A Syrian painter recently told me that we all have a map in our bodies, composed of the places we have lived, that we are constantly in the process of redrawing. A street from our childhood might be traversed by a train car in which we once fell in love. A garden from a year in London might yield, unexpectedly, a rose from the graveside of our grandmother. This map not only marks who we are but informs the way in which we encounter the world. The painter, a refugee originally from Damascus, was busily sketching the buildings of Istanbul, trying to move his map forward to the new country he now called home.
I am writing my map in the other direction. I am trying to remember who I am.
I lived in Syria more than a decade ago, and it was there that I met my husband. In a Syrian monastery perched up in the clouds, I rediscovered my faith. In Damascus I learned the Arabic that I still speak daily, and in a crumbling room in the Christian Quarter I began to write my first book. If my body is a map, Syria is the crossroads.
But I cannot go back. Now when I meet Syrians who have fled their country – living in refugee camps in Jordan, in the streets of Istanbul, in cafés in France – I ask them to tell me about the world they left behind. I sketch the details into the map of my body.
There were women who dried red peppers on the roofs of their houses in the old city of Aleppo. In Deir ez-Zor, a suspension bridge straddled the Euphrates River before it collapsed. A church in Homs was said to hold the belt of the Virgin Mary. In a garden in Daraa, we planted olive, lemon, orange, peach, and fig trees.
Every detail is a yes against the void. The 450,000 people dead. The estimated eleven million displaced.
There were two different kinds of apricot trees in the fields near Qaboun.
At the heart of my map is a monastery, and at the heart of that monastery is a man. To write this, I must remember him also and write him back into the map of my heart, which will not be easy. For he, too, has disappeared.
I was twenty-three the first time I journeyed to Deir Mar Musa, an ancient monastery high up on a cliff in Nebek, two hours north of Damascus. I was traveling through Syria for the first time, and rumor had it that one could visit a monastery in the desert that stood shining like a pearl, and that you could only get there by climbing a flight of 350 stairs. There was no need to tell anyone in advance that you were coming, and the monks and nuns who lived there would allow you to stay as long as you wanted. The abbot was said to be an eccentric Italian, the community spoke Arabic, and the frescoes in the chapel were some of the most important in the entire Middle East.
I took a bus to Nebek and a smaller minivan into the desert. At some point the driver swerved onto a path that seemed to be headed nowhere, then eventually stopped. I looked up. The monastery was almost dreamlike, suspended. I began climbing, one step after another, for what must have been half an hour, ascending skywards amongst silence and the chiming of goat bells. At the top of the stairs, I met Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, a man as unlikely as the monastery itself.
Today, people often ask me what he was like, and the truth is that it is difficult to capture him in words. Father Paolo was less a person than a force. He stood well over six feet tall, with wide shoulders and a deep baritone voice. He switched effortlessly between English, French, Arabic, and Italian, and he had taken up the habit of speaking like an old villager, in a dialect sprinkled with Arabic proverbs, like someone’s grandfather. He wore plastic house sandals under his monastic robe. He liked eggs for breakfast. He was always trying to quit smoking.
He was a Roman and a Jesuit, both of these things through and through – passionate and always speaking with his hands, obsessed with the Jesuit notion of the magis, the idea that there is always more we can do for Christ. Deir Mar Musa, the monastery he founded in a difficult country and an even more inhospitable desert, was proof of that magis. He had first come to the monastery when he was a student of Arabic in Lebanon, in the middle of the Lebanese Civil War. It was 1982, and Christians and Muslims in Lebanon were killing one another. He traveled on retreat to a ruined monastery in the Syrian desert, where he spent the night sleeping beneath a ceiling of stars. He prayed and eventually had the vision that would determine the course of his life: one day he would return to the monastery and restore it out of the ruins, creating a monastic community dedicated to prayer, contemplation, and hospitality. Yet it would not be just any monastery. The monks and nuns who took their vows there would promise to live their lives in dialogue with Islam.
It was an impossible hope, made in the depths of a sectarian civil war.
By the time I arrived, some eighteen years later, Deir Mar Musa was up and running. The stunning medieval frescoes of the church had been restored. A small community of monks and nuns had formed, named Al-Khalil, after Abraham, the khalil or special friend of God in the Quran, the common father of Muslims, Christians, and Jews.
I met Father Paolo again in 2001, as a journalist profiling the monastery after 9/11. After I diligently questioned him he turned the interview on me. I began to cry. This was the moment he became not an abbot in the desert but my spiritual father. Three years later I moved to Syria to study Arabic, and Father Paolo became a regular fixture in my life as I traveled out to the monastery on weekends and eventually completed the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola – a month of silence and directed retreat – under his guidance. When I climbed the stairs, he was often waiting in the courtyard, not for me but for whomever happened to be climbing the stairs. Later I would come to understand that, for him, everything depended on those encounters. For Father Paolo, those who would visit the monastery were tied up in his destiny. God sent them there.
Perhaps that was what unsettled so many of us who climbed those stairs, from all over the world: his insistence that this meeting was not an accident. Why did we come? Why did God bring us to the deserts of Syria? What does God desire for us to do in the world? He was never shy in asking the question.
It was in those years that Father Paolo taught me the theology of the sacred encounter. He believed that we must be changed by our meetings: with humans, with books, with religious traditions, with teachers living and dead. Meetings were our encounters with Christ himself, who came to us in a body. For this reason, Father Paolo’s love of Christ was made manifest in his love of other things seemingly unrelated: his passionate love of the Quran, which he read often and quoted regularly, to both Muslims and Christians; the Islamic writings of mystics such as al-Hallaj; and the Arabic language itself, which he was so devoted to that he often corrected Syrians who mispronounced words during the readings of the Mass. He was attached to Louis Massignon, the great French Catholic scholar of Islam, as well as Massignon’s friend Charles de Foucauld, the founder of the Little Brothers of Jesus, who had lived the last part of his life among the Muslims of Algeria. He was also deeply influenced by Gandhi and the writings of Simone Weil. Father Paolo once told me that all of us live in a chain of human beings, both living and dead, and our souls speak to one another.
He was an abbot, but he referred to himself most often as a monk. He was also a scholar, amassing a library in the desert that contained books in several languages on Eastern monasticism, Islamic mysticism, and philosophy. If you wanted to make him happy, you could arrive at the monastery with a chicken for the kitchen or a book for the library.
He spoke to me in English. He burst to life when Italian visitors arrived and he could converse in his mother tongue. He wrote in French. He prayed in Arabic. Every year, he fasted during Ramadan.
In short, he was a complicated man.
In the Ayat An-Nur, the Verse of Light, the Quran speaks of God’s light being like “a niche, within which is a lamp; the lamp is within glass; the glass is as if it were a pearly [white] star lit from [the oil of] a blessed olive tree, neither of the east nor of the west, whose oil would almost glow even if untouched by fire.” Father Paolo once told me that he wondered if that “light” was the light that early monks lit in the desert.
The monastery of Mar Musa was as much for Muslims as it was for Christians, and Father Paolo would often declare that he was in love with Jesus, but also with Islam. In private conversations, he referred to his relationship with Islam as akin to marriage. He tried to express this love in the tiniest of details, things that would go mostly unnoticed by others but which spoke to a consuming desire to make Muslims feel that the monastery was their home. He left the wall in the chapel facing Mecca free of icons, in case Muslims wished to pray inside. He explained the frescoes of the church in Quranic terms when Muslims came to visit, so that Abraham became the Prophet Abraham. We all took off our shoes when we entered the chapel, as in a mosque. Even the opening prayer every evening, when we sang out nur ala nur, or “light upon light,” over and over again, resonated not only with the gospel, where Jesus is the “light of the world,” but with the Quran’s Verse of Light, where “Allah is the light of the heavens and the earth.”
For Father Paolo, those who would visit the monastery were tied up in his destiny. God sent them there.
Every year, thousands of Muslims visited the monastery, and from the courtyard we could look down and watch them climbing the stairs from the valley below. Families would ascend on Friday afternoons after their picnics in the valley. Sheikhs would climb the stairs. Sufis would ascend to perform their chants. At lunch, the tables filled with young Christians chatting amicably with women in headscarves.
For Father Paolo, these meetings were not unlike those meetings in the Bible when the angels appeared as strangers and those receiving them were almost universally afraid. Many of the most significant moments in the text rely on welcoming an angel. The angels appearing to Abraham had special resonance for a community named in his honor, but it was the Annunciation, the angel Gabriel appearing to Mary, that I most vividly remember Father Paolo discussing.
We were at the point in the Spiritual Exercises when the angel appears to Mary. Mary says yes. This yes, mouthed in the face of uncertainty, allowed God to become incarnate. And so, Father Paolo believed, it is with us. Each time that we meet the Other and overcome our fear, each time we have the courage to say yes to the mysterious Stranger, who in the Middle East often comes as a Muslim guest, then the incarnation happens again. God appears among us in this love, this companionship, this meeting. Father Paolo had little patience for words such as “tolerance” to describe the interaction between Christians and Muslims. He was after something much more profound: a world in which we need one another to be complete, a world in which we cannot live without one another because our encounter with the divine depends upon this destined meeting. Father Paolo was not interested in mere coexistence. He was interested in miracles.