J U N E 2 0 1 5
Many of you who read these Notes have generously donated to our appeal for funds to support children refugees at the monastery of Mar Elian in Qaryatayn, Syria. Sadly, the work at the monastery has been imperiled. On May 21, four armed men from ISIS entered the monastery and abducted the abbot, Father Jacques Mourad, along with a co-worker. There has been no word if he and his colleague are still alive. Father Jacques was a friend. A soft-spoken man with an air of gentleness around him, he gave the energy of his life each day to comfort those suffering from the war.
Now all three priests we knew and worked with in Syria have been silenced: Father Paolo, abducted and presumed killed by ISIS in Raqqa where he went to appeal to them for mercy for other prisoners; Father Frans, shot dead in the courtyard of the Jesuit refuge in Homs where he worked without pause to serve the Homs community under siege; and now Father Jacques.
These men were warned their lives were in danger. Friends insisted that they leave for their home countries — Italy, the Netherlands, and France — before it was too late, but they refused.
Father Jacques: "As the priest and pastor, I will never leave this place so long as there are people here, unless they hunt me down."
Father Frans: “I have learned about the generosity of the Syrian people. As I was with these people in their good times, I am with them in their pain.”
Father Paolo: “I have been thinking of the words of the disciples to Jesus in the gospels before he died. ‘Must you go to Jerusalem?’ they asked. And the answer is yes — sometimes you must go to Jerusalem. You must go with your physical body in order to be there.”
For us who are not faced with such a decision in the midst of a war — to stay or to leave — what can we learn from the self-sacrifice of these priests? We might be in awe of them, or baffled by their decision, or even repelled by it, but their action nevertheless reveals something about the human soul’s capacity for love that may give us a glimpse into the awesome mystery of our own identity and our own capacity.
The Sufi mystic Inayat Khan describes the soul not as an entity but as a current, like the current of a vast river of becoming — a radiance rather than a thing. Each of us can experience this current directly, not as a concept but in the intimacy of the present moment. If it remains a concept it doesn’t reveal very much. The intimation of the luminous current that is soul only shows itself directly, without interpretation. When it is revealed like this, we recognize that all of us are this same current, this soul. It is not isolated inside our privacy; it is an invisible radiance happening all at once, shared by all.
I believe the faith of these three priests was so profound that they realized this commonality of our souls’ provenance, the universal current that runs deeper than the specific stories of any religion. Each of them served Muslims and Christians without discrimination. They knew in their bones the unity behind the diversity we experience. Their generosity flowed naturally because it was not encumbered by a presumed division of self and other. To them, Jesus’ admonition to “Love your neighbor as yourself” was not an analogy, but a simple description of the way it is.
In the early spring a few years ago, I went for a walk with Father Paolo on a rocky trail behind his monastery of Mar Musa, a stone eyrie originally built into the desert cliffs in the 10th century. There had been a light snow during the night that was now melting in the morning sun. We sat on the ground next to a wide rock and watched the water running down the rock’s surface. It glistened with little flashes of rainbow light. Father Paolo was moved by the sight of the light-filled water playing over the stone in this dry land – he took it as a good omen for the interfaith project we had been discussing.
“You see how the water sparkles there and there and there?” he said. “It is the same water, but look how it shines with different colors!”
Father Paolo, Father Frans, and Father Jacques could not leave their people because they were their people, even the armed men who came to silence them. When thirty men, all masked, attacked Mar Musa in 2012, as Father Paolo recounted to an interviewer in Beirut, “the monks and sisters talked to these men, and invited them for tea. The men found themselves in a different world, and their humanity started to surface. These are our people too.”
That is the embrace of kindness these priests offered with their lives. They saw how our many souls are one from the same sacred source. Their first concern was not self-protection but faithfulness to this truth. The sad news of their being silenced holds within it this good news, the message of love their lives revealed.