Saint Charbel (1828-1898) was a Maronite monk who spent 23 years as a hermit and was an avid student of philosophy and theology. After his death, many healing miracles were attributed to him and he became a canonized saint of the Catholic Church.
When I visited the home of his birth (which has been turned into a museum and shrine of sorts) late one night, there were many people there, including several recently arrived Syrian refugees. People were praying, sleeping on the floor and huddled in groups lighting candles. After a few minutes of silent prayer, I began to weep uncontrollably. Soon…..everyone…..was weeping openly, in unison, as if at a funeral. Everyone looked at each other and acknowledged what was happening, and silently continued until they were finished. Many people still come here to pray for healing miracles and to celebrate the life and piety of this “Patron Saint of Lebanon.” I am not sure why I was crying…..perhaps it was the collective strife embodied in all the refugee families, or an amalgamation of all the heartbreak I have endured over the last few years in my romantic life, or the fact that I’d had a few vodkas at Maklouf’s Cafe earlier in the evening. At any rate, something was making me introspective and somber and it felt good to get it out.
The MARONITES are an Eastern Rite community of the Roman Catholic Church founded by Saint Maron, a Syrian hermit of the late 4th and early 5th centuries. Under the Pope, different traditions evolved from the 5 centers of Christendom which were Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople, Rome and Jerusalem. Maronites come from the Antiochene tradition and migrated to Lebanon under threat of persecution. They were largely able to maintain their religious customs even under occupation because of their geographic isolation in the rough mountain terrain of Northern Lebanon. The liturgies are normally delivered in Syriac Aramaic as they would have been thousands of years ago.
My Dutch friend Saskia and I crashed a wedding being performed in Aramaic at the central church in the town of Tannourine (almost all of Lebanon’s spring water comes from here) and the burly, scary Russian mafia dude guarding the marital “car” let us take some photos before the wedding party exited the church. Later, as we were leaving town, we passed the reception party which was being held in a giant, half built concrete mansion over looking the valley. Cars were parked five deep and there was barely enough room to squeeze through without ripping the mirrors off the old fashioned rentals. As we passed, we saw the blue-eyed Russian guard with the gold teeth. He waved at us as if we were old friends. Friends he would not hesitate to kill if necessary. Nothing personal, it’s just business.
The CEDARS of GOD (Horsh Arz al Rab) are located not far from Bsharri on Mount Makmel (although there is actually a larger Cedar Forrest in the Chouf) at an altitude of 6,600 feet. They are hardy, majestic trees that were once the dominant tree of this mountainous terrain, however, they have been exploited throughout history by everyone from the Phonecians (to build ships) and Soloman (to build the first temple in Jerusalem) to the Ottomans (to build extensive railroads) which has largely caused their near extinction.
There is a slow reforesting effort in progress throughout the country and the hope is that some of these beautiful groves can be restored. Honestly, walking through the grove (which is incredibly small….there is a much bigger, but not as famous one…in the Chouf) it felt a little bit like being in a battlefield after a long and bloddy war. The few soldiers left standing were limbless, exhausted and nearly defeated. The trees do have an energy, though, and an incredible smell. Maybe it is the smell of a certain majesty that has been lost, or of a certain quality of perseverance. While we were here the Lebanese army was taking up the whole backside of the park, unloading guns and backpacks and food from military vehicles and lounging around in the shade waiting for their next orders. It turns out they had just finished a unit “race” from another town and were packing up. I was happy to hear that, because it seemed like they were taking the place over and turning it into some kind of encampment. All the soldiers LOVED my Norwegian friend Eivid’s t-shirt which said, in Arabic, WAZAFUK? This means, “Did he hire you?” and is clearly a play on words by some clever smartass. I plan on buying several of these shirts and wearing them every day.