“International Herald Tribune”






Mohammad Ali Salih


Friday, October 5, 2007


 After 9/11, as some Americans started to learn about Islam, I embarked on a long journey to practically learn about Christianity by visiting churches, participating in services, attending Sunday Bible schools and volunteering in projects like feeding the poor and sheltering the homeless.  

Another reason was looking for a refuge from politicians.  Always cynic about them, and after 28 years of covering them in the nation’s capital, and especially after the invasion of Iraq when I realized that almost all of them (and almost all of the media), in moments of fear and revenge, supported the invasion of a far away country that didn’t threaten the US, I became more cynic and disgusted.

I found the people I met in churches more trustful, welcoming and no one asked me about my religion, let alone suspected what I was doing in a church. Encourage by that, I immerse myself into Christianity, and it wasn’t long before I was able to recite the Lords Prayer and almost “Amazing Grace.”


As I continued my exploration, I found myself, last week, at the Holy Cross Abbey, a Catholic monastery sheltered by the Blue Ridge mountains in the Shenandoah valley in Virginia, about 60 miles west of Washington, DC.

For about 40 years, since I saw “The Sound of Music” movie for the first time, I had been fascinated by monasteries and curious about the lives of monks and nuns inside them.  Ten years later while visiting Salzburg, Austria, I saw the hills that were indeed “alive with the sound of music,” as Maria (played by Julie Andrews) sang at the beginning of the film.  I also visited Nonnberg Convent where Maria was a nun and later married Captain Georg von Trapp.


This monastery’s monk in charge of the guesthouse,  whispering and moving slowly, showed me my simple but elegant room, one out of 15.  He said they were all booked in advance, “except one room we always leave for an unexpected visitor, as part of an old European tradition of hospitality.”  The rooms had no telephones, televisions, radios and keys (locked only from inside). Loud music was not allowed and cell phones were only to be used outside the building.

“Dinner” (their word for lunch) and “supper” (their word for dinner) were served promptly at 12:00 and 6:25 respectively and guests were warned in advance: “If you are arriving at 6:30, please have dinner beforehand.” 

The dining hall was simple but elegant, meals were vegetarian and guests helped themselves, cleaned afterwards and set tables for the following meal.  The meals’ cost was part of the room charge, but there was no room charge, only “offering” to be put in an empty envelope in each room.


I was overwhelmed by the complete silence. 

From 3:00 pm Friday until 3:00 pm Sunday, I didn’t talk -- except for a secluded 30 minute meeting with a priest, whispered greetings and small talk like where is the sugar and cream for my coffee.  

It was Ramadan, the Muslims fasting month, and my fasting added to the solitude and silence. 

And then there were the ten daily prayers.

Five Christian (in the church) and five Muslim (in my room):  “Vigils” at 3:30 am; “Fajr (dawn) at 5:00; “Lauds” at 7:00; “Zohr” (afternoon) at 1:00 pm; “Midday” at 2:00; “Asr” (evening) at 4:00; “Vespers” at 5:30; “Maghrib” (sunset) at 6:55; “Compline” at 7:30; and Isha’a (night) at 8:30.

There were some awkward moments.  Like when I, alone, at four o’clock in the morning, entered the guesthouse kitchen to prepare and eat “sahoor,” the last meal before the start of fasting.  And when dinner was served exactly at 6:25, thirty minutes before sunset.  But the monk in charge of the guesthouse gladly left a meal for me to eat after sunset. (Every afternoon, nuns came to the guesthouse kitchen, prepared dinner and left).


During the Sunday service I was sprinkled with the holy water as I chanted “Cleanse us Lord from all our sins, wash us, and we shall be clean as new snow.”  I declared: “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen.”

I was going to try the Communion (bread and wine that symbolize Jesus’ body and blood), but the hymns book sternly excluded non-Catholics, let alone Muslims.

Father Stephen, a senior monk, and I talked – very quietly -- for thirty minutes and I started by calling for help: “I am running away from Washington politicians!” He calmly answered: “That is why we are here.”   We talked about hypocrisy and lying, about the influence of money in politics, about Jesus message of peace, love and compassion for the less fortunate.

We lamented about the current atmosphere of fear, violence and war, and he said, “I too get scared when I read the newspaper in the morning.  But there is nothing we can do here except to pray.” When we stood up to say goodbye, he promised, “I will put your name on the bulletin board and ask the monks to pray for you.”


Mohammad Ali Salih is an Arab journalist based in Washington. mohammadalisalih@yahoo.com


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