Once upon a time there was a beautiful monastery in the Syrian Desert, 90 km to the north of Damascus, in a village named Qara. The monastery goes back to the 6th century and is dedicated to the great martyr Saint James the Persian. Of its glorious past only the ruins remained. Before this place was a monastery it was a Roman stronghold, and before that a pagan temple dedicated to the sun. The Lord touched with compassion the heart of a Carmelite nun (Mother Agnes Mariam) who wanted to restore it. The aim was to establish oriental monastic life by rooting it in a new way into the local Church, dedicated to the unity of the Christians, with a spirit of hospitality. The bishop, Monseigneur Abraham Nehmé, Catholic Greek-Melkite Metropolitan of Homs, Hama and Yabroud, gave his wholehearted blessing for the realization of this project in 1994.
Community life quickly settled in and vocations came. Even though we are few in number, the nuns, monks and residents come from different ecclesiastical traditions: Greek-Melkite, Maronite, Latin and Orthodox. The community counts 8 nationalities today. The construction works began the 14th of July 1994. The 14th of September 2000, on the Feast of the Cross, in the jubilee year, the bishop wrote a decree for the erection of the monastery constituting it “sui iuris eparchalis” in the tradition of the oriental monasteries (that is under the authority of the local bishop). At the same time he decreed the birth of a new diocesan order, the monks and nuns of the Unity of Antioch, of which the mother-house would be this monastery.
Our community is formed by monks and nuns. We celebrate the Holy Eucharist and the liturgy together and we occasionally eat our lunch and supper together. The brothers live in the Roman tower with male residents. The sisters live in the main building.
The monastery aims to return to the roots of Eastern monasticism and at the same time to adapt itself to the most fundamental needs of people today.
Aspects of our day to day life and our spirituality:
The community lives an “idio-rhythmic” life'. This term comes from the Desert Fathers who respected the personal rhythm of each monk. It is the opposite of an absolute uniformity in clothing, praying, working ... The purpose is to recognize God's plan for each individual and to help him fulfill his own mission. This supposes an external diversity within a profound unity of souls. The goal is for everyone to accept that he is the image of God, infinitely loved by Him, and by the community. The person is encouraged to accept his weaknesses, his own qualities and his unique contribution, to descend to the depths of his soul to encounter there the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and to accept their invitation.
In this day to day spiritual battle, St. John of the Cross (+ 1591) proves to be an exceptional guide. It’s all about the transition of the 'old man' to the 'new man ' (cf. Rom 6:6; Col 3:9). Thus, instead of stressing the importance of absolute silence, each member is encouraged to attain an inner silence and an inner prayer. Moreover, how could we impose absolute silence, since we have committed ourselves to the care of children and persons in difficulty? Thus, monastic life also becomes a family life where we avoid appearances and where we try to meet the imperatives of the simple day to day life. This implies that the day schedule can be very different... every day. We can say that it’s not the community who follows the rules but that rather the rules follow the reality of the community.
Time of war
The three classical elements of monasticism: prayer, community life and work have undergone a fundamental transformation because of the war. In 2011-2012 we still received visitors but gradually the situation in the country became increasingly dangerous up until the moment where we accepted to live in a kind of family prison. Before the war, the parish priest of the village came to celebrate the Eucharist three times a week: on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. When he could no longer come, Father Daniel Maes  (the Director of the Seminary) celebrated the Eucharist every day according to the Latin rite, accompanied by Byzantine and Arabic chants and prayers. Now the Byzantine priest comes back again to celebrate mass on the major liturgical feasts. We celebrate the Byzantine Vespers and have a lot of moments of silent prayer of the heart.
During the direct attacks on the monastery, we celebrated the Eucharist in all simplicity but with great fervor in our shelter. The refugee Muslims who live with us respect our moments of prayers, with great devotion.
Four times we changed the location of our bomb shelter. It was necessary to find and to organize a single shelter where the entire community, with children and residents, could live for a while in security: working, praying, preparing meals, eating, sleeping. Twice the situation was so critical that we had to leave immediately. We all prepared a bag with basic necessities. However, on both occasions, it was too dangerous to step outside the monastery, seeing that the rebels were all around us. We accepted this impossibility as a call from the Lord and decided to stay, entrusting our lives and the monastery to Him.
All the difficulties, tensions and weaknesses in human and religious communities are also present in Mar Yakub. Yet, we try to solve them in community, through transparency. We aim to share each other’s sufferings, poverty and weaknesses; thus striving to fulfill the law of Christ (cf. Gal. 6,2). At the same time we share the joys and the tears of the Syrian people.
Since the beginning of the problems in Syria we also help the suffering, giving them food and health packages, coming to us through benefactors. A team of volunteers and families who gather/live in the Monastery (Muslim and Christians) are responsible for the spreading of these aids. Our team works in Damascus, Tartous and in the Qalamoun area.
 “Idio-rhythm” is a composition of two Greek words. “Idiotes”= individual, proper, a simple citizen – not a politician or a philosopher nor a man of importance of authority. Today the meaning has degraded to “idiot”. This wasn’t the original sense. “Ruthmos” = the form, balance, the good measure, proportion, rhythm.
 Father Daniel Maes o.praem is a Norbertine priest from Belgium who’s responsible for the Seminary in the Monastery. He lives here for the last five years.