“God Is Shy” – a story from Syria

Last night (29 July) the news came through from Syria that Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, a highly respected Jesuit priest who has lived in Syria for thirty years, had been kidnapped. Rumours began to swirl on social media, first about his kidnapping, then about his supposed late-night release.

At this writing (30 July) it’s not clear exactly what’s happened, or where Father Paolo is.

This is no ordinary abduction (if abduction it is). Since the revolution began in Syria in 2011 Father Paolo has campaigned vociferously among the Syrian people and the international community for a peaceful democratic transition. In 2012 he wrote an open letter to the UN’s envoy Kofi Annan. Then the Assad regime expelled him. He has been living in exile since – and continues to call for ‘victory without revenge‘. His is a voice of sanity amid the madness which has engulfed his adoptive country.

For news of Father Paolo, and the appalling war in Syria, follow the independent media project Syria Deeply.

I have never met Father Paolo. Middle East writer and campaigner Daniel Adamson – a good friend of mine – has. Daniel wrote the following story in 2005, after visiting Father Paolo at the monastery of Deir Mar Musa outside Damascus. He has given me permission to post it here. Read it. It’s beautiful.

God is Shy

Father Paolo dall’Oglio and the monastery of Deir Mar Musa

By Daniel Adamson, 2005

When Paolo dall’Oglio was a child his father gave him an illustrated book on the life of Saint Paul. In its pages he found old-fashioned black-and-white drawings of the Middle East: desert-dwelling Arabs, bedouin tents, the impossibly old cities of Palestine and Syria.

For a boy growing up to Catholic parents in 1950s’ Italy, these were images of a land far, far away. But they gave Paolo his first glimpse of a world that, many years later, he would make his own, and his first inkling of an idea that would determine the path of his life: Christianity is an Eastern religion.

As a young priest in the Society of Jesus, Paolo made his way from Rome to the desert, tracing the journey of his faith in reverse. In Damascus he heard of a monastery abandoned in the mountains to the north and, looking for a quiet place to pray, he made his way up to the ruins of Deir Mar Musa.

Founded by early Christian hermits on the site of a Roman fort, this monastery was already old when the new faith of Islam pushed the Byzantine Empire back into Anatolia. Protected by its extreme isolation, the monastery survived centuries of bedouin raids, the rise and fall of the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates, the incursions of Mongols, and even the collapse of Byzantium itself.

But it could not survive the birth of the modern world. Towards the middle of the nineteenth century the last monks died or drifted away, and fifteen centuries of monastic silence faded into the older, deeper silence of the desert.

In the summer of 1982, Paolo found nothing more than a shell. The roof of the church had collapsed, the Byzantine frescoes were fading in the sun, and goats were penned inside the stone walls. He spent ten days alone, praying and walking in the desert. When the time came to leave, Paolo knew that in Deir Mar Musa he’d found his home, his work, and his reason to be in Syria.

Over the last twenty years he has restored the monastery – not as a historical monument but as a living centre of Christian prayer, work, and hospitality in the heart of the Islamic world. The six monks and nuns who form the community now keep their own goats and tend their own gardens down in the valley; they’ve built a dam across the gorge to hold the winter rains, and created a library of books that range across the world’s religious traditions.

In 2003 the restoration of the church’s twelfth-century frescoes was completed at last, and it is here, watched by the severe, candlelit faces of saints and apostles, that Paolo holds the evening mass.

The celebrants, guests along with the monks and nuns, sit barefoot on the carpets as they did in first centuries of Christianity. Slowly people settle into the flickering semi-darkness. Silence. After so many years of empty, desert silence, this is the full and present silence of human prayer. It feels like the stillness of water, like the surface of water undisturbed.

An hour passes. Quietly at first, music touches the quietness that has gathered in the church; psalms and prayers follow, sung in the Arabic that, centuries ago, displaced Aramaic as the language of liturgy here. Bibles are handed round for the day’s reading, candles re-arranged, and Paolo, wearing his white smock, seated cross-legged at the low wooden lectern, asks and answers the questions that arise from the text, shifting easily from Arabic to French, English to Italian.

At the end comes the lifting and blessing of bread and wine, the passing round of the glazed earthenware goblet and the little plate with its pieces of unleavened bread. Do this in memory of me.

Spiritual ground

In this nightly celebration Paolo leads his community towards the stillness at the centre of monastic life. It is not a social event, a sermon, or a ritual enacted for its own sake. It is a reaching back towards the meaning of this place, towards the spiritual ground on which the monastery was built so long ago. Without it, Deir Mar Musa would rapidly lose touch with its original reason for being, for silence does not always prevail here.

Every year the monastery is visited – invaded might be a better word – by hundreds of people from across the world. Most of them are what might be called ‘spiritual refugees’ from a Europe that has lost its faith: young backpackers who come up here for a day, a week, a year, looking for something to which many of them can give no name at all. In the summer these travellers, combined with the bus-loads of local schoolkids who arrive with their teachers or their priests, can turn Deir Mar Musa into something that feels more like a youth hostel than a monastery.

But Paolo would not turn anyone away. “I have learnt that hospitality is a spiritual attitude,” he says, “as well as a moral imperative.”

Alongside this sense of hospitality is the hope that some of these young people might feel called to stay at Deir Mar Musa for a lifetime. But it is not easy, in the twenty-first century, to find people with a vocation for the celibate life of a desert monk. Only six young people, Syrians and Europeans, have made that commitment over the last fifteen years. Others have come close. Paolo told me of a French boy who had embarked upon his novitiate only to fall in love and leave with one of the girls staying here.

In one of his more memorable statements, a disappointed Paolo explained that although God may draw people towards the religious life, He does not force His will onto anyone: “God” he said, “is shy.”

Love Islam

That comment is typical of the odd and unexpected ideas that enliven Paolo’s conversation, thrown out in an imperfect English that is often more expressive than a native speaker’s could ever be. His Arabic, on the other hand, is flawless. It is hard not to smile at how completely this bearded Italian priest has absorbed the language and identity of the Middle East. “We Syrians…” he will declare loudly in a public meeting. “We Semites…”

Driving away from Deir Mar Musa with Father Paolo at the wheel of the monastery’s jeep, I asked him what was in his mind when he was first sent by the Church to study Arabic in Beirut and Damascus. Did he know that his identity would be entirely re-cast by the culture of the Middle East?

“I came in the first place to try to become Arabic, to try to assume as deeply as possible the Islamic culture, and to see what happens to Christian faith when it is exposed to the cultural, human, religious value of Islam. I was sent to love Islam and Arabs. It was as clear as that.

“My mission was to go and love, to go and understand, to assume the culture. That was the way I understood the Christian mission at that time. To be a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth means to be sent all over the world, and wherever you find yourself you are called to love the people, to deepen your knowledge of their culture, to try to understand their culture, to look for the values of that culture, to discover the richness of that culture, and to perceive the activity of the holy spirit in that religion. You have to try to understand what the spirit of God is doing in this place, and to look for what role these people have in the history of human spirituality, in the history of salvation.”

A more conventional priest might have sunk beneath the weight of such a mission. To become Arab? To love Islam? Paolo swam. What began as a study has developed into something much more profound: an immersion in the culture and faith of the Middle East so complete, so sustained, that Islam has soaked right through Paolo. Though it has never displaced his belief in the person and meaning of Jesus Christ, Islam has become a part of his own faith.

This is something that goes way beyond the term ‘dialogue’, implying as it does the exchange of views between two separate and distinct sets of beliefs. As a young priest, Paolo felt instinctively that Islam would be the next big question.

“Somebody”, he said in an interview in 2004, “had to go into this question so deeply as to be within himself a kind of answer.”

Minority

As we reached the end of our drive, Paolo drove the point home. “I believe in Islam,” he said.  “I believe in its spirit, I believe in its beauty, I believe in Islamic prayer, I believe in the Sufi traditions, I believe in the Islamic pilgrimage, I believe in the Islamic aesthetic, I believe in the Islamic fire of jealousy for the One God. But I remain a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth, and I believe there is a place for the Christian minority in the Islamic world.”

These are not empty words. At Deir Mar Musa, Paolo has created a community that receives hundreds of Muslim guests every year, each one welcome to stay the night, to drink tea, to share a meal or pray in the church. This was not, perhaps, what the Bishop of Homs had in mind when Paolo first proposed the restoration of an early Christian monastery in the desert. Paolo laughs.

“They wanted me to be a goat, an old Syrian goat!”

The bishops were not alone in their reservations. In the early years many of the locals found it hard to understand exactly what was happening up at Deir Mar Musa.

“Some thought that I was just new kind of proselyte, and they were not completely wrong. Some believe that I’m more Muslim than Christian, and they’re not completely wrong. For a long time people thought that I was up there to look for gold and treasure, and they were not completely wrong either: the church and the frescoes were a marvellous treasure.”

Despite the suspicions and the naysayers, Paolo – through sheer force of personality – has made Deir Mar Musa into a living reality. With its unique forms of worship, its armies of young travellers, and its doors wide open to the beauties of Islam, it may seem an unconventional kind of place.

Looked at another way, the ideas that Deir Mar Musa represents – Christianity, monasticism, hospitality, fraternity between Syrians of different faiths – all have a long history in Syria. None of them is alien to this place, and in that sense Deir Mar Musa, even in its new form, stands firmly on the ground where it was built fifteen hundred years ago.

Perhaps this is the real reason that Paolo has been able to breathe life into the ruins that he found twenty-five years ago.

“I believe in traditions,” he says. “And the oriental tradition is rich and full of value. The fourteen centuries of common life between Christians and Muslims is not something to be cast aside lightly.”

syriadeirmarmusa.

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45 Comments

  1. Boutique Travel Blog

    Very beautiful and moving. My thoughts are with Father Paolo, wherever he may be.

  2. Outremer

    Matthew: Thanks for this timely post. Every once in a while I run into some reference or connection to this unique place, Deir Mar Musa, and the man at the center of it, Fr. Paolo. With many others, I’m sure, I pray for his safety and quick release.

    The background piece by Mr. Adamson is brilliant — thanks for reprinting it. He writes: “Paolo told me of a French boy who had embarked upon his novitiate only to fall in love and leave with one of the girls staying here.” What’s funny is… I think I know these folks! French fellow and his American wife who met at a monastery in Syria. We’re out of touch at the moment, but they lived for several years (with their growing family) in Nablus Road in Jerusalem, not far from where I was at the Ecole Biblique. If I said “Abraham Path in Palestine”, maybe you know who I mean. Small world.

    Once again, many thanks for a great post.

    TOM POWERS / Bethlehem

  3. Daniel Adamson

    Tom, thanks for the comment. It’s an even smaller world than you think…I’m in Bethlehem too 🙂 And yes, you’re right about the French novice at Mar Musa. I wrote this before I ever met F&S, but they subsequently became good friends. Email me is you want to go for coffee in Btlhm one day – daniel.silas.adamson[at]gmail Cheers, Dan.

  4. Tony Howard

    beautiful story, Mathew

    1. Matthew Teller

      Thanks, Tony, I’ll pass that to Dan.

  5. Stuart (@MrStuartLodge)

    Powerful writing Daniel. I hope this story has a happy ending Matthew. Everything crossed

  6. AMITABHA GUPTA

    Extremely Well Written. I hope Father Paolo Dall’Oglio is safe and sound.

  7. Nystanet

    Beautiful!

  8. Soul Walker

    I will pray for the father.

  9. Tom Randall

    Wow. A wonderful, wonderful read.

  10. hiddenwholeness

    A gem of an article. Thanks for highlighting the story of his kidnapping.

  11. segmation

    What a great blog. I hope for peace in this area. Perhaps you blog will help make others aware of Father Paolo and help find him.

  12. Matthew Teller

    Thank you all. I’m passing all your comments to Daniel – he may reply himself here.

    Brief update: Father Paolo may have gone back into Syria from Turkey on a one-man peace mission. Some rumours talk of his going to Raqqa and demanding to see one of the top jihadist commanders in person, in order to reconcile Islamist and Kurdish factions. He may not have been kidnapped, as such, but may instead have disappeared in order to be able to gain access to the right people.

    But I might well have that wrong: treat this – and all ‘news’ out of Syria just now – with extreme caution.

  13. Let’s talk about it

    I enjoyed reading this post. God bless Father Paolo.

  14. Nathan Mizrachi

    Thanks for sharing this beautiful story. I hope that wherever Father Paolo is unharmed. It’s a good reminder that we should treat others as we wish to be treated, none more so than him.

  15. reasontoloveall

    Chance fell upon this article. It gives us hope doesn’t it. That one day maybe peace will prevail through the sheer bravery of open hospitality. I’m young and I’m not all that intelligent, I’m afraid, but I do know that through faith we will conquer any battle left in front of us.

    Thanks for the story.

    Reasontolove

  16. theRands

    Beautiful story. I truly hope things turn out well for Father Paolo.

  17. maurdian

    What a beautiful, well-written and compelling story about a fascinating individual. Father Paolo sounds like one of a rare breed, a true independent thinker who opens windows and doors for his own reasons and also provides opportunities for others to share in the new vistas. I felt my own mind opening just a little wider as I read of his explorations to find what felt right for him and where it led him.

    Thank you for this.

  18. Marryam H Reshii (@reshii)

    Beautiful, beautiful story. It cannot end in violence, or injury/harm to Fr. Paolo. It simply cannot, for his whole prayerful life would have been in vain.

  19. Matthew Teller

    Thank you, all, for such lovely comments. If I hear any solid detail on Father Paolo in the coming days and weeks I’ll post it here.

  20. arlene

    This is just so touching. I am praying for Fr. Paolo’s safety.Thank you so much for sharing.

  21. The Rider

    What a man, I really hope that he is ok. Thanks for sharing this, and well done on the FP!

  22. Daniel

    Many thanks to you all for your thoughtful comments. Paolo is a remarkable man, and my regard for him survives my more general hostility towards the Catholic church.

    As Matthew says, it seems that the news of his ‘disappearance’ or ‘abduction’ was premature. I have email from friends who were in contact with Paolo a day or so ago, and they report that he went quite deliberately to mediate between the leaders of ISIS (The “Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham”) and the Kurds. While he is with the leaders of ISIS he cannot use his cell phone or be online. Let’s hope this is right, and treat all news out of Syria with caution.

    I am no expert here (frankly, I’m well out of my depth) but as far as I understand it ISIS, which is a jihadi, Al Qaeda-affiliated Islamist group controlling areas of N.E.Syria, has been attacking Kurdish towns and villages because the Kurds are refusing to swear allegiance to the ‘Emir’ of the ‘state’ of ISIS. Some of the Kurds are PKK fighters, now continuing their own decades-long fight for Kurdish statehood within the chaos of Syria’s civil war. This is just one of the many fracture lines that divide the Syrian opposition and make it difficult to organize effective military opposition to the Assad regime.

    Paolo is a Jesuit. If he wanted to, he could be in Rome right now, eating spaghetti alle vongole and discussing Syria’s nightmare from afar. Instead he has gone alone and unarmed into the darkness of the civil war. Most of us will never know that kind of courage. I hope this story has helped a few people to get a better idea of who Paolo is, and from where he draws his strength.

    Cheers, Dan

  23. Matthew Teller

    Just to confirm, the comment just above this one, ending “Cheers, Dan”, is from the author of the ‘God Is Shy’ story, Daniel Adamson.

  24. Alan Lonergan (@AlLonergan)

    It would be nice if you could show some concern for the real Christians of Syria and for all those Muslim and Christian who have been kidnapped in Syria like the two Bishops from Aleppo, the two Priests from Aleppo and countless others of the community who have been abducted by groups which Paolo dall’Oglio support. paolo dall’Oglio supports Jihad in Syria and has shown utter disregard for the feelings of indigenous Christians, as a European he has done everything in his power to encourage NATO to attack Syria, violence be-gets violence, the Syrian people need peace not war. As one native Syria Christian asked recently in an open letter “what was Fr. Paolo doing feeding at the Syrian trough for 30 if the country was such a terrible place” likewise when the writer Daniel Adamson was in Syria and met Paolo dall’Oglio can he confirm that the country, not withstanding its lack of political freedom, was a functioning state with religious pluralism a majority Muslim state where there was room to accommodate other faith based traditions and activities like those of Paolo dall’Oglio, I ask this question – would you find this dynamic in Qatar or more importantly in Saudi Arabia two of the principle funders of the opposition in Syria?

  25. chiara p. cocchi

    Thank you, both for your article and for the wonderful story. It soothed and calmed my anguish for Abuna Paolo’s destinity. This uncertainty about his predicament and fate is shattering me, but reading these words oddly enough, comforted me somehow. Such a great man of vision cannot, may not, must not leave us, orphans in a mean world. So I wondered: why is he risking his life like that ? what about his dreams if he dies? But then I realized, also with the help of these words, that this is Father Paolo, had it not been for his courage and defiant love and generosity of spirit, none of his achievements would be there now. I do pray and think of him all the time, as many others do. May our mental energy reach you and support you wherever you are and whatever you are doing, ABUNA !

  26. sweetjamaphie

    This is an inspiring story.

  27. ChristinA Ritchie

    Touched me to the core, a beautiful and moving article. I thank you

  28. Caroline Osinga

    “Paolo told me of a French boy who had embarked upon his novitiate only to fall in love and leave with one of the girls staying here.”
    In 2005 I have met this american wife Stephanie Saldana at Mar Musa
    In 2011 a friend gave me her beautiful and heart-touching book “The Bread of Angels” about her life and love in Damascus and Mar Musa and her deep connection with Father Paolo. This book comforted me a lot when I was in tears about what was happening in Syria, when the internet-connection was closed and there wasn’t any contact possible.
    If you wish you can read letter of Stephanie 2 days ago on: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324635904578641673678953526.html
    I was so happy with her words and what she is sharing with us about the latest contact she had with Father Paolo on skype before he left Raqqa.
    Thank you Dan for your story and warm words about this deep loving, powerful man full of compassion. Caroline Osinga

  29. Matthew Teller

    Many thanks again for all your comments. That is indeed a fine piece by Stephanie Saldana, which I have already shared on Twitter – thank you for posting a link here, Caroline.

    @AlLonergan – the fact that you refer to “the real Christians of Syria”, and draw lines of division between ethnicities, implying one has greater legitimacy and value than another, shows your true colours. Your racism is disgusting. Let us be clear. The Assads turned Syria into a kleptocracy – corrupt, brutal and psychopathically intrusive. If some Syrians lived their lives in peace it was despite the regime, not because of it. That you have the gall to claim Syria was a functioning state “notwithstanding its lack of political freedom” makes me sick to my stomach.

  30. vanithasr

    your topic is excellent

  31. rebeccaseye

    I shared your story. What a fascinating life!

  32. sushil

    Great piece of writing. really love reading it. A beautiful and moving artice. we also invite the soul serenity and mental calm seeker to Indian land.
    Thanks.!

  33. GalOnTrip

    father paolo is an unusual kind of priest, with profound knowledge and love of islam, he’s still a true christian at the same time. amazing story. perhaps you could tell me how i can reach dei mar musa if one day i travel to syria. i’m so curious with that place. and is syria still a save place to visit at the moment despite the political turmoil?

    1. Matthew Teller

      Thank you, Gal – you’re absolutely right. Click here for the transport page from the Deir Mar Musa website – but Syria is definitely NOT a safe place to visit at the moment. What is happening there is not ‘political turmoil’ – it is a brutal, extremely violent and chaotic war. Stay away, until the situation becomes calmer. Let’s hope that that happens soon.

      1. GalOnTrip

        thx for your reply. the images of deir mar musa on google are magnificent! the frescoes looks like those in cappadocia. i really hope syria will be calmer anytime soon… do you yourself live somewhere close to syria at the moment?

        1. Matthew Teller

          I live in the UK. And tweet a lot 🙂

          1. GalOnTrip

            glad you’re not at the war zone. have a great day!

  34. vijo41

    I find this story captivating. Rarely do we find this depth of love and devotion to Jesus Christ in the world today. Wherever Fr Paolo is, God is with him. May he accomplish the goals that bring peace. May the Lord guide, guard and bless him.

  35. Perry O’Donovan

    Reblogged this on The Wordkern Archive and commented:
    “In Damascus he heard of a monastery abandoned in the mountains to the north and, looking for a quiet place to pray, he made his way up to the ruins of Deir Mar Musa.

    “Founded by early Christian hermits on the site of a Roman fort, this monastery was already old when the new faith of Islam pushed the Byzantine Empire back into Anatolia. Protected by its extreme isolation, the monastery survived centuries of bedouin raids, the rise and fall of the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates, the incursions of Mongols, and even the collapse of Byzantium itself.

    “But it could not survive the birth of the modern world. Towards the middle of the nineteenth century the last monks died or drifted away, and fifteen centuries of monastic silence faded into the older, deeper silence of the desert….”

    In the summer of 1982, Paolo found nothing more than a shell. The roof of the church had collapsed, the Byzantine frescoes were fading in the sun, and goats were penned inside the stone walls. He spent ten days alone, praying and walking in the desert. When the time came to leave, Paolo knew that in Deir Mar Musa he’d found his home, his work, and his reason to be in Syria.

  36. YankeeDoodleSaudi

    Wow. Touching.

  37. PB

    Reblogged this on The Untitled and commented:
    Sad day yesterday – although every day is a sad day, seeing the mounting body count, the maimed, the refugees around the world, especially in the Middle East, and especially Syria – but yesterday, July 29th marks one year since Father Paolo Dall’Oglio disappeared in Raqqa while on a diplomatic mission. I know him, and spent time with him and his associates back when I was teaching with the Kurds. I hope to write more on him in the future, but can’t bring myself to it now. This article does it better than I can, anyway.

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