Antiochian Orthodox priest and author, Fr. Joseph Huneycutt of Houston, made a pilgrimage to Syria visiting Metropolitans, monasteries, and ancient churches from April 11-24. Father shares his journal here, and in his Ancient Faith Radio podcast "The Blindside." 
The airport: It was a 16-hour flight from Dubai to Houston, having left Damascus the previous day. The lines to get through American Customs were long. When it finally came my turn, I approached the counter to see a sight not seen in my two-week absence: a very white woman with red hair and freckles. “Where you coming from?” she asked. “Dubai,” I said, “I’ve been traveling in Syria.” “Syria! On business?” she asked. “No, I was visiting the holy sites,” I replied. The fair skinned Customs Agent looked at me as if I had six heads and said, 'Why Syria?!'
I’m not much of a movie buff but forty hours spent on planes can tempt one beyond resolve. Ladies and Gentlemen, my trip to Syria could not have happened without good folks helping to pay the bills and make the plans, for which I am humbled and grateful. Yet, one of them begged me: “Please don’t come back with only pictures of goats and dirt!” I thought of this when, on the return flight from Dubai to Houston, I watched the movie, Men Who Stare at Goats. But it was the movie The Blind Side, which I watched on the way over to the Middle East, that touched me the most and, to be honest, in many ways reflected my experience as an American Orthodox convert in Syria.
First, a key portion of backstory: When my wife and I converted to Orthodoxy in 1993, we came in with a friend: Jennings Keith Smith. Jennings hailed from Marion, North Carolina, and was, like us, an alumnus of Appalachian State University. Though still technically a Southern Baptist, he was my Daily Mass server when I was an Anglo-Catholic priest. His mother was terribly worried that her son, whom she called “Keith,” was going to end up joining the Episcopal Church – which she believed was full of fruits and nuts. Though at the time I was an Episcopal priest, I assured her that I would not let this happen. You see, her son and I had been talking of converting to Eastern Orthodoxy, which we did: my wife and I, Pascha of 1993, Jennings Keith the following Pentecost; I served as his Sponsor.
We started an English-speaking Mission in Asheville, and Jennings (then known as “Timothy”) later pursued his calling in Monasticism. Many of you now know him as “Fr Paul the Monk”. For years, he has worked out his salvation on Mt Athos. But, he’s spent quite a bit of time assisting Metropolitan SABA of the Diocese of Hauran in Syria.
Back in 1996, when Monk Paul was at St Paul’s Monastery on Mt Athos, his parents wanted to send me to visit him. I got all my paper work in order and finally wrote a letter asking for Metropolitan PHILIP’s blessing. Alas, I did not receive a blessing to visit Mt Athos. Instead, Sayidna PHILIP’s reply encouraged me to stay in the Southeast and continue serving the missions that I had started and “… create a Mt Athos where you are.”
This was a great disappointment. But the following month while visiting a monastery near Atlanta, where Monk Paul had served part of his novitiate, a friend and I spotted a very large icon of the Theotokos, the Abbess of Mt Athos and he insisted that I had to have that. He bought it, I taped Metropolitan PHILIP’s letter to the back of it and it has adorned either the high place in Mission altars or my office (as it does currently) ever since.
With notes from my journal and other reflections, let me tell you about my pilgrimage to Syria:
April 11-12, 2010 – Awoke at 3:40 am, up at 5:00; preached a sermon: There is no return to normal after the Resurrection. Home by 1:30 pm, pack; at the airport by 3:30, got through security in five minutes! The flight, though long, was tolerable; only slept about 1.5 hours. Checked into the airline hotel; lights out by 10:30.
April 13, 2010 – Awoke at 1:30 am, up by 2:30, down to lobby gift shop to shop around; shuttle left at 5:00 for the Dubai Airport, which has, literally, a shopping mall inside. Wished to sleep on the flight to Damascus, to no avail – kept wondering: What the heck am I doing? Was picked up at the airport by Fr Isaac and a couple other guys; went directly to the Patriarchate. The Patriarch was out of town, but greeted Bishop Louka and Bishop Mousa. We then went immediately to Hanania, the home of Ananias, where St Paul went after he’d been struck blind on his way to Damascus. Then rode down to Suwayda where I was greeted warmly by Metropolitan Saba of Bosra, Hauran, Jabal al-Arab, and Golan. Knowing of his love for the Monk Paul, I’d made some copies of some old photos of him, back when he was still a clean-shaven Jennings Keith (or Timothy, his Chrismation name) and gave them to His Eminence. He treated me to a feast of a lunch, after which he sent me immediately to bed where I slept three hours. Up around 6pm, went outside the chancery with Metropolitan SABA to tour the diocesan grounds. He pointed down the hill to a white marble looking building and said, “We call that one Houston Hall.” I chuckled, not really knowing what he was talking about; then, I saw it: the inscription on the corner stone read (in Arabic and English) Houston Hall. It was built with monies gathered in Houston, Texas a few years back when Metropolitan SABA visited. Humbling.
April 14, 2010 – “What. A. Day. The best. Really.” Awoke, miraculously, at 7:10 am; showered, dressed, and exited my room just in time to be invited to serve Daily Orthros in St Timon Chapel where Fr Isaac, Metropolitan SABA, and some visiting nuns helped with the chanting. [I kept looking at the iconostasis and thinking, “This looks familiar.”] After breakfast with his Eminence and the nuns, I went with Fr Timon and a visitor down to Bosra to tour the Roman/Byzantine/Arab-Muslim ruins. Fabulous! Toured a castle, then the famed B.C. amphitheatre; then took a horse-drawn carriage around Old Bosra. One of my great joys was sitting on a floor full of carpets with a traditionally dressed couple in their chair-less salon for coffee, tea, sweets, and fruit; the man wore the traditional headdress, the woman was completely covered, both were barefoot: Orthodox Christians. Later, traveled down to Kharma with Fr Timon to visit parishes, parishioners, and more salons; got to go to St George Church, Kharaba, both the new one and the old one – which is 1,300 years old! [Oh, yeah – first thing this morning, stopped into a travel office and bought a one-way ticket to Latakia for Friday. Crazy.] The greatest potential joy of the day was visiting the future monastery and/or retreat center in Beth Ania, the Monastery of Ss Martha and Mary and the chapel of St Lazarus. Fr Timon made Arabic coffee and we enjoyed it with conversation out on the porch overlooking the monastery’s grounds, complete with the silence of the countryside. Wouldn’t you know, Monk Paul had spent time at this place and, for a while, it was hoped that he would reside there to help establish a monastery. But, as Fr Timon allowed, “God did not bless it.”
April 15, 2010 – Tired today, mainly because I misread my watch and thought it was 6:50, with Orthros at 7:30, when I later discovered it was only 4:50 and I was all dressed with no place to go! Served Matins and Vespers in St Timon’s Chapel today; after breakfast, went with Fr Timon and another man north of Suwayda to visit Emperor Philip’s Palace and other sites; on return, paid a visit to the Orthodox clinic (another project of Metropolitan SABA’s) where Fr Timon’s wife works. Haa-uge Arabic Feast at the home of the bishop’s driver, Zeeyad; though Sayidna Saba had an appointment that prevented his attendance, lots of folks were there, including Metropolitan SABA’s brother, Talal, and the visiting mothers of His Eminence and Fr Timon; (I know I sound like a broken record, but they shared, in Arabic, many stories about the Monk Paul over lunch.) The rest of the day was spent washing and drying clothes and packing up for my trip to Latakia for the weekend. Spoke, by phone, with parishioners George and Gabby Katrib, from St George, who are visiting Latakia for a couple months – may see them at church on Sunday.
April 16, 2010 – “Another big one. Perhaps the single most Biggie Big.” Downstairs by 5:40 where my non-English speaking driver, Habib, took me to the old Damascus airport: that was a trip! Muslim peasants and pilgrims were scurrying everywhere, on their way to Mecca, Iran, or cities within Syria. To say I was the only white boy would be an understatement! It wasn’t easy; it was a chaotic, but beautiful, experience. Thanks God, an uncovered pretty woman, Nada, helped me. I soon discovered that she was Greek Orthodox, from Damascus. But, as her flight was leaving before mine, she helped find another English speaker, a young Muslim woman named Shifa, who even sat with me on the plane. She talked the entire one-hour flight, much to calm her own nerves I discovered. She hopes to do her PhD work in America on Climate Change. She said, “Where are you staying in Latakia?” I said, “I believe in a hotel.” “No!” she said, “you will not stay in a hotel! You will stay with my family! They are Muslim (my mom is traditional and covers her head) but they are very open-minded. They will love you!” I said, “I’d better not, as I hear one of the reasons that I’m in the hotel is there are three families fighting over who should host me!” Shifa said, “Well now there are four!” She helped me all the way to the exit, where I was greeted by my main contact in Latakia, Nour, and her friend, Samer. For the rest of the day, and all my time in Latakia, I was treated like Royalty. My two new friends took me to breakfast at a restaurant called “Beauty” which overlooked the Mediterranean; we then went church hopping all over the city; then had a wonderful feast of a lunch with a Houston parishioner’s parents, the Pechazis. They, too, related humorous stories about Monk Paul. I started thinking, “Maybe it’s because I’m from America.” From there, caught a cab to my hotel with another priest who was at the lunch, Archimandrite Silouan. Nour picked me up at 5 pm and we met up with two friends, Samer and George, and visited more churches and paid a nice visit to His Eminence Metropolitan John Mansour at his quarters; we also visited St Thecla’s shrine and cave, a 4th century church named St Nicholas, and a 5th century church dedicated to the Theotokos, both still in operation; had dinner at a restaurant with Mrs. Pecahazis and other friends.
April 17, 2010 – “O.M.G. Every day is W.O.W.” Was taken to breakfast by a very interesting guy, Alfred, to another restaurant overlooking the Mediterranean, The View; we were later joined by Samer (but not before I’d downed 4 cups of Nescafe!). We traveled way up in the hills to tour the castle of Saladin. After the castle, we met up with the rest of the gang and went to a fabulous house-restaurant on our way to the women’s Monastery of the Dormition of the Theotokos for a tour with Sister Anastasia (whom, it turned out, loves Monk Paul and spoke of his recent visit there), and attended Vespers. (It was all very nice, being with a wonderful group of young adults – a blessing – whom I will miss!) Returned to the hotel for a spell after Vespers, where I was later picked up by Nour at 9 pm and taken to her fiancé’s parent’s home for another fabulous feast! While there I made contact with a man who’d visited his daughter in Houston last year while she had a baby. His name is Michel; he lives in Beirut, but insisted on coming to Damascus to show me around. [There was a man at dinner named Ibrahim, who told Monk Paul stories all night. They asked if I knew him. God help me.] Back to the hotel after midnight to set about washing some clothes in the bathroom sink, to dry on the hotel balcony.
April 18, 2010 – SUNDAY … a change of pace; what a blessing! Served at St Michael’s Church in Latakia – Hierarchical Divine Liturgy with Metropolitan John. Archimandrite Silouan also served, as did the parish priest, Fr Spiridon, and his assistant, Fr George. The chanting at St Michael, which included the voices of some of my new friends, was awesome! Houston parishioners George and Gabby Katrib were there and, after Liturgy, George joined me and my young-adult friends for coffee with Fr Spiridon in his office. From there, a taxi to tour a new church, St John’s, and then a taxi to an icon shop operated by Nour’s relatives, then to a travel shop to buy another plane ticket for SyrianAir back to Damascus on the morrow. We all went for lunch to a restaurant with Fr Spiridon. (George and I shared some tear popping laughter, in English, discussing our many experiences with the difference in culture while in Syria.) George and I then left the gang and walked to his family’s Syrian home, sort of like a condo in America, to meet up with his father, Gabby, where we continued our Syrian debriefing. Back to the hotel for what I thought was going to be a restful, dieting, quiet Sunday evening, when I received a call from a man, Kalil, who wanted to take me to dinner. I said, “You know, honestly, I don’t think I can eat another bite!” He promised we would just go for a drink – “and maybe something light”. (Never trust a Syrian when they say this.) Kalil picked me up around 9:30 pm and took me out of the city into the countryside where there were quite a few eating establishments. He ordered and, you guessed it, soon there must have been 12 dishes – food enough to feed a small army – on our table! [Noted: “Looking back on the day, I must admit that I got a little misty eyed saying goodbye to my newfound friends.”]
April 19, 2010 – “Said Goodbye to Latakia – what a trip!” Downstairs to the hotel restaurant for Nescafe; my driver, Abu Majid, picked me up at 8:40 and took me to the airport for another flight on SyrianAir; this one was much smoother, mostly businessmen flying to Damascus. My friend from Beirut, Michel, was to pick me up at the airport, but was an hour late due to some confusion as to where I was! He’d hired a driver who whisked us into Damascus where we stayed at St Gregorios Home for Seniors (which has some rooms available for hospitality). We hit the pavement in Old Damascus and spent the day shopping for gifts.
April 20, 2010 – “Wow. My time as the ‘Prince of Syria’ is coming to an end – I admit, I will miss it.” Michel and I enjoyed breakfast at St. Gregorios; then Haissam, a friend of my Houston benefactor took Michel and I to the holy sites: St George men’s Monastery, Mar Thoma, the Convent of Our Lady of Saidnaya, and Mar Taqla (Thecla) monastery at Ma'loula. The monks at St George could not have been nicer; the nuns of the Convent of Our Lady of Saidnaya treated us to coffee in the salon, then a fabulous lunch, then a second visit to the salon for coffee and sweets. [Now … you remember that icon The Abbess of Mt Athos that I have, with the letter of Metropolitan PHILIP on the back, when I wanted to go to Mt Athos to visit my Godson? We walked into the salon, we were yet to be greeted by the nuns, and there was a huge – almost life-sized – replica of the same icon sitting on one of the couches in the salon. I sat right across from it and assumed that was its normal position, for some reason. When the nuns, Mother Christina and Sister Febronia joined us, I asked about the icon and they said that it had just arrived that day, from Russia. I told the story – about my wanting to go to Mt Athos to visit the Monk Paul, and Metropolitan PHILIP’s not allowing it and wanting me to work, instead, on the Missions started in the Southeast, and how I had that icon with the letter on the back, etc. They translated my story from English to Arabic and I waited from some gasp of surprise from the nuns. It didn’t happen. Instead, without even a smile of surprise, Mother Christina said, “Those who can’t go to Mt Athos always come to Saidnaya.]
And the Abbess of Ma'loula, Mother Pelagia, is a trip! Almost forgot to mention the men’s monastery of the Cherubim: On top of the highest mountain in Saidnaya is the Cherubim Monastery at 2000 meters (1.25 miles) above sea level, overlooking Damascus' fertile plains and Lebanon's mountains. It was unbelievable, the three of us: Haissam, Michel, and I walked into the chapel of the monastery at the top of the mountain and it was so quiet, yet so busy with the sound of only wind and birds that – without saying a word to each other – for the first time of any church or chapel visit, we sat down. We sat there in silence for what seemed an eternity. All the monasteries loaded us with gifts; praying at the Theotokos shrine in Saidnaya was “beyond.” Saidnaya is a city located in the mountains, 1500 meters (0.938 miles) above sea level, 27 kilometers (20 miles) north of the city of Damascus in Syria. It was one of the episcopal cities of the ancient Patriarchate of Antioch. Associated with many Biblical and religious events, local tradition holds it as the site where Cain slew his brother, Abel. Second only to Jerusalem as a center of Christian pilgrimage, pilgrims from all over the world seek Saidnaya for renewal of faith and for healing. Also located in the convent of Saidnaya is an icon of the Holy Mother and Child known as the Shaghurah and reputed to have been painted by Luke the Evangelist which is believed to protect its owners from harm in times of danger. Numerous accounts of miraculous healings have been reported, some which are documented in writing by those who experienced them throughout history. It was also a blessing to reverence the resting place of St Thekla in Ma’alula. Mar Taqla monastery holds the remains of St Thekla, daughter of one of the Seleucid princes and pupil of St Paul. According to legend, in the 1st century St Thekla was being pursued by soldiers of her father to capture her because of her Christian faith. She came upon a mountain, and after praying, the mountain split open and let her escape through. The town gets its name from this gap or entrance in the mountain. Later that evening, Michel and I were taken to dinner by another friend of George-in-Houston, Issa, to a fancy restaurant by the Antiochian Patriarchate, Narange, where I feasted on stuffed intestines.
April 21, 2010 – “Another Gonzo Day.” Michel and I took breakfast by an upstairs bay window at St Gregorios and then paid a visit to the Patriarchate where we sat and chatted with Bishop Mousa, then received the blessing of His Beatitude, Patriarch IGNATIUS. Then, it was more shopping. Michel had attended weekly Bible Study at St George in Houston for six months last year and bought sweets for me to take back to the Bible Study gang. We visited The National Museum of Damascus, home to the famed Dura-Europos synagogue which dates back to the 2nd century and was reconstructed there. Then, said goodbye and Issa drove me back down to Suwayda where we enjoyed lunch with Metropolitan SABA. That evening, Fr Timon, the Diocese’s “I.T. guy,” Danny, the Bishop’s brother, Talal, and I ventured up Bashon Mountain, an area mentioned no less than 60 times in the Old Testament, for a feast at a wonderful restaurant.
April 22, 2010 – “Starting to slow down … I just hope my old body holds up. For the entire trip, until today, it’s been as if an invisible power has protected and guided me. Today, packing and thinking about leaving Syria, seemed to drain that reserve.” After serving Orthros, I traveled with Fr Isaac down to Daraa, a city in southwestern Syria, near the border with Jordan, known throughout history as the Hauran region. The city is located 100 kilometers (62 miles) south of Damascus. Daraa is an ancient city dating back to the Canaanites. It was mentioned in Egyptian hieroglyphic tablets at the time of the Pharaoh Thutmose III between 1490 and 1436 BC. Daraa is considered one of the most ancient cities in Syria that is still attached to the traditional folklore.
While there, we visited the Church of the Annunciation, the priest, Fr George, and its daycare center. Then it was back to Suwayda for a festive lunch with all the Suwayda gang at the home of Fr Timon. After the afternoon rest, Fr Timon, Talal and I traveled to Izzra to visit the 6th century Church of St George, where this is carved over the doorway: “What was once an abode of demons has become a house of God, where once sacrifices were made to idols, there are now choirs of angels, where God was provoked to wrath, now He is propitiated.” The priest, Fr Elia, gave us a tour of the church and treated us to coffee. We then traveled to the home of another priest, Fr Boulos, for coffee, juice, sweets … and gifts! Back to Suwayda to pack and visit with Sayidna Saba and talk about Joy Magazine. “What. A. Trip.”
April 23, 2010 – “Whew. It’s finally over.” Up at 6:15, thinking it was 8:15; slow and steady pack; downstairs with bags, then back upstairs to the Chapel of St Timon to “say goodbye.” I’d learned in Latakia that Monk Paul had built this iconostasis and helped to make this room a chapel. Funny; almost 20 years ago, the same guy had helped to convert my den into a chapel by building a makeshift iconostasis. (That’s why it had seemed so familiar upon my first entering it!) The last time I’d seen Monk Paul was in Asheville, when he’d been home visiting his parents back in 2004. He’d come to our Mission that day, bringing with him a 400-year-old icon of St Mary of Egypt, complete with relic, that he said he was taking to Syria. We had him do “show and tell” with the icon following the service. As the Abbess of Mt Athos icon was also part of the décor, he identified all the monasteries pictured there for the faithful.
I went over to the Cathedral and took some pictures before anyone else arrived. I went into the altar, and there, to the side on the eastern wall, was the icon of St Mary of Egypt with the relic. God help me.
The Divine Liturgy on that day was for the young, pre-teen, kids involved in “Sunday School” (which meets on Friday). I sat in the back and observed them all coming in and playing; boys teasing girls, etc. They adored Bp Saba; about 30 of them helped chant the service! After breakfast, said goodbye to all and, again, the non-English- speaking Habib drove me to Damascus where Haissam met me and took me to his home to meet his wife and bless his home! All three of us went over to the sister, Maria, of my Houston benefactor for yet another feast with her family. Flew to Dubai where, just as I was about to exit the door for the hotel shuttle, I was pulled aside for them to disassemble my carry-on bag … looking for, and thinking they’d found, drugs! Eventually cleared and, at the hotel while in line, discovered that the young man behind me was Orthodox, from Damascus, and traveling to Houston for a couple months of med-school study, and the man to my left was also Antiochian Orthodox, on his way home to San Francisco. We all shared dinner together.
April 24, 2010 – 16-hour flight from Dubai to Houston: over Moscow, St Petersburg, North Pole, and Canada … down to the Republic of Texas.
Now, as I said, I’m not much of a movie buff, but forty hours spent on planes can tempt one beyond resolve. It was the movie “The Blind Side”, which I watched on the way over to the Middle East, that touched me the most and, to be honest, in many ways reflected my experience as an American Orthodox Convert in Syria.
It was a 16-hour flight from Dubai to Houston, having left Damascus the previous day. The lines to get through American Customs were long. When it finally came my turn, I approached the counter to see a sight not seen in my two-week absence: a very white woman with red hair and freckles. “Where you coming from?” she asked. “Dubai,” I said, “I’ve been traveling in Syria.” “Syria! On business?” she asked. “No, I was visiting the holy sites,” I replied. The fair skinned Customs Agent looked at me as if I had six heads and said, “Why Syria?!”
Without thought or hesitation I blurted out: “Well, because … I’m Syrian; Syrian Orthodox.”
She stamped my passport with an uncomfortable smile and as I walked away, thinking of the icon of the Abbess of Mt Athos, the icon of St Mary of Egypt, the Monk Paul – Syria – I couldn’t help but think, “Yep. That’s where all my family goes.”
-- Fr. Joseph is the Associate Pastor of St. George Church in Houston; his latest book, “We Came, We Saw, We Converted,” is published by Conciliar Press.