I spent one week at Marmusa monastery, and it was difficult. I had a sense that I was doing something wrong, yet nobody was saying what that was; I found it hard to find a quiet place to write, what with all the daily visitors and the friendly, noisy monks; there were a few peculiar people living at the monastery, which made hanging out there occasionally awkward.
My day began around six am.
I cold showered, brushed teeth, and read somewhere in the open air until the main monastery building opened (it contained the women’s sleeping quarters, so men were sent away after dinner). Then I usually didn’t attend morning prayer, and helped to wash the dishes to prepare for breakfast. Breakfast of bread, yoghurt, olives and cheese happened around 8.15am, and after breakfast, I would retreat to the library’s reading room to begin writing.
I discovered five days after I arrived that this behaviour was upsetting some of the monks and nuns. The head nun explained politely that the morning was working time for the community, and they didn’t like me “reading books” when everyone else was chopping vegetables for lunch and generally being present. I tried to explain my reasons, and the tension eased after that conversation.
From 7.30pm to around 9.30pm, meditation and evening prayers began in the monastery’s thousand year old church. I attended the evening prayers most nights, but found the Arabic service hard to appreciate, and was queasy about accepting mass.
Yet, on the last night I was there, August 5th, the monastery celebrated Christ’s transfiguration. This was an incredible experience. What felt like a hundred people walked out of the monastery into the mountains as the sun set, and the monks and nuns held their prayers and evening mass under the stars, a bonfire burning. Christian Syria seemed to have congregated here – all kinds of people from Damascus, Homs and Lattakia – and, in the quickly falling darkness, in a horse-shoe shaped clearing in the rocks,
We sat in silence.
A flute and a drum played.
Impossibly old people were helped to a seat, and nearby shepherds came in from the hills.
Verses of the bible were reciting in majestic lilting Arabic.
The woman sitting next to me sang solo hymns, the rest of the Syrian joining the choruses.
Monks shook metal poles to make extra noise.
New people showed up all the time and had to be shhh-ed.
The monastery’s priest gave a long sermon, competing with the flickering bonfire for everyone’s attention.
A huge queue formed for the mass. I decided to take part, for the first time in my life. I had resisted before, but if they were willing to accept me, I didn’t want to be standing on the edge of the ritual.
Singing, laughing, cheering, dancing, clapping, whistling in r-r-r-r-r-r.
One Syrian girl said, “It was much bigger last year”.
After the service, during dinner, a beautiful French woman tried to convince me that religion was the opiate of people unable to face the fact of death.
And on my last night, I went to the room of one of the stranger members of the monastery, and listened to him talk, and understood him a little better. I felt not so much “at peace”, but open. Opened to people.
I have been back in Damascus four days and the city is working hard to take that serenity away from me.