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Syria – A Teachable Moment in Critical Thinking, Digital Tools, and a Hermeneutic of Suspicion

A Facebook post grabbed my attention last week.  It was an August 29 letter from Trappist nuns in Syria to President Obama. But was it real?  I used the opportunity to model for my Global and Cultural Perspectives class efforts to authenticate sources.

The letter claimed to be from Trappists nuns living in Syria. Trappists are contemplatives, living in monasteries and filling their days with work and prayer.  Thomas Merton was a Trappist and wrote of their understanding of contemplation: “In our age everything has to be a ‘problem.’ Ours is a time of anxiety because we have willed it to be so. Our anxiety is not imposed on us by force from outside. We impose it on our world and upon one another from within ourselves… We are not meant to resolve all contradictions but to live with them and rise above them and see them in the light of exterior and objective values which make them trivial by comparison.”

Locally, near me, are two Byzantine Carmelites who live in Aliquippa and a small community of Benedictine nuns at St. Emma’s Retreat House (you may be surprised to find a few surprisingly present monasteries near you). The history of contemplative monasteries is one of the oldest in human tradition. The nuns in Syria moved into an abandoned 6th century monastery and rebuilt it. Traditionally, a nun is a contemplative that stays in the monastery, and a sister is an active ‘contemplative in the world.’ While my heart’s call is to that active contemplation, I have found that monasteries are an excellent place to retreat to.  They are quiet sacred spaces that allow the waves of distraction to grow still.  Standing in them you can contemplate direction, meaning and purpose away from the storm.

An internet search on Google did not uncover a website, contact, or the letter in its original form from its original source in Syria.  The nuns are not native to Syria, rather they are missionaries from Italy.  The Facebook post was an article in the Catholic World Report by Alessandra Nucci who lives in Italy. I wrote her a note to see if she could verify sources (this is the point where some of my student’s groaned and looked flabbergasted that I would think they should ever go to such efforts).

Alessandra wrote back from Bologna, Italy. “By profession I am a freelance journalist, and was formerly a high school teacher of English Lit. I grew up in Queens, NY in the Eisenhower/Kennedy years, and have kept up with the news and the language mainly by extensive reading. .. Currently my main employer is Milan-based financial daily Italia Oggi [217 articles].”  I tried again to do a search, this time using Google in Italy and found links to her article, her book on Feminism, and several other resources. (Students were amazed to discover that the Google search engine operates differently in different countries and, some for the first time, began to question that Google provides ‘all’ the world’s information).

The Google Italia was able to link me not only to news about author Alessandra Nucci but to more details about these fascinating nuns in Syria. A video interview with Mother Agnès-Mariam revealed more about the experience and worldview of the foundress of this monastery. She is the daughter of a Palestinian who fled from Nazareth in 1948, born in Lebanon in a refugee camp and later an adolescent in the Beirut of the late Sixties. She traveled Europe as a young adult until she found herself in 1971 a Catholic Church in Copenhagen. That began a journey that brought her to enter religious vows in the Carmel of Beirut. Her interview, linked above, is interesting to watch. Her English is excellent, her political interpretations based in experience, and her opinions are ones that we can understand and sympathize with.

Her question in another news source, “Where are the parents of the children killed in the chemical attack?” is one that needs researched further.  And yet, in the same interview, she states “I am not saying that no chemical agent was used in the area – it certainly was.”  Her outrage is that pictures of dead children (in her opinion faked pictures of dead children) are being used to inflame outrage and quick retaliation, that stories are being fictionalized in order to reach into the religious feelings of right and wrong in all faith traditions and to fuel an impassioned sense of righteousness that will lead to quick and violent action.

I find missing, in Mother Agnes-Miriam’s arguments, why chemical weapons should create an outcry of international proportions, and what ethical demands are ignored with forgetting this as an atrocity that is greater than the sad reality of hundreds of thousands of lives lost with traditional weapons of warfare (aka Jon Stewart’s comment “You can’t use chemicals to kill your own people. You have to do it organically. America and the world want to make sure Assad only uses locally sourced free long range lead ordinance.” (The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Tue, Sep 3, 2013))

Have you taken a moment to talk to your kids (older than 5th grade) about Syria?  Can they find it on a map? Do they understand what President Obama has recently said?  Do they know who our Secretary of State is and what he looks like? Do they understand the history, chemistry, and biological consequences of chemical weapons? Do they question the truth of what they read and have the confidence to act on credible articulations of truth that follow the path of reasoned inquiry and ethical demands?

May we grow a generation where reason prevails, justice is served, and the seeds of peace are sown and nurtured.


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  1. Ellen,

    I really enjoyed this thoughtful and thought-provoking post. I believe we must teach our children to understand and participate in their world, and starting with the facts is the best way to do this. Thanks for taking the time to talk about what we are all thinking about and give it some perspective.

    1. Thanks Ruth.

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