Part of this story is about a man, Paolo Dall’Oglio, an Italian Jesuit in his early 50’s who felt called to work with Muslims while he was still in his early 20’s. The other part is about a place, Mar Musa, a centuries-old monastery in the Syrian desert that had been abandoned for at least 200 years. In his imagination Paolo saw it as a place where Jesus’ love for Muslims could be embodied. The best evidence that his calling was no illusion is that Mar Musa has become exactly such a place.
Paolo created the formula, or maybe it would be better to describe it as something he conceived in prayer. Mar Musa would support a contemplative life lived out by vowed religious, both men and women, whose calling and generosity would lead them to do the manual work that hospitality requires as part of service and love for the Muslim world. To date there are nine such vocations at Mar Musa. Each person has taken perpetual vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. I visited there for a week and was touched by the correspondence between what Paolo had envisioned and what has come to be in that desert spot 50 miles north of Damascus.
None of this would have happened had there not been a gradual but profound religious and intellectual conversion taking place in Paolo’s heart toward Muslims. The agency behind Paolo’s transformation was his growing understanding of God’s love for them. This is Paolo’s testimony, which I accept as true. The change began during the second week of his long retreat as a Jesuit novice in Italy. It grew when he went to Lebanon to study Arabic. It deepened as he studied the rapport between the culture of Islam in Europe of many years and Europe’s indebtedness to Islam for its numerous cultural, scientific, theological and philosophical developments. Culturally Paolo became a Muslim. Even religiously he would say he is a Muslim, “because Jesus loves Muslims, the same Jesus who is alive in me.” Paolo’s love for them is infectious and their affection for him unmistakable. The Muslim and Christian Syrians I spoke with beyond the monastery smile when you mention the place and smile even more broadly when you mention Paolo’s name.
Seed Planted in the Heart
This seed planted in his heart grew as he gave it space. During the long course of study before priesthood, Paolo spent every summer in some part of the Arab world, perfecting his knowledge of the people’s language and becoming inculturated in their world. He studied philosophy and theology in Rome, but even there he fed himself on the example and writings of Blessed Charles de Foucauld (1858-1915) and the Catholic Islamic scholar Louis Massignon (1883-1962). His doctoral thesis was on “Hope in Islam.” Paolo was ordained in the Syriac Catholic Rite and became part of the Middle Eastern Province of the Society of Jesus. None of this was against his will but with the cooperation of his will, until this love took up the whole of his life.
In thinking about him I recall the parable in Mark about the seed growing by itself. It is a playful parable that conflates the sower and the recipient. The latter “would sleep and rise night and day and the seed would sprout and grow he knows not how. Of its own accord the land yields fruit, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear” (Mark 4:27-28).
I don’t know why Paolo decided in 1983 to climb up to an abandoned monastery in the middle of the Syrian desert to make his annual retreat. It had been built in the 6th century, frescoed in the 11th century, abandoned in the 19th century and reoccupied in the late 20th century. There in this mile-high ruin he was led to realize his dream, hope, vision, urge—the call that had been with him since his novitiate retreat. “Impractical” is not a word he knows in any of his languages, which include Italian, Arabic, Syrian, English, Latin and French. Having received title to the land in 1991 from the Catholic Antiochian bishop of Nabk, a town about five miles away, Paolo reopened the monastery.
My reason for being at the monastery was to participate at an international conference of Jesuits immersed in ministry to Muslims (a different story from the one I am telling here and no less riveting), so I did not get to talk much to the visitors or to any of the nuns. But I spoke with two of the vowed monks, Brother Jens from Switzerland and Brother Jihad (really!) from Syria. Able-bodied joyful men, they take part in the daily routine of the place, which involves making goat cheese out of the milk carried by mule every morning up a very long, hazardous path through valley and mountain. The goats and the shepherd family live below, in the valley of the monastery property. The monastery has its own garden and an off-again on-again water supply with off-again on-again electric power. (Flashlights are an essential tool for any visitor, if one has an urge to leave one’s cell at night or is foolish enough to climb to the monastery at night.)
Morning prayer, which starts at 7:30 and lasts an hour, takes place in the monastery chapel, which looks rather like a mosque. You take your shoes off and sit on rugs facing the tabernacle and pray mostly in silence. It involves some teaching, usually given by Paolo, and often includes some aspect of Catholicism taken from The Catechism of the Catholic Church. And, for all the way-out ways in which Paolo is being led, he is not way-out doctrinally. What confirms my judgment about this side of him is that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has recently declared as orthodox his formula for the community. (It did not hurt, of course, to have John Paul II extend his apostolic blessing on Mar Musa in 2002 when he visited the Grand Mosque in Damascus.) The main meal is at 2:30 in the afternoon, and dinner can be as late as 10:00 p.m., depending on the hour of evening prayer and the Mass that follows.
A Contemplative Community
One has to marvel at the group’s desire to be a contemplative community, because with so many visitors this component of their vocation is hard to observe. To ensure it, each member takes a hermit day once a week or two days at a time once a month. They spend these in little caves carved out of the mountain a short distance from the monastery. The respites ready them to return to the work of hospitality. They work with a consciousness of Abraham, the friend of God, who walked into an open future across many borders. Like him, they host strangers in whom they see the face of God, and they hope that through their hospitality the world will experience more of the blessing all the nations of the earth were promised through Abraham (Gen 19:18).
Before going to Syria, I had anticipated that the community would be involved in creative prayer, Islamic and Christian prayer together. But prayer is not done together, even though many Muslims come there to pray in their own ways. They not only come, but in a heart-warming manner seem to see it as their monastery too. So the community is not on the margins of the lex orandi of the church’s prayer. Rather, it demonstrates love of one another, so that by both faiths being more faithful, they can mutually enrich each other. The monastery is unmistakably inculturated in a Muslim setting while being Christian in its manner of life. So the fruit of this bold initiative is as measurable as the fruit of prayer. And the most measurable fruit of prayer is love of those you pray for, pray with and what you pray about.
What I had not expected was the impressive investment in study and the developing intellectual life that is part of this remarkable place. The library is filled with treasures both from Islam and Christianity, especially early Christianity and, specifically, material about Arab Christianity and the desert fathers who antedated Islam in the 7th century. Three members of the community are studying in Rome, living in an old convent given to the monastery, so that they can obtain degrees in matters connected to their mission.
The vision of this man Paolo, who is more like a whirlwind than anyone else I have known, is not limited by a place nor by contemplative prayer. He and his companions have already begun to develop a complement to their ranks to further implement the vision of the monastery. They call it “Friends of Mar Musa.” When and if it matures, it will be like a third order but without members having to be Christian or in residence. “Friends” will be companions to the vowed members, consciously moving on the same journey to God, enriching one another from their respective faiths.
Even more venturesome is the community’s vision of being the first in a federation of such communities in other Muslim countries. The more I listened to the aspirations of Paolo and the community gathered here, the more I wondered whether God has this in mind. And if so, whether they represent a whole new way of seeing and living a contemplative life in a world that has had no such vision. My prayer for them is: Benedict, Dominic, Francis, you started out small; pray for this little band of pioneers!
The words spoken to Habakkuk in answer to his cry to the Lord seem appropriate: “Write down the vision clearly upon the tablets, so that one can read it readily. For the vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment and will not disappoint; if it delays, wait for it, it will surely come; it will not be late” (Hab 2:2-3).