“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.”


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.”