile since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. His passion for interfaith dialogue — he recently published a memoir titled “Believing in Jesus, Loving Islam” — has helped draw ever-larger flocks of visitors up the mountain to sleep in the monastery’s stone huts and take part in its multilingual prayer services.
Father Dall’Oglio, 55, is a big, ebullient Italian who seems constantly in motion. He is almost single-handedly responsible for restoring the monastery of Deir Mar Mousa, which is set in a craggy hillside 50 miles from Damascus, the Syrian capital.
When he first came here in 1982, he found only an abandoned Byzantine ruin, with faded 11th-century frescoes open to the wind and the rain. He spent 10 days praying and meditating here, he recalled, and conceived the idea of building a new house of worship that would help to address the region’s religious conflicts with an emphasis on manual labor and common spirituality.
“At the time, the Lebanese war was on, the Israeli-Palestinian problem was getting worse, the Islamic movement was growing,” he said.
Father Dall’Oglio set to work at once, and has lived here full time since 1991. Today, the frescoes and church have been painstakingly restored. Stone guest houses blend seamlessly into the hillside, along with offices, a library, and a broad esplanade where guests gather and eat. Recently another monastery was refurbished 30 miles away, along with some ancient caves where hermits once took shelter. The monastery draws thousands of visitors a year, many of them Muslims, who often come during religious holidays to pray. Father Dall’Oglio also works with local Muslim leaders on educational and environmental projects, and convenes conferences on theology.
In a sense, Deir Mar Mousa is one of the last outposts of a shrinking faith. When monks built the original monastery in the sixth century A.D., this was the geographic center of Christianity. Today, Christians are a minority, and many feel increasingly beleaguered, with the rise of militant Islam and the violent persecution of Iraqi Christians.
But Deir Mar Mousa’s rituals emphasize mutual understanding rather than Christian preservation.
“We try to be a positive voice in this collective scream of anguish,” said Father Dall’Oglio.
That voice can be heard in Deir Mar Mousa’s prayer rituals. On a recent winter evening, candles provided the only light in the chapel — a cavelike structure whose walls bear inscriptions in Arabic, Greek and Syriac, an ancient Aramaic language that is still used in the liturgy of Syrian Christianity. Two dozen visitors sat meditating for an hour in silence, a standard feature of the prayer ritual. A fresco showing the Last Supper glimmered on the wall opposite the altar.
Then Father Dall’Oglio entered and donned his robes. Gazing out cheerfully at the visitors, he explained the Syriac liturgy, like a college professor giving a familiar lecture. He recited prayers in Syriac and Arabic. Later, he cheerfully asked visitors to contribute their own prayers and thoughts, shifting easily from fluent Arabic to English to several European languages.
Afterward, the visitors slowly trailed out the church’s tiny door, and filed into a makeshift tent where supper was served: a hot lentil stew, with bread and olives spread out on the floor of a makeshift tent. Meals at Deir Mar Mousa are a cooperative affair, with guests helping prepare the food and wash the dishes. Accommodation is free, but visitors are expected to bring food or make contributions.
“As you see, our dinners go back to the Eucharistic tradition of the Lord,” Father Dall’Oglio said.
Part of Deir Mar Mousa’s tradition, Father Dall’Oglio added, includes manual labor as a spiritual exercise. Guests cook and clean, and help collect trash from surrounding hillsides.
As dinner ended, visitors huddled around a wood-burning stove, drinking tea and discussing theology. They were a remarkably diverse group: Indians, Japanese, Palestinians, various Europeans. As always, they plied Father Dall’Oglio with questions.
“If you hold one belief about God, and I hold another, aren’t we bound to come into conflict?” said one earnest-looking American.
Father Dall’Oglio weighed the question, rubbing his thin beard and looking a little tired after a long day. “I don’t claim to know the absolute,” he said. “I consider it a road, a path, that we are on together.”