Ten years ago, I had a strange debate about faith with a famous Jesuit and an agnostic psychoanalyst in a monastery on a cliff-top in Syria. At the time I thought I’d made some valuable additions to the discussion. The notes I took then record my own contributions with horrible precision. Looking back on it, I was just an observer.
The main players were Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, an Italian priest who’d made his life in the Middle East, and Bernard S., a highly regarded Jungian analyst: neat, Swiss, troubled. The scene of this chat was Deir Mar Musa, a 6th-century monastery that Fr Paolo had restored, perched high on a ridge in the foothills of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains. Mar Musa had been abandoned since the 9th century, but thanks to Paolo’s charm and drive not only was it rebuilt, but there was once again a community living there: young Christians devoted to what they called ‘dialogue’ with Islam. There were also dorm rooms for tourists such as Bernard and me. I’d done Damascus and wanted to feel intrepid.
It was morning. The sky was pinkish and the desert below the clifftop, a soft mouse-brown. Fr Paolo was sitting at the communal breakfast table eating bread and yoghurt. ‘Big man. Big head. Grey habit,’ say my notes. I remember wishing there were eggs.
Sitting opposite him was Bernard, slightly older, in his early sixties and with the agitated air of a man who’d been carrying a question a long time. He got straight to the point.
‘How can an intelligent man like you, Fr Paolo, believe in the truth of Christianity?’ he asked. ‘I understand its symbolic importance, but I’ve studied the early Church and I know how much Christianity took from Hellenism and the other resurrection myths.