Tales From the Mountaintop

When life gets stressful and chaotic, who doesn’t crave a quiet mountaintop for a little self-reflection? Most of us, though, simply make do with a swift walk around the block.

Not Stephanie Saldaña.

The 1999 Middlebury graduate, who recently published her memoir The Bread of Angels, opted for the mountaintop.

At a monastery.

In a Syrian desert.

And on a recent winter afternoon at the College’s Robert A. Jones ’59 House, in a room crowded with old friends, former professors, and curious townspeople, Saldaña smiled brightly and began to explain how a broken-hearted young woman from Texas ended up making life-changing discoveries halfway around the world.

In 2004, the 27-year-old Saldaña arrived as a Fulbright fellow in Damascus. The war in Iraq was causing inevitable turbulence throughout the Middle East, refugees filled the city streets, and rumors spread quickly that Syria would be America’s next target.

From her closet-like quarters in an Old City rooming house shared with a lively collection of characters, including a 73-year-old Armenian with a penchant for disco, Saldaña could often hear—but not see—the chaos and constant clatter of the streets below.

Struggling with her studies of Arabic and the role of Jesus in Islam, Saldaña began to feel lonely and overwhelmed by the disintegrating political situation. She eagerly anticipated each coming weekend when she could flee the city for an ancient monastery in the desert.

The monastery of Deir Mar Musa, in her words, “is perched atop a mountain, and can be reached only by climbing 350 stairs.” Built into a cliff more than 1,500 years ago, and far from the dusty and crowded streets of Damascus, it became her sanctuary for quiet contemplation. She quickly found friends there, many of whom became like yet another family—and one of whom was a young French novice monk named Frédéric.

Eventually, Saldaña, herself, became a refugee of sorts. She left the political volatility of the city behind and returned to the monastery to undertake the month-long Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, which entailed complete silence, space for solitude and time for prayer. She seriously considered becoming a nun.

To the keenly attentive audience in Middlebury, suddenly quite silent as well, Saldaña went on to describe her mornings of intense prayer and afternoons atop desert mountains, wrestling with a difficult past and frustrating present, which she explained as “a feeling of helplessness when confronting the chaos of a region I had come to love.”

The complete details of her tumultuous year abroad are beautifully captured in the intricate descriptions and quiet revelations of her book, which she read from at times. But it was the moments when Saldaña stepped aside from her pages to speak more casually to the gathering that she truly became animated and appeared far more relaxed. It was clear what a momentous experience this woman had been through.

Her humor and positive nature have been an obvious constant, even in the direst of times. She didn’t become a nun after all, she told the Middlebury audience simply. And she noted that Jesus, when he came to her during her month-long retreat, looked a lot like Woody Allen. And when asked about her growing friendship and increased correspondence with Frédéric, she was quick to grin and admit that she was slowly and quite purposefully trying to seduce him with love letters loosely disguised as lessons from the Koran.

Though the book stops short of telling all, Saldaña’s relationship with Frédéric eventually bloomed from one of shared religion to shared experiences to shared life. The two are now married and living in Jerusalem, where she teaches literature at the Honors College for Liberal Arts and Sciences at Al Quds University, a program associated with Bard College in New York.

Though not without years of hurdles and difficult choices, her broad and unflagging smile throughout her entire talk here made it quite clear that Stephanie Saldaña has reached a higher and more lasting understanding of love, faith and the world around her.

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