The image is remarkable. On Good Friday, photographer Cécile Massie was sitting in the chapel at the monastery of Deir Mar Musa in the heart of Syria, observing the monastic community at prayer, when a young Muslim visitor slipped in, carrying his prayer rug. He sought out a discreet corner of the chapel, turned towards Mecca, and began to pray.
Cécile snapped a photo. So it is that the rest of us can now peer into this moment of intimacy, carried out in a country seven years into war, of a Muslim and Christians praying in a remote church together, each in their own tradition – a moment that might have otherwise been lost to history and witnessed only by God.
I have returned to that photograph repeatedly in the last weeks – as though that shared prayer might somehow hold the fractured world in place. In time, details have emerged: the wooden figure of Christ, removed from the cross after Good Friday services and placed on the ground in preparation for burial, is just visible on the furthest left corner of the photo, illuminated by candlelight. The icons on the iconostasis have been turned inward for mourning.
In the dimness of the chapel, the photo is made possible by light coming in from an open door. Together and separately the Muslim and Christian faithful turn toward God. This shared prayer – and with it a hope – enters into our suffering and becomes known.
The word compassion, in its most basic form, means to “suffer with,” or, to “share the suffering” of another. But in watching them I am reminded of another word that has the same root – Christ’s Passion, that ultimate gesture of shared suffering for the sake of love. For Christians, perhaps compassion in a time of war might best be thought of as a “sharing of the Passion,” a recognition that we cannot love one another if we shield ourselves from the hardships our neighbors have endured. The monks and nuns of Deir Mar Musa, a Christian monastic community dedicated to dialogue with Islam, only exist in the photo at all because they, at great risk to their lives, decided to remain in Syria throughout the war. Father Jacques Mourad, a Syrian priest and member of the community, wrote about the renewed significance of wartime dialogue in a letter in 2014, quoted by Navid Kermani in the pages of this magazine [Spring 2016]:
“Right now, the kind of dialogue we’re experiencing is our shared suffering as a community. We are sorrowing in this unjust world, which bears a share of the responsibility for the victims of the war, this world of the dollar and the euro, which cares only for its own citizens, its own wealth, and its own safety while the rest of the world dies of hunger, sickness, and war … The true dialogue we are living today is the dialogue of compassion.”
Since then, the world has continued to look on as Syrian innocents have been shot or crushed, gassed or drowned, downed by easily preventable illnesses, and left to die in too many ways to mention here. Many of us who live in the region are tempted to despair. The numbers of the dead have likely climbed to over 500,000 – an estimated 2.3 percent of the region’s pre-war population. UN agencies have stopped counting. Those who are killed no longer have names, nor numbers – they seem not to matter at all. And those suffering today are hardly confined to Syria: I recently saw thousands waiting in squalid conditions in a Greek refugee and migrant camp who had fled Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Yemen, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, among other countries: only some of the estimated 65.6 million individuals displaced worldwide. Those not fleeing war were fleeing poverty. The scale was astonishing.
Here in Jerusalem, where I live, many predict that a new wave of violence will also erupt soon. Already we wait on Fridays for news of Palestinian protestors killed and wounded by the hundreds in Gaza, and then we return to our daily affairs. I fear that most of us – myself included – have become used to this violence. We speak of the dead with the same nonchalance we once reserved for the weather, or traffic that might inconvenience us on the way to work. When a priest I know was recently asked about the situation in the region, he answered with shocking honesty: “We are sleepwalking towards disaster.”
Is there a way out? I think back to Father Jacques’ words. A dialogue of compassion, a binding of ourselves together in love, might be all we have left – carried out in a world that no longer cares.
Yet if compassion asks all of us to “suffer with,” it forces the question: who should we suffer with? To whom should we bind ourselves in this hour of need? If we listen to the prevailing wisdom not only in the Middle East but also abroad, then we should be cautious of who we choose to suffer with – for there is only so much suffering the human heart can bear. How many times have I heard Christian clergy ask the faithful to pray for the “Christians of the Middle East,” neglecting to mention that millions of people of other faiths have been killed or uprooted by the current wars? They suggest that we should “suffer with” only those of our own confession. How often have European leaders reminded us that they have compassion in principle, but that Europe cannot be asked to take in more migrants? How often have American politicians reminded us that they have compassion, but that we would do better not to interfere in the Middle East – even if that only means offering funds for refugees to go to school? Even members of aid agencies have privately told me that they have compassion, but that economic migrants are complicating the narrative they wish to tell about offering asylum to victims of war – as if poverty were not a violence that one might need to flee. Yes, of course we are willing to suffer with … but the question of who we suffer with is something else entirely. Yes, I have compassion! … But I will suffer only with those of my own religion, my own country, my own family, my own social class, my own politics… Never have I heard so many preconditions. People are willing to suffer, but on their own terms.
How tempting it is to give in to this logic of scarcity, repeated so confidently by those in power! One wonders what has happened to the faith of the loaves and fishes. The miracle of the wine. The promise that love does not need to be siphoned off – indeed, that love multiplies.
Who is my neighbor? Who do I suffer with?
We stand at a precipice. I am increasingly convinced that the only way back is to choose to bind ourselves however possible to every person we encounter. I say this not out of some naïve hope, but out of a grim reality, that the alternative is rising nationalism and a brutal sectarianism.
Who will I suffer with? Everyone, without exception. We can only hope to be saved together.
These days, when I am tempted to give up, I often think of Christian de Chergé, the prior of the monastery of Tibhirine, the monastic community of French Cistercian monks who decided to remain in Algeria during the country’s civil war so as not to abandon their Muslim neighbors. Seven of the monks, including Christian, eventually lost their lives due to their fidelity. Pope Francis recently recognized them as martyrs, clearing the way for their beatification.
During the period leading up to their deaths, Christian wrote often of the monks’ “martyrdom of love” – not their eventual deaths, but their choice to live out – day by day, moment by moment – a solidarity with the suffering of those with whom they shared their daily lives. Remarking that their choice to stay was a choice to live “in constancy” with others who suffered, he placed the brothers in communion with the Muslims with whom they lived, noting that “this place [Algeria] has other inhabitants who are also our brothers in constancy in this difficult time.”
He often returned to the example of Christ washing the feet of his disciples before his Passion. In a Holy Thursday sermon, Chergé wrote: “From experience, we know that small gestures cost a lot, especially if they are repeated each day. We wash the feet of our brothers on Holy Thursday, but what would it be like to do this daily? And to all who come?” For Chergé, martyrdom of love is accomplished only through “all sorts of little things.”
All sorts of little things. What kinds of little things? Might we also learn them?
For when I think about this moment we find ourselves in, it is not the bombed-out cities that frighten me most, the ravaged homes and mosques, churches and town squares – though these losses are devastating. It is the destroyed relationships. In this I fear that all of us have become guilty, be it from the hatred that has built up in our hearts, to the indifference – its own form of violence – that has kept us from caring anymore. We have come to believe the fiction that we can live without one another. There will be no brick and mortar that will repair this, no shortcut that will bring us back again after we have so dehumanized others and in doing so lost much of our own humanity. We will only make our way back day by day, moment by moment, through all sorts of little things.
I have witnessed these little things carried out by ordinary people, often refugees, who have discovered within their hearts some wellspring of kindness that survived war and displacement. It is in large part because of them that I have not given up yet. I think of a young refugee who fled years of bloodshed in Deir ez-Zor in Syria and was stranded on an island in Greece. He sat his friend down in a folding chair outside the camp and lovingly gave him a haircut.
I stood back in awe, witnessing this little thing.
Or Sanaa, a Syrian woman I met in Jordan who lost her brother in the war, and who I watched leaning over a kitchen table and helping her son with his homework.
An exhausted Palestinian day laborer who gave up his seat on the bus after a day of work, recognizing that an old man was carrying a heavier burden, still.
A Syrian priest who was kidnapped and escaped, forgiving the one who betrayed him.
A former prisoner who still bore the scars of torture on his body, singing as he prepared a meal for his friends.
A community of monks and nuns, who decided to stay.
How can God possibly be indifferent to such gestures? How can any of us? When we have given up on institutions to save us, on governments or aid agencies, on political leaders, we place our hope in these small, almost invisible acts to repair the world. Little things are elevated to their proper place in the story of salvation, as miracles, a dialogue of pots and pans, often carried out by anonymous saints – mothers and fathers and their children, gardeners and bakers – who remind us through their tenderness how to be human again.
Somewhere in a Syrian village, a father plants a tree. A young man crosses the sea with his violin wrapped in cellophane. A Muslim man walks into a Christian chapel in a country at war, turns toward Mecca, and joins the two communities in prayer.
And the world holds out another day, in expectation of almond blossoms, or a symphony.
Photographs reproduced by permission of Cécile Massie