Saturday, November 6, 2010

november 4: up the mountain

To hate intelligence is to hate the most precious gift God has given to us. It is in Christian terms to sin against the Holy Ghost, and it is the attitude farthest removed from the real meaning of humility in tasawwuf--the Sufi path.
(Seyyed Hossein Nasr)

4 november, 2010, annaya, lebanon
couvent di saint maroun, oasis di saint charbel

In its earliest dreaming/planning stages, this trip started out as a trip to Lebanon, Syria and Jerusalem. When Steve and Ace and I talked about it, even though Imam Naveed had dropped out and there was no work for me in Jerusalem, we still talked about going on to Jordan and perhaps even sneaking into Isreal from there. When they decided not to try that, I still had a half-baked plan (about which I didn't tell anyone because I was so afraid I'd let it slip at the border) to go on to the Holy Land myself and somehow switch my plane tickets to depart from Tel Aviv instead of flying out of Beirut, which would have been quite difficult at that point. In the end, I discussed it with Steve and Ace, but when Fadi came up with the idea of getting me a place to make retreat for a few days before I left for France, and then when we all got sick, I just let it go. Even our time in Syria was cut short by the sickness and the government, so it has wound up being a good long stay just in Lebanon, with a brief jaunt into Syria, and I feel pretty good about that now.

Young Petter came and got me around noon yesterday and spent two hours giving me a tour of his favorite parts of Beirut. (He's the bright young Danish journalism student who is finishing up his Master's Degree here in Lebanon at American University of Beirut.) We hitched a ride on a bus--it was pretty much a mini-van with a big number 4 attached to the window, capable of holding about 12 people in a squeeze--up to a neighborhood called Archifiye, and then walked into another neighborhood called Gemmayze. (I may have these spellings wrong, but I gave my Lonely Planet guide to Steve to take home with him so I can't check... Apologies.) What Petter likes about these neighborhoods, he says, is that one can still see the early 20th century French architecture at its most resplendent, though he lamented often that ugly modern buildings were sprouting up like weeds among the wheat. We passed by several gated courtyards and garden, shuttered windows and balconies, shops and restaurants which indeed did call to mind what I would imagine that era to be like. There were also many little niches that contained Christian shrines to various saints or Our Lady, of which Petter was also quite fond. He led me to the apartment that he is sharing with two flatmates. It had that empty feeling of a college-era flophouse, where people are more squatting that actually living. I guess it's that way all over the world. There was an open package of Oreo's on the table which Petter said were his French roommates: "They love their cakes with tea, you know." Then we made a long trek back to Hamra, via the streets where all the clubs are--it was actually pretty hip looking and I wish Steve and Ace had seen it--and then through downtown around the edge of Solidaire again. It was the first time I had walked from that area back to the hotel, and I was surprised to find out that it was relatively close and easy to walk, less than a half hour. We stopped at a street stand for a sajj, a kind of Lebanese fast food, somewhere between a pizza and a crepe, and then said goodbye when he got me back to the hotel.

Then Fadi picked me up and we made the long drive here to Annaya. The worst of it was getting out of Beirut and its environs. The traffic was maddeningly slow, even for him. But well north of Beirut, just on the southern edge of the coastal city of Byblos, we headed inland and up into the hills. We first made a quick stop at Fadi's own village, where he had some personal business to attend to, and then continued up into the hills until we arrived here at the Monastery of Saint Maroun on Mount Rouais. It's really breathtakingly beautiful up here, and I was so happy to finally be well out of the city. Everything kept reminding me a little of the hills of Tuscany and a little of the mountain paths on our hike from Rajpur to Mussorie in northern India. We watched a spectacular sunset over the Mediterranean, and at one point Fadi pointed to the coast to our south, the peninsula that is Beirut--though it's over 50 km it didn't seem that far away--and the tip of it which was the Hamra district where we were staying and where I walked the corniche every morning. But now we were almost 1200 metres high, over 4000 feet by my crude math.

We had a good long talk during the drive. At one point in the conversation I let slip the phrase, concerning dialogue with other traditions, "How could it be that the top of the mountain could look so different if the way up looks so similar?" Fadi immediately jumped on that and asked me to explain, and I had to launch into my whole telos-scopos-praxis theory again, how we describe the end differently, but I am fascinated to find out how much ground we share in terms of the goal and even the practice. Fadi thought that this was a pretty unique approach, because they are so used to saying that the end is the same--union with God; it is only at the practical level that we are divided. He gave me a lot of new insights just from peppering me with questions and from his own work. For example, he was talking about a study he is reading now that suggests the main difficulty between Muslims and Christians is an anthropological one. (Did my face light up! Anthropological issues!) I just ran into this in Dr Nasr's book too, by the way. The study Fadi is reading is called something like "Son versus Khalifa." For Islam, the human person is a theomorphic being (in the image of God) who is, you might say, the viceregent of God (that's one translation of "khalifah"), even a theophany of God's names and qualities. But Islam does not accept the idea of a filial relationship, that we are sons and daughters of God, or that we can. Even in regards Jesus, though the Qur'an calls him the ruah Allah-"the spirit of God," a name not give any of the other prophets, he is still not Son, which would destroy the belief in the absolute transcendence of the Divine Essence. Islam never emphasizes the descent of the Absolute or the manifestation of the Absolute, nor the incarnation of God in history. I was also asking him how he understood the doctrine of tawid-the unity of God in terms of these anthropological questions, but he says really this is a practical doctrine, not an ontological one, in other words, tawid is more about an all embracing way of life that covers every aspect of existence than it is a statement about the unity of nature in being. (I hope to have one more conversation with Nayla when she picks me up Saturday about this last bit, and wonder if there is any speculation about advaita and tawid.)

As soon as we got here I was so happy to be here, for a number of reasons besides the silence. I am staying in the Oasis Saint Charbel, which reminds me so much of a foresteria in one of our monasteries in Italy, the smell, even the design of it. As a matter of fact there is much about this place that reminds me of our Italian houses. Right next store is the monastery itself, a modest but impressive stone structure built in the mid-19th century, seemingly built right out of the stone of the mountain. We went right away to the monastery church which is a barrel vaulted beautiful resonant place, reminiscent of many crypt chapels I've seen in Italy. One of the monks was leading the Mass in the Maronite rite there. Everything of course is Maronite rite and in Arabic, except that the signs and literature are also in French, and the staff all speak French as well. Not much English... There is also a snack bar next to the Oasis called Agape Saint Charbel, where they serve sajj and chips and burgers, etc., for pretty decent prices. Fadi set me up in my room, helped me order a sajj for dinner and a packet of digestive biscuits for my cell, and then told me that the monks knew I was here so I should just go to Vespers at 6 in the church and one of them would find me. I was to take lunch with the monks each day. So I sat through Vespers, with its beautiful chanting and clouds of incense, and then sat trying to look obvious afterward, but no one came forward. So I slipped away and went to my room. It is spacious though simple, with the most comfortable bed and pillows I have encountered yet here in Lebanon and I was happy to slip off to sleep early in the cool mountain air under a pile of blankets.

I keep saying I am feeling 100 per cent better, but I must not have been. I slept ten full hours! When I finally got up, I went down for breakfast in the refectoire below, took a little walk and went back to my room to say my prayers, and promptly fell asleep again! By the time I checked my clock it was noon. And I could have kept sleeping. I stumbled through asking the woman at the counter how I was supposed to get lunch and I understood that it was at 12:30 in the monastery, and again I should just go over there and stand around. I put on my nice shirt and walked over to the monastery again. Just as I was walking up a big black Mercedes pulled up and a portly monk got out of the back seat and was greeted by all of the local monks coming out of the door of the monastery as well as by various lay people standing around, with kisses and hugs and blessings. Fadi had said that the monks had something special going on this week, and I assumed this was it, maybe the visit of the equivalent of their prior general or some such thing. Again I stood in the hallway trying to look obvious but everyone just swept by, very caught up in the flurry of this man's arrival. They made a short stop at the chapel, a visit down to the chapel of Saint Charbel's tomb, and then rushed off en masse into the cloister, followed again by some lay people. At one point an old woman who could barely catch her breath asked me something in Arabic, and then in French, which I didn't make out either, at which point I felt pretty useless and walked away. I suppose I could have asked someone or just walked into the monastery myself following the crowd but, to be honest, I was so happy to be alone. So I went and changed into my walking clothes, bought a container of Pringles (that's right, I said "Pringles," salt vinegar flavored!) and a bottle of blackberry juice at the Agape Saint Charbel, and happily headed up further the mountain.