Syria Series: Monks and Punks

I used to think that monasteries were old cliff-dwellings where guys in burlap robes hang upside-down from the rafters, reading the Bible in hieroglyphics and chanting melodies that I think they ripped off from Enigma's early albums. Or, I suppose Enigma may have ripped the melodies off the guys in burlap robes, but I can't imagine Enigma pilfering music from someone else and passing it off as its own.

Monasteries make grown-ups AND babies happy.
But then, I actually visited a monastery in Syria. I now know how wrong I was about monasteries. Monasteries are old cliff-dwellings where guys in burlap robes hang out, not from the rafters, but with hip, smelly European backpackers. (I know Europeans always get stereotyped into being smelly and poorly groomed; I think this is because Europeans are smelly and poorly groomed.)

Deir Mar Musa is stretched across a deep, rocky crack that splits a plot of squat Syrian mountains. Though it's been added on to over the years, and thoroughly renovated in 1994, the church around which the monastery was constructed dates to 1058. That's even older than Madonna, if that's possible. Our pod of BYU Arabic students (and spouses -- because at BYU undergrads have spouses) visited the monastery in November 2003. I don't remember a great number of details about the experience. But I do recall a few.

The monastery had been renovated about a decade before we visited, after nearly two centuries of neglect and disuse. Most of the fixing up consisted of rebuilding dilapidated walls. But they also put up a sweet action pulley line that stretched from the dusty, distant parking lot on the valley floor up to the building itself, nestled high in the cliffs above. We were going to ask Father Paolo -- the monk who ran the place -- what the pulley was for, but we understood after we'd climbed the hundreds of stone stairs cut into mountainside to reach the monastery itself. It would've supremely sucked to pack groceries and supplies up those stairs all the time. But, had they heaved stuff up the mountain all time, the monks would've been fitter. Which, upon further thought, I suppose isn't all the important for monks, as monks can't get chicks. So, two thumbs up for the pulley. Also, two thumbs up for the word "pulley," which is a joy to say.

The ancient church contains frescoes dating back to the 11th and 12th centuries. Father Paolo led us into the sacred confines, where we all examined the art with wonder. Well, everyone except me. It was my turn to "control" our 10 month-old Savannah, whose wiggliness and fussiness knew no bounds. I can't remember what the frescoes looked like, but I strongly recall feeling that everyone within 200 kilometers could hear my baby fussing. The spirits of the saints depicted on the church walls were offended by my baby's lack of respect for holy things. God Himself was surely asking, "Can't he keep that kid quiet in the church, for Pete's sake?" It's a shame, but whenever I think of those beautiful, ancient frescoes, I kind of want to smack Savannah. But I don't, of course.

Perhaps the most memorable impression from my visit to Deir Mar Musa was the total hippie ethic that pervaded the place. The word "hippie" is usually used pejoratively, but I use it here in a thoroughly appreciative and complimentary manner. Father Paolo had an open-door policy: anyone who trekked the 50+ miles into the barrenness north of Damascus and wanted to stay at the monastery was more than welcome -- provided the boarder pitched in to cook and clean at meal time. It was kind of awesome. Our group dined that evening out on a large stone porch that seemed to me suspended over the deep fissure dividing the rocky peaks bookending the monastery buildings. One might think that we stood out -- a half-dozen pasty Americans amid a sea of monks. Far from it. Father Paolo and his staff were vastly outnumbered by a motley smattering of backpackers, wanderers, and perhaps a small tour group or two. One guy, if I remember correctly, had been hanging out at the monastery for weeks, occupying one of a few small, creaky beds set up in the fortress precisely for vagabonds trying to find themselves out in the Syrian wilderness.

The sense of acceptance was palpable. Divisions in religion, belief, doctrine, and anything else seemed utterly unimportant. We ate. We helped with the dishes. I won't say Deir Mar Musa changed me drastically -- it didn't. But it was a node on the line segment of my life; my thinking changed direction just a degree or two that evening. Dogmatism, condemnation of divergent belief systems, and strife among religious sects seemed just a little sillier after I parted ways with Father Paolo.
It was -- and remains -- hard to believe that he had it wrong, treating the Christian monk and the atheist Danish punk traveler exactly alike.

Incidentally, the turmoil in Syria has not spared Deir Mar Musa. But the monastery has weathered nearly an eon of the Middle East -- odds are it can outlast Bashar.