THE SPIRITUAL UTOPIA: DEIR MAR MUSA AL-HABASHI

_ Elizabeth Pasipanodya

Deir Mar Musa Al-Habashi (the Monastery of Moses the Abyssinian) revives the monastic tradition of Syria and has the dual role of being a centre for ecumenism between Christianity and Islam in Syria and a centre for the preservation of the environment with the establishment of a protected area around the monastery. The method of dialogue, of reaching out to the Other as the community of the monastery prefers to call it, is a special one that follows the Abrahamic tradition of hospitality and the Christian theology of badaliya inspired by Sufist traditions within Islam and the works and lives of Louis Massignon and Charles de Foucauld.

The monastery of Mar Musa has stood at the eastern fringes of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains since at least the sixth century and is thought to have been built on the remnants of a Roman watchtower. Tale has it that an Ethiopian prince named Moses fled home after his father denied his calling to become a monk, so he wandered through Egypt, Israel and Syria following his destiny before being speared by Byzantine soldiers in the mountains near Nebek. The place of his martyrdom became the site of the monastery and in later years its positioning made it an apt stopover for pilgrims passing through the desert and for merchants on-route to Palmyra, and this lent it a prosperity that allowed the chapel of the monastery to be beautifully frescoed at least three times since 1058. It was fortified with the addition of a narrow entrance, slit windows and high walls out of necessity when the Mongols came in their broad invasive sweep of Asia and the monastery began to take its present fortress shape.  After the 15th Century, the monastery went into a period of long decline with the last monk leaving Mar Musa in 1831 (Wreford).  The re-foundation of the monastery began in 1982 when Fr. Paolo Dall'Oglio, an Italian Jesuit and present leader of the deir, was in the area on a spiritual retreat and came across the ruins of the old church and felt a calling to rebuild it. Deir Mar Musa today is no longer a garrison for the preservation of Christianity within walls against a Moor invasion but is now a place that reaches out to the Muslim.



The monastery strongly owes its existence to Father Paolo who seemingly holds it afloat by his strong will, love of Islam and devotion to his calling. The theology of badaliya that guides the monastery was begun by Louis Massignon, a French scholar and priest from the early part of the last century that spent 50 years of his life studying the life and teachings of the Islamic mystic Farid Al-din al-Hallaj (Husayn ibn- Mansur) after his acquaintance with him through the Persian poet Attar. Massignon found in the martyrdom of al-Hallaj a parallel to the Passion of Christ and found too that through the contemplation of Sufist writings, one could be converted to a truer religion that focuses on God's love following a Sufi tradition (Massignon)(1). The word 'badaliya' is taken from Arabic to mean 'a substitute' or 'to put oneself in the place of another'.  The concept of 'badaliya' embraced Massignon's own understanding in that learning the language and experiencing the traditions and culture of other religions enhances one's own faith. For him and for others today, the badaliya prayer is a testimony to the universal love of Christ where Christians heed the Christian calling to take Christ's words to love one another including one's enemies and persecutors.



Today the principle of badaliya is a radical nonviolent movement of Christian love for the Muslim; the Badaliya are called to suffer instead of the Muslim, through the Muslim and with the Muslim. The Badaliya are also called to pray for Muslims and with them and to be their voice and representation in suffering. "... the prayer for the other well-being becomes an intense experience of allowing ourselves to feel their pain as if it is our own and if we sincerely enter meditation, we will be led to the conclusion that by being able to cross over to the other experience, we have the capacity to understand rather than dismiss, to forgive rather than condemn, and to make peace rather than war in our broken world. We find ourselves meditating deeply on the meaning of compassion" (Buck).

Massignon believed that in order to understand Islam, Christians need a Copernican revolution that builds on the Muslim belief that we are all descended from Abraham through Ishmael and Isaac. This origin finds legitimacy in Christian eyes to Muslims as brothers, to the Qur'an as a scriptural text and to Mohammed as a prophet. Massignon argued for the "conditional authority" of the Qur'an as a revelation from God and for a partial recognition of Mohammed's authority as a "negative prophet" that proclaimed God and spoke of the final separation between good and evil, but one that unfortunately denied that the trinity of God as more than the simple oneness that is proclaimed in the Islamic Tawhid (O'Mahony).           Spirituality at Deir Mar Musa engages with Islamic mysticism so closely as to resemble it in many aspects. Arabic is the lingua franca of the catechism and of mass, prayer is in the Islamic fashion of standing, kneeling and prostration and the repetitive incantation of the name of Allah after mass is reminiscent of the Sufi dhikr (remembrance of God) leading to fana fil dhikr (abnegation or loss of self-consciousness in dhikr). "Islam is the human group to which the community belongs, taking part in the life of the Umma (the one community of believers). As part of the Umma, the community wishes to be a channel for taking the Body of Christ in language, religion, history and symbol- into Islam, to fulfill God blessing to Ishmael, through Abrahamic intercession; a channel more effective from the use of Arabic both for social life and liturgy" (Dall'Oglio)(2).



The method of dialogue within the monastery is one with the aim to feel at home in the world of Islam, "culturally, linguistically and symbolically, and to love the world starting with Mohammed". The community exists for Islam rather than being a mission to it with the aims of conversion to Christianity; a dialogue without the traditional form of proclamation.  Father Paolo considers himself a Muslim within the Catholic Church as  "the love of God for Muslims and Islam is by way of the spirit and not the letter".   He follows Massignon in seeing the Eastern Churches as the best way to forge relationship between Muslims and Christians,  "The Universal Church will not be able to meet Islam by jumping over the Oriental Churches, but through them" (Dall'Oglio)(3), and as Massignon was ordained in the Arabic Melkite Rite, Father Paolo was ordained in the Arabic Rite of the Syrian Catholic Church. He sees the greater shared traditions of the local churches as the only way to build bridges with Islam, not through the rite of the Western church.

The growing Catholicism of the Catholic church following the Vatican II reformation on the principles of dialogue and proclamation and the Jesuit policy of inculturation that encourages the "search for a new language, a new set of symbols, that will enable us... to rediscover the true God" ( J-Y Calves, SJ)(4) introduce a new dialectic of syncretism that is at odds with the preservation of Christianity as Christianity and with the maintenance e of a Christian identity that is not a mash of other traditions or an averaging out of faiths. Syncretism has been described within the Society of Jesus as "the relation between the word and the world", the church taking up the particular culture of a place " through some process of death and resurrection" so that what is to be planted "is not a westernised church but the word of God" (Carreira-Alfonso, SJ)(5). Father Paolo's view, and that of the monastery in general, is that syncretism is a good challenge to the conception that people have of a church; "what are they left to think when we pray on cushions in the manner of the Muslim and monks dress as Bedouins?" What is here no longer appears to be the face of Christianity and this brings people out of their superficial self-awareness of identity into a crisis of change.





When theology is laid aside, the monastery refers to "the 3 principles" on which it is built. The first is to restore the ancient monastic tradition in Syria that is in the opinion of the monastery "the most-loved face of Christianity to Islam". Monastic life in Syria began in the 4th century and was of three forms with stylites; that lived atop of pillars all their lives for reclusiveness, anchorites that lived solitary lives more conventionally in buildings and cenobites that lived in communities ( Pena). The original format of Mar Musa may have been that of a cenobite community with a master and disciples occupying anchorite cells in the nearby hills so as to live as solitaries; meeting only for prayer and meditation.

The second principle is that of Abrahamic hospitality. The concept of hospitality in Arab tradition by extending free accommodation to travellers has its roots in the Old Testament and Qur'anic story of Abraham welcoming the two strangers into his tent, unaware that he was entertaining God. All are welcome at Deir Mar Musa and are invited to stay as long as they please, as "the community is open to all that feel themselves in accord with the Community theology". As with de Foucauld, the welcoming of visitors is the priority of hermitage, higher in ranking above all other calls on the monastery's time. In Abrahamic hospitality, the Guest becomes an Icon, an embodiment of 'otherhood', which, for religious people, is God Himself. In the name of God, the host receives the Guest, recognizing in his face the image of God, the Guest. (Dall'Oglio). Sacred hospitality, a concept that was inspired by the Islamic commandment of hospitality and rooted in the life of Jesus Christ demanded, in Massignon's eyes, to accept anyone and serve him without the desire for him to change or be different. This, instead of mission, reaches out beyond the monastery itself. Hospitality unites a love for God with the love for mankind. The third rule is manual labour that is seen as an ascesis, an exercise and effort and is carried out in the daily activities of the monastery and in taking on a responsibility for the environment. The monastery's hope is that an emphasis on the environmental dimension can preserve the cultural and spiritual significance of a monastery in the desert.



The community of the monastery is often composed of an odd assortment of individuals, and from different parts of the world, although native- French speakers seem to out-number everyone else. Different kinds of people that come to the monastery here; the noisy students that come in bus-loads from neighbouring towns to receive religious instruction on a 'rahla' or outing, the holiday-making Syrian taking a weekend out (usually staying a night or two and usually from the city of Homs), the people that stay many days before moving on and are infinitely interesting (like a Spanish clown and magician that was once a lawyer and is riding his bicycle around the world), and the tourists that come on a packaged deals arranged somewhere in Europe that stay a few hours, sometimes a night, taking many pictures of the frescoes in the church.

 

 

References
32ndCongregation of the Society of Jesus Proceedings.( 1974).

Buck , Dorothy.(2002).  Dialogues With Saints and Mystics: In the Spirit of Louis Massignon. KNP Publications

Choueri, Yousef M. (2005). Companion to the History of the Middle East. University of Manchester

Dall 'Oglio, Paolo (2003) . In Praise of Syncretism. JGC  Volume 1.2 April 2003

 Khosla, K .(1987) T he Sufism of Rumi.  Element Books Ltd

Borelli, J., Fitzgerald, M. (2006). Interfaith Dialogue: A Catholic View. Society for the promotion of Christian knowledge.

 Hamilton E. (1968). T he Desert My dwelling Place Hodder and Stoughton. London

 Loosely E., Dall'O glio P .T  he Community of Al-Khalil: Monastic Life in the Service of Christian-Islamic Dialogue  Sept 2003

NOTES:

1. La Passion d'al-Hosyan-ibn Mansour al-Hallaj, Martyre Mystique de I'Islam  

2. In Praise of Syncretism

3. Loosely page 4

4. 32nd  

5. 32nd

 

 


Elizabeth Pasipanodya 09ecp@williams.edu