Looking for God (دير مار موسى)
As we drove through the desert hills, the guy who had picked me up on the road between Al Nebek and the Deir Mar Musa el-Habashi asked me if I was Christian, seeming puzzled when I replied in the negative. “Muslim?” he asked me. “I’m still looking” I replied. Religion is a question one is often asked in the Middle East, and many a time I have replied with the truthful, yet nebulous “I was brought up an Anglican”. Atheism is often not something that people take too kindly too. “So what are you doing here?” he asked, still puzzled. In fact, what exactly was I doing there, coming to this monastery hidden in some arid mountains? It’s not something I had considered whilst casting a religious light on the question.
I had heard that this ecumenical monastery and the community which exists there, is something rather special. Père Paolo Dall’Oglio, the Father of the monastery, was reputed as quite a character. The title of one of his books, “Amoureux de l’Islam, croyant en Jésus” (In love with Islam, believing in Jesus) suggests the peculiar nature of this monastery, where different denominations mix freely, and Islam is revered.
I had come partly to experience this community life — everybody collectively preparing meals, cleaning and maintaining the monastery — and partly to witness the dramatic setting, and rather paradoxically, the solitude. The monastery sits isolated, amongst seem steep cliffs in a river-carved valley, 1320m above sea level, seemingly at the top of as many steps.
I had plenty of things to contemplate during my stay, but the question of my faith (or rather lack of it) largely eclipsed those other preoccupations, particularly during the one-hour long meditations that are held every night in the chapel, and the Mass that follows it. Everybody forming part of this (sometimes ephemeral) community is encouraged to partake in these events.
I had also heard that people get “sucked-in” to the life in the monastery, initially coming for a few days and leaving several weeks later. Tony, my co-traveler for the first month in Syria, was an example of this. Whilst I was there, I met a couple of tourists who had visited for the night, but the majority of people outside the formal community of monks, nuns and novices, had been there for several weeks already, some opting to volunteer for periods of six-months or a year. As I left, in the back of a truck that had picked me up as I walked back towards al-Nebek, I though I would be back to join their ranks*.
* Later decisions regarding my progress towards Africa means that this is no longer the case.