We woke up to a desert wind whipping through the ruins of Palmyra. After a quick breakfast, our bus departed for Deir Mar Musa (Monastery of St. Moses) near the city of Homs. This monastery was recently featured in National Geographic (June ’09) for the efforts made there towards Christian-Muslim dialogue. The building itself dates back to the 6th century and is named, not for “Exodus Moses”, but for Moses, the son of a king in what is now Ethiopia. He chose monastic life over the throne. The monastery functioned in varying capacities until the 1830’s when it was finally abandoned.
In the 1980’s, it was rediscovered by an Italian former Jesuit. With help from local community and foreign funding, he renovated the site and had it reconsecrated for use. Today it draws in everyone from Christian pilgrims to backpackers to curious Muslims to groups like our own. Picturesque and isolated, it was worth our short visit… and the steep, stone, 380-step hike required to get there.
Another hour down the road, we arrived at the town of Koukab. If you’ve never heard of it, then you’re welcome to the club. Here’s a clue: It’s on the road to Damascus. And tradition holds it as the spot where a man named Saul was blinded by a light that shook his entire life to its core.
So we sat there in the courtyard of an Orthodox church that marks the spot. Acts 26:13 tells us that “the light” took place around noon. There we stood around 1:00 PM under the same Syrian sun, looking up and imagining what it would have been like to be struck with the full force of a light even brighter. Led by Charles and Paul (our accompanying profs), we examined this destiny-altering experience from a few angles. Minus my notes, a couple ideas still linger in my mind:
1) When Paul thought of Jesus, he thought of glory and power. While the fact is obvious to even a kid, it struck me today as if for the first time that Paul never met Jesus as he taught or healed or ministered. At least, we never hear of it if he did. As far as we know, his only encounter with Jesus was as a blindingly glorious presence speaking right into his deepest parts, despite the fact that Saul was not even seeking Jesus in any way, shape, or form.
Charles commented that this encounter was nothing short of devastating to the entirety of Paul’s life, and in a sense, he spent the rest of his days putting the pieces back together. It’s not that he was broken into a mess of a man—it’s that his entire universe was re-aligned, never to be the same again. Such is the impact that the risen Christ had on Saul-soon-to-be-Paul’s life.
2) There is a thread to Paul’s story that involves the wilderness experience that we’ve spoken of at earlier stops. In a very real sense, Koukab is in the middle of the wilderness. Damascus, Saul’s intended destination, is an oasis city in a whole area of wilderness that’s bordering on desert. In that place, barren and isolated, Saul received the call. It reminds one of Old Testament prophetic figures, John the Baptist, and even Jesus himself. To be honest, this theme of desert and wilderness in the spiritual lives of God’s servants is intriguing to me. No doubt, it is woven through much of the Bible story, from beginning to end. It’s not new to me. But it continues to be fleshed out in broader spectrums nearly every mile we cover.
Our day was to contain a couple more sights, but due to an unannounced change of plans by our travel agency and a longer-than-expected border crossing into Jordan, the stop at Koukab essentially ended our itinerary for today. As a result, we arrived early at our hotel near Jeresh, and we just acquired a longer itinerary than originally planned for tomorrow.
For the moment, I’m sitting at my laptop feeding off an internet signal that seems unable to bear any weight at all. I hope to post this tonight, along with finally contacting Shannon, but it seems foolish to hold my breath. And that is unfortunate. I suppose that there’s always tomorrow…