Saturday, November 6, 2010

novmber 5: further up the mountain

Love and what generates it.
Rebellion and what creates it.
Liberty and what nourishes it.
Three manifestations of God.
And God is the conscience of the rational world.
(Kahil Gibran)

5 november

So, a little more about this place. In 1811, two young men decided to devote themselves totally to God by living as hermits up on this mountain, Ruoais. They built a little church on the ruins of an old temple and made some dwellings near the church, calling the place the hermitage of Ss Peter and Paul. Fadi told me that there was quite a tradition of hermit monks here in Lebanon, as in Syria, but not much cenobitic (communal) monasticism until the late 17th century with the founding of the Lebanese Maronite Order. The two hermits then asked the local patriarch to send them a priest, but he instead sent them to the Maronite monks, who agreed to their request and also accepted them into their order. In the 1820's the Maronites decided to build a monastery on the same land, but the spot that the hermits had chosen was too inaccesible and exposed to the elements, so they chose a spot about 3 km lower near the village of Annaya. Obviously a lot like Camaldoli, the two communities lived concurrent lives. After Charbel Marklouf was beatified in 1965, the number of pilgrims making their way here increased steadily, so eventually the monks also built a large church next to the monstery. It's a modern, circular building, beautiful but sober, with tasteful stained glass windows. The last thing to be built on the property was the Oasis guest house, where I am staying, with its adjoining snack bar. Overall the whole place is quite tasteful; though a lot of the popular religious art of this region tends to be a little kitchy, there is not an abundance of it here. For the most part there is a monastic sobriety and noble simplicity throughout, which I appreciate a lot.

The great saint Charbel, whose repute overshadows everything here, was born the same year that the monastery started being built, 1828. He entered the monastery as a young man, but after some years asked to go and live in the hermitage instead. There he spent 23 years, until his death, and gained a reputation for great sancitity. After he died, on Christmas Eve, 1898, he was buried down below, in front of the monastery. Four months after he was buried lights started appearing on his grave. He was exhumed and reburied a number of times, and each time they found the clothes that he was buried in to be drenched with sweat and blood. This, of course, was conisidered to be a miracle. Many healings have been attributed to his intercession, and the museum below the monastery is full of letters attesting to healings as well as glass cases displaying the blood stained garments that were removed from his exhumed body. His present tomb has the coffin fixed on a base of cedar wood, which is in turn on a base of marble (from Verona, Italy, so we're told), all of which is separated from visitors by an iron gate with panes of glass. There is pretty much only one image of Charbel that is used, with his hood up, eyes downcast, white beard flowing, very pacific, and that image is ubiquitous here, even on seemingly every candle on the altars and in niches, besides banners on the roadisde, clock faces, calendars and bookmarks. There is another saint slightly less venerated here, actually a "blessed"--Blessed Estaban. I know nothing about him except that the image of him that is also prevalent is an old photo that shows him with a kindly face with smiling eyes between his hooded head and full black beard. What struck me about both of these saintly images is how peaceful and happy they look, as opposed to the anguished or treacly pious iconography of old Europe. I bought a small image of Estaban and a votive candle for my cell, so he is keeping watch over me these days.

So I trudged up the road to the hermitage and spent a pretty good afternoon up there. It's a bit of a museum in that the adjoining cells are blocked off and full of displays--Here is where St Charbel worked, here is where he lived, here is where he died. But it was very quiet except for the noise of construction and farm equipment drifting up from the villages in valley below. The little stone church itself is gorgeous, kind of Romanesque style, with rough wooden benches throughout. I don't know if it is ever used anymore. After a group of tourists came up, unable to comply with the countless signs in Arabic, French and English that asked for silence, I slipped out and sat in the park in front of the hermitage for a time as well. The lady at the counter down below had said to me, in French, that there was the road and then there was also the "rue au foret," the road through the forest. I couldn't muster up enough French to either ask or understand the answer to the question, "How do you find the rue au foret?" But I slipped off the main road on the way down and stumbled upon it. It led further up the mountain yet to the site of the ruins of two small cells, which I supposed to be the first hermitages, and then a huge plastic cross wired to the peak of the mountain, and then a path all the way down that at the last was sheer rock, but not difficult to descend at all.

I'm enjoying the "fast" from speaking a lot, almost as much as my "fast" of Pringles and biscuits. I'll confess to popping on my ear buds every now and again to listen to a piece of music on my iPhone but other than no outer stimulation. There is morning prayer with the monks in the monastery chapel at 7, followed petit dejeuner in the sunny refectoire at the Oasis each morning. An elderly woman is bound and determined for me to hear more of her story than I can possibly understand, but also speaks slowly and politely to explain everything there is to offer for breakfast: fresh cheese and lebneh (the thick yogurt spread for which, along with a few other Lebanese things, I cannot re-acquire a taste after the illness), a little bowl of delicious olives, a packet of what we would called pita bread (here it is just "bread"), a small bowl of some kind of marmalade, a plate of sweet sesame bread sticks, a pot of tea and one pat of butter. I've been slipping the sesame bread sticks into my coat pocket to save for my afternoon snack when she is not looking. I was trying to think of some way of nabbing half of the hunk of cheese too but I was afraid it might be obvious and go bad in my room. I've been attending Mass in the evening (yes, just "attending" since I have no idea what's being said and only the vaguest idea what's being done, the Maronite rite in Arabic; ex opere operato), and then eating the same sajj at the snack bar each night--"zaatar et fromage extra," thyme and cheese with fresh cucumbers and tomatoes inside. Rolled up it's almost a foot long, cut in four pieces and very satisfying. After that there is evening prayers and then the great silence of the night. It's all lovely, but still nothing to rival my beautiful life in the woods in the foothills of the Santa Cruz mountains.