Between miles of half-constructed phantom buildings
Along steep-mountain climbs hugged by rocky cliffs and the Mediterranean Sea,
Lebanese men smoke from hookahs and drink Turkish coffee
Over a small table of friends – Where are the women?
One boy watches intently as our bus passes by
Soldiers, holding machine guns wave us on into Holy Christian sites.
A country torn by a history of wars and conflict
Multiple attempted annihilation of both Christians and Muslims.
A land artificially pieced together by neighboring Arab countries
A refuge for Palestinians, exiled from their countries,
As we pass by each building, each olive grove, each turn
The story of this land changes.
But one thing is certain.
She cries inside while smiling with radiant beauty.
“If there is anything that Lebanon does not have a shortage of, it’s rocks,’ says our guide to humor us as we round a sharp curve along a thick wall of limestone. It is past 6:00 pm, and the sun has already set, but our bus continues to make its way through a precipitous mountain climb downhill, with dangerous cliff drops just inches from our windows.
I close my eyes and recall the majestic tranquility of our earlier walk through the forest of the Cedars of Lebanon in the Beqaa Valley. In ancient times, these trees once thrived in Mount Lebanon, and are called ‘Cedars of God’ because they are said to have been planted by God.
“The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly, the cedars of Lebanon that he planted,” says the psalmist (Psalm 104). Though we are far enough from what remains of the cedar forest, I inhale its woody evergreen scent in my imagination to keep myself calm.
The tour group is on our way to the Monastery of Saint Anthony the Great of Qozhaya in the Quadisha Valley. Finally, we pull up to what looks like a dead end, with a small number of seemingly abandoned cars parked alongside the street.
“What are we doing at this forgotten place at the bottom of a deep valley, in the pitch black night?” I wonder.
“Get out, get out the bus now,” our tour guide encourages us on.
And with very little to go by, we all walk toward a small gleam of light further ahead, which then opens up into a spectacular spiritual haven. Shadows of worshippers, walking with deep reverence, seem to come out from the walls.
“You must know, that to understand Lebanon, you must understand the conflict of our multiple confessions,” explained our guide earlier. “Lebanon consists of Muslim Shias and Sunnis. The country also has twelve Christian confessions: Maronite Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Melkite, Armenian Orthodox, Armenian Catholic, Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic…” he continued to list them but I couldn’t keep up.
According to recent statistics, Lebanon is 54% Muslim, 41% Christian, and 5.5% Druze, along with a small number of other faiths. The most recent Civil War, from 1975-2000, mostly between Christian Maronites and Palestinian Muslims, involving shifting international alliances, has resulted in a Lebanese society whose faith lives have been tested and strengthened by the crucible of conflict and death.
Most Lebanese Christian families (as with Muslims) know someone who has died as a result of one war or another, or has fought in the Civil War. No wonder then that they cling to their faiths as young children who have been hurt clasp onto their mother’s hem – most with great love and forgiveness, but some with terrified hatred.
Almost immediately, I am drawn to the Grotto of Saint Anthony, a natural cave dedicated to the saint. At the altar in front of the cave, a young couple both hold onto a grey, oblong, smooth stone with a hole at each end. They are praying quietly, he in Arabic and she in French, their lowered dark lashes veiling their eyes, as the candle smoke cuts through the cave’s mustiness. They are probably praying for a child, as this grotto is known for such miracles.
Countless supernatural phenomenon are attributed to Lebanese saints, most of whom are unknown to much of the world, like Saint Charbel, whose intercessions after death have healed many.
For me, the saint who most embodies the country of Lebanon itself is Saint Rafqa (1832-1914), a Maronite nun who, despite her intense share of Christ’s suffering through blindness and paralysis, continually gave praise to God, and maintained her peace and joy. And she used her hands, the only part of her body she could move, to weave beautiful patterns displayed throughout one museum.
Saint Rafqa is very much like Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity, whose feast day Carmelites celebrate today; she continued to sing in her heart and offer herself as God’s praise of glory through her painful death brought on by Addison’s disease.
“I think that in Heaven my mission will be to draw souls by helping them to go out of themselves in order to cling to God by a wholly simple and loving movement, and to keep them in this great silence within which will allow God to communicate Himself to them and to transform them into Himself,” said Saint Elizabeth.
That is the way of the Lebanese Christians I encountered. Their witness , I believe, is one of the most accurate modern day examples of faithfully living out the Carmelite spirit in the secular world.
Without a doubt, every Lebanese I saw, personally knew the pain of crucifixion in one way or another. Yet rather than giving visitors bitter gall, they offered – without cost – golden wax candles, scented frankincense oil, and incense of myrrh.