The Welcoming Monastery

Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Syria  ,
Monday, March 10, 2008

Perched high in a canyon in the Syrian desert is a Syriac monastery that opens its doors to all and encourages dialogue between faiths.  I climbed several hundred steps past olive trees and shrublands on steep rocky slopes.  At the top, I met the monks, a curious combination of Syrians and Jesuits that bridges traditions.  Indeed, services are in Arabic, French, and English and focus on meditation and reflection.

A couple dozen people were staying at the monastery dorms--several groups of Americans, a French group, a few women hoping to become ordained nuns, and several others.  All of us visitors helped with the dishes, cutting vegetables, cleaning, and more to help make the monastery run smoothly.  The monastery did not charge for the dorm bed, only provided a humble box for donations outside the church doors, which hid one thousand year old frescoes.

While we cut carrots, Ben from Colorado carved a dinosaur scene with the bits and pieces.  His parents, wanting something more than cookie-cutter education, had taken him and his two older brothers on an eight month trip looking at world civilizations and other cultures.  On the way, they would send live reports from their ibook to their classrooms, including an interview of some Rwandans about the genocide. 

Overlooking the canyon, the monastery was a great place to read and talk with all the people here or to walk in the hills.  A group of us walked up, but soon the caretaker in the hills beckoned us in for every caffeinated beverage he owned--tea, coffee, and mate, which the Syrians have imported from South America as a traditional drink.  The caretaker tended the goats, whose milk is turned into organic cheese for the monastery. 

In the evening, we had a one hour meditation followed by a reading and reflection.  Rev. Paolo Dall'Oglio, an Italian Jesuit, led the Sunday service in Arabic.  In a 2007 NPR interview, he said: "Each one of us, Muslims and Christians, we block the other in our concepts. We don't know about how the other build his hope, his relationship with God and others, his feeling about the secret spiritual dimension of life," Dall'Oglio says. "From that level, we are in a failure of dialogue and we have to start and start again."

The key question is: how do you keep the dialogue progressing to avoid repetitive beginnings?
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