A Young Man Working on the Monastery in Azeir. Traces

Flowers in Wartime

Gunshots out in the streets. Assistance to families. Contemplation and prayer in a tortured land, where the search for a glimmer of beauty seems . madness... It’s life at the Trappist Monastery of Azeir, Syria, built by Christians, Shiites, and Sunnis.
Paola Bergamini

The firing of the machine guns. The five nuns have heard them nearby, within yards of the walls of their house. In the area the monastery overlooks, near the Maronite village called Azeir, halfway between Homs and Tartus, there have been several clashes between the rebels and Assad’s forces during the past four years. It’s a strategic position to hold: at the heart of Syria, between the sea and the mountains of Lebanon. For this reason, the nuns feared they would be asked to move out of concern for their safety, but it never came to that. They only spent three nights away, in an apartment offered to them by the parish priest in the village below. Aside from that, they remained at the monastery, on their land and inside those walls, with war just on the other side.

That period of “gunshots out in the streets” is brought to life by the words of Sr. Marta, the mother superior of Azeir. While she was in Italy for a month, we went to meet her with some friends from Florence who have grown close in the past few months. We met at Valserena, the monastery where the whole story began. Sr. Marta recounts, “We knew not to wander off the property after 5:00 p.m. But in the last few years there was never any outright threat against us or against the village.Of course, we didn’t know this in the beginning, so we were a bit frightened. The Lord never gives a load that is too heavy to carry. He has carried us there, to a place where it was possible for us to ‘remain,’ and we have become a presence for everyone there. We are ‘their nuns.’ For all of them, not just Christians.”

Now the situation seems calmer. But what is the meaning of a Christian presence of prayer and contemplation in a land martyred by war, in a part of the world where most people are Muslim (mostly Alawite, an offshoot of Shia Islam, and the rest Sunni)?

From the moment they arrived five years ago, people from the neighboring villages have been able to work the land and build the monastery. Sunnis, Shiites, and Christians work side by side, digging out the foundation, mixing cement; they gather stones for the chapel and other buildings that are added on one by one.And if the material runs out...then they invent more projects in order to provide more work for everyone: walls, paths, soil drainage...

The monastery is as self-sufficient as it can be: there is a well providing water, a garden, and a power generator. They often run out of gas... in which case it’s necessary to be patient, jumping through hoops to get everything done during the hours when there is power. On the other side of the Mediterranean, Valserena provides constant support. The bare essentials are sent to the area, mostly through Lebanon. The biggest problem, partially due to sanctions, is the currency exchange: everything has become very expensive, especially for the inhabitants of the villages.

In response, the sisters try to help out the families. For example, they pay college tuition for some young people, or for their transportation to the universities. But this is not why they have become “our nuns.” It is their very presence, a testimony of a way of life that does not give up on hope.“It’s simple: we’re here,” says Sr. Marta. And people are amazed just by the fact that they are there, namely in three ways: “Community life, that is, being there as a community; the liturgy, that we are learning to celebrate more and more in Arabic, is captivating apart from the language itself; and the serenity with which we seek to face daily life. Planting flowers, looking for a glimmer of beauty in the context of war, may seem like madness, but in reality it reflects the fact that joy comes from something else. This is our witness: when life finds its full meaning in the relationship with Christ, it is possible to remain and to build even in the midst of destruction.”

This is the situation today. In order to understand what has drawn these Italian nuns to Syria and what their presence is generating, it is necessary to take a step back. After the assassination of the seven monks in Tibhirine in Algeria in 1996, there has been a desire among Cistercians to carry on this legacy: the witness of a life dedicated to God in a non-Christian context. In the Trappist community of Valserena, this desire developed into the decision to open a foundation. Where? Providence shows the way.

Why Here?
The sisters got in touch with Fr. Frans van der Lugt [Van der Lugt is the Jesuit who would later be killed inHoms onApril 7, 2001],who invited them for their first visit to Syria, to Homs and to Aleppo. Sr. Marta and Sr. Monica, abbess of Valserena, departed for the unknown land. They were introduced to the reality of Syrian life, where they met both Muslims as well as Christians of various rites. Sr. Marta recalls, “Fr. Frans and some bishops welcomed us with kindness and they supported our prayerful presence. They valued and explicitly asked for our way of life where they are.” In 2005, four nuns moved into an apartment located in a low-income neighborhood in Aleppo, inhabited primarily by Armenians and Muslims. With the help of the Sisters of St. Dorothy, they formed a relationship with this new reality and began to study Arabic. “We experienced true ecumenism. For example, it took one year to find out that some of our friends that we saw every day in our Latin rite church were Orthodox Christians. Christians of various rites didn’t mind participating in moments of prayer of different denominations. Who knows how many times we went to adoration at the Greek Catholic Church, or the Armenian or Syriac Churches.”

During those first years, Syria was a place where it was possible to coexist peacefully. Sr. Marta and the other sisters looked for a place to build a monastery. There were several options to choose from. Then came a sign pointing to the hill in the central part of Syria. It was a place that was very beautiful, simple, and not touristic. Nearby there were two Maronite villages, but the Muslim presence, both Shiite and Sunni, was very strong. The sisters established themselves there in 2010. War broke out three months later. “Had we stayed in Aleppo, our superiors would have asked us to come back.”

In an amateur video recorded this past spring for their friends in Florence, you can see the hill, the sea in the distance, the flowers and the workers. There are also the cloistered nuns (five, one more had come in the meantime)who are picking olives and praying the liturgy in Arabic. Then, at a certain point, in the background, you hear the sound of gunshots. War had arrived. They were in need of everything; they had concrete needs... “We cannot forget it, and this is why we also help some families in Aleppo,” says Sr. Marta. “But the material assistance is not enough. There is a deeper need, especially among the youth.This dramatic situation reveals the question about whether or not it is reasonable to stay, about the fundamental motivations for living.”

One day she received a visit from a young man she had met in Aleppo. Sr. Marta said to him: “It must be hard for you over there.” Smiling, he said, “Actually, now we understand what it truly means to live as Christians.” She took these words with her into the chapel. Before the altar, they become a prayer: “Lord, this painful and absurd situation is an occasion to find the truth in relationship withYou. For all, Christians and Muslims alike.” This is where we can start building.

A Deeper Answer
Another young man from Aleppo, joined by a friend, asked the cloistered nuns if they could come with a group of scout leaders to receive guidance in spiritual formation.“They live in a decimated city. When they leave their home, they don’t know if they will make it back. But they have this desire to grow spiritually. For this reason, we say it is not enough to bring food and water, [which are]important nevertheless, a priority: it is the fullness of life, its dignity that must be nourished.” There is a young man from Damascus, whose father was killed by a sniper. In this crisis, he feels the need for a deeper answer for his life.The request for spiritual direction came from this. “We still have some language barriers, but we often help each other with English. And especially with our hearts. That way, you can always communicate.”

While they were speaking of mercy, of God’s love, with a group of young people, one girl burst out, “But no one ever told me about God this way... True, they may have said to me: it is right to do this, it is wrong to do that. But what you are saying is different.”

Among the images in the video, one can see some of the buildings still under construction.They resemble the trulli hutsin Puglia.They will become ten rooms for anyone who wishes to join this life of prayer. Day by day, in the relationships that grow, in the people’s requests, it becomes clear that witness occurs through their lives. Sr.Marta continues,“At this particular point in time, our vocation has taken on a missionary aspect. To walk with our brothers and sisters along their spiritual journey is what the Church of Vatican II asks of the monastic world. You need only remember, for instance, Pope Paul VI’s beautiful letters to the monks. To be a monk is to live, as much as possible, the relationship with Christ, which becomes the meaning of your day. This, you share. In silence. Listening and engaging in dialogue.”

Dialogue: another key word in the experience of these cloistered nuns, who daily encounter people of a different faith and talk with them about their beliefs. In dialogue, there is no naivety (“I must be clear about who I have in front of me,I must truly know him”). There is no arrogance, either (“I am certainly right, and let’s hope that God enlightens you, too”).

Letting Down the Guard
The mother superior of Azeir underlines, “The center is always the human person, a mystery in which the Holy Spirit is in action. In a dialogue, in the encounter with another, I become more aware of my own religious identity. But I also know that you have your own journey, your own relationship with God. It is not our effort, our being merciful, welcoming, good, and open, that generates dialogue; it is God. He is the center; He generates the unity among us. It is by looking at God honestly and justly, each according to his or her own path that He has marked, that we can encounter each other. This makes us free: it frees us from fear of each other; it allows us to let down our guard. It is a long journey, but it is possible, and it is the task that is given to us. Even in the face of this war, decided by political leaders feeding the mutual fears.”

Yes, it is possible. It is already happening today, in many daily encounters. Even in a Syria so disfigured by violence.