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07 – 09/02/11 – Deir Mar Musa, blow my mind

March 5, 2011

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The weather hasn’t that much improved in the morning and I’m forced to pack up in the wet. I head back into town briefly to pick up some more supplies that I forgot from the night before, and then head off into the bleakness of the grey hills in search of the monastery. The road is totally deserted and my visibility is severely reduced by the rain, but eventually after heading what feels like literally the middle of the abyss a sign appears for Mar Musa 300m ahead and I am saved.

The road up to the monastery is a short climb, and then it is revealed snuggled high up in the hill. Unreachable by car (or bike) there is a stone footpath that leads up the mountain. I stop and fill my water and get ready to overcome the challenge of where to leave the bike when I see a skinny figure in a red beanie ambling down the mountain. Lo and behold it’s Julian! Hello son!

He is animated and full of excitement about what the monastery holds in store for me. We couldn’t have timed our crossing of paths any better, as he is just coming down with the key to the garage that his bike is stored in, and opens it for me to store my bike in turn and return the key to the monastery. We say our goodbyes again and I watch him pedal off once more as I begin the ascent towards Mar Musa.

I eventually reach the top of the stairs and am instantly welcomed and shown to a room where I can dump my stuff and sort out a mattress and place to sleep, before being led into the monastery itself and shown around. I arrive just before lunch, along with some other curious people, and we’re instantly thrown in to help prepare the food and lay the space for eating.

So this monastery, also known as The Monastery of St Moses the Abyssinian, was originally built in the 11th century, with original wall paintings in the church itself from this era. It was more recently rediscovered after a period of abandonment and ruin by now top monk Father Paulo, who restored the monastery and built new accommodation next door to house guests. It is a monastery of ancient Assyriac Catholic rite, and the deal is that you are welcome to be a part of the community, to sleep free of charge and eat as you will for as long as you wish, if you are willing to be a part of the community and take your share of chores to ensure the smooth running of the monastery. Chores usually included preparing and cleaning up after meals, but could also extend to some general household maintenance, but I never witnessed any of this. Every day at 7pm there is an hour of meditation in the church followed by an hour and a half of mass, which you are encouraged to attend. There is also a library underneath the church which hosts a wide range of books on Islam, Catholicism, the history of the monastery and history of the Middle East, in Arabic and English.

Despite not being religious, I found it to be a very spiritual (if I can say that) experience. It was a very relaxing atmosphere, and it was great to enjoy a life of pure simplicity that the more permanent residents enjoy – these being made up of several monks who have been there for 16 or so years and several spiritual travelers, who arrived as curious tourists and have stayed, some for several years.

I found the meditation period of the day the most fascinating and comforting – the church is beautiful and the power of silence among a group of people in a space like this has immense power, even if the sound of grumbling stomachs and the occasional hungry fart disturbed the peace (it was just before dinner)

The food was good and plentiful, and the accommodation was basic but more than enough (there was even a throne toilet, a true luxury!) on the first day I did a hike up the hill with some new friends John, Kimberly and Axel to check out the view and the olive groves that some of the residents tend to, as well as a flock of goats that at the time at gone totally awol.

I stayed for two nights, enjoying the serenity and the peace in the library and the plentiful food. It was only after some of the more amenable characters decided to leave (there was a solid flow of people coming and going each day) that I thought it best that I hit the road also. As Axel said to me, you can easily stay here forever and live in blissful ignorance of the world going on beyond its walls. But the time had come to get on with some cycling, so after breakfast on the third day, I patched up my tyre as best I could and headed east into the vast emptiness of the Syrian Desert.

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