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Heading for the Hills

Hermits in the hills of Lebanon continue an ancient ascetic tradition.

Two centuries after Jesus’ Ascension, some Christians began living as ascetics, paring their lives to the bare essentials as a way of following the Gospel’s call to “pray always,” to be poor and celibate. Over time, their numbers fluctuated, but the Christian tradition has always been home to men and women who choose to live as hermits, dwelling apart from the world in order to focus on the kingdom of God.

The hermit movement grew in popularity during the fourth and fifth centuries. By then, Christians were no longer suffering persecution. With martyrdom no longer likely, ascetic living was considered the second best way of witnessing to Christ. Some Christians believed that removing themselves from society was the best way to remain faithful to the Gospel. In the relatively short span of 200 years, early Christian writers reported thousands of hermits, both men and women, living in the caves that honeycombed much of the Middle East.

Today there are still many hermits around the world who live a life of prayer in hermitages within cities as well as in the solitude of the desert. One of the countries that continues to cherish this ancient form of traditional ascetic living is Lebanon.

The Maronite Church, an Eastern Christian Church, has preserved and fostered this rich spiritual tradition.

The annals of the early hermits are filled with stories of one outdoing another in their quest for ascetic practice. Some, like St. Simon Stylites, lived on top of a pillar for years. (The site in northern Syria is still a popular tourist spot.) Other hermits lived in trees; still others became recluses.

Many of those seeking Christian perfection in the early centuries of Christianity were trained in the ascetic life by an older hermit, whose virtues and way of life they observed and emulated. This spiritual relationship became enshrined in what later developed into a monastic rule. (In fact, the word for the leader of the monks’ community, the abbot, comes from the Greek, Aramaic and early Latin words “abba” and “abbas,” for father.)

Lebanon’s contemporary hermits know the world well. Some of them have studied in France and Rome and several hold doctorates, but they have heeded the call to become solitaries whose lives are dedicated to prayer and meditation.

To become a hermit, a monk requests permission from the superior of his monastery. If the abbot judges the monk spiritually mature enough for this difficult kind of life, he selects a site for the hermitage where the monk will, ideally, spend the rest of his days.

The hermit’s progress is monitored and the abbot ensures that the ascetic follows the monastic rule. The hermit also has a confessor who helps him overcome challenges to attaining mystical union with Christ. According to the hermits, the greatest pitfalls are pride and selfishness; desire for comfort – even one’s dietary likes and dislikes – are a close third.

The early Christian hermits often made their ascetic practice a type of endurance test that contemporary people sometimes have difficulty understanding. These early hermits struggled against human nature and tested their wills, disciplining their bodies to achieve total self-control.

Old texts tell of feats of self-denial. One 16th-century hermit ate once every two days and during Lent only on Saturday and Sunday. He allowed himself a drink of water once a week. During Holy Week he performed 24,000 prostrations, a record that was broken only by his even more zealous pupil, who performed 26,000.

Another hermit of the 16th century spent 60 years as an ascetic. During Lent he knelt for a week at a time. He ate only on Sunday.

The stories of these Eastern hermits spread to Europe, where Christians subsequently sought to follow the same way of life. In the annals of eremitical history there are the names of Frenchmen who studied Semitic languages, journeyed to Lebanon and were given permission by the Maronite Church to become hermits. They were held to the same rule of life, and history states that they “passed the test.”

The second half of the 17th century saw the greatest increase in ascetics. One worth mentioning is hermit Sarkis Ben Moussa al-Rizzi, who studied in Rome and returned to Lebanon to become a hermit. Due to his efforts, the first printing press in the East was used at the Monastery of St. Anthony at Qozhaiya. The press is on display today in the monastery’s museum. Several hermits have also been noted in historical documents as achieving great renown for their copying of texts by hand.

More precise rules for ascetic life were promulgated in 1716. They encouraged moderation and stressed that the life of a hermit was not a life of martyrdom.

Today’s hermits live according to these rules. Their simple hermitages are stone buildings with a chapel and extremely Spartan living quarters.

Even in the 21st century, the hermits in Lebanon organize their day around their ancient traditions. The hermit eats one simple, meatless meal per day. The meal is taken after dark and is prepared and delivered by the monks of the monastery responsible for the hermitage.

Every aspect of a hermit’s life is regulated, even sleep. Five hours is the maximum. Long hours of prayer, meditation and reading are balanced with physical labor. The traditional manual work of the hermit is gardening. Short walks provide another physical outlet.

Father Antonious Chayna has been a hermit since 1982. Now 81, he is the “senior” hermit in Lebanon. Frail but spritely in spirit, Father Antonious maintains a lovely garden. His walks are short except for the one he takes on 17 January, the Feast of St. Anthony, when he journeys to the nearby monastery of St. Anthony of Qozhaiya. He hears confessions, prays and then returns to his hermitage.

This hermit includes people in his life. On any given Sunday, and often during the week, a line of hopeful visitors patiently wait outside his chapel door. Much problem-sharing occurs between those waiting in the vestibule.

During my visit I chatted with a Lebanese couple who lived in Indianapolis for several years. Our conversation found its way to raising teens. Youssef and Antoinette spoke of setting limits on what their children watch on TV or find on the Internet. “It’s all in bad taste,” they groaned.

Father Antonious knows little of these things. The only items in his hermitage to keep him in touch with the world are a calendar and a clock.

This distance he keeps from the world is what makes his advice so valuable. Sessions can last hours. Father Antonious is patient and thorough.

Lebanon’s second-longest serving hermit, Father Youhanna Khawand, has a Ph.D. in theology from Rome and taught at Holy Spirit University in Kaslik, Lebanon, before becoming a hermit in 1997. His hermitage lies outside Beirut.

Father Khawand exercises his prerogative regarding visitors: He sees no one. From afar one can see him taking a stroll. Many of Father Khawand’s hours are spent on an ongoing project, reforming the Maronite liturgy. He writes prayers, prose and hymns and has a wonderful gift for reworking New Testament text into poetic verse. Many of his writings are published, but only because his admirers gathered the bits of paper and tissue on which they were written and painstakingly converted them into a book.

For the 30 or 40 years before Father Antonious took up the call in 1982, there were no Maronite hermits. Today there are three, the third a monk who came to Lebanon from Colombia to learn Arabic and Syriac and the way of a hermit. Dario Escobar took up residence in the Hermitage of St. Hawqa.

Father Escobar is glad to receive visitors but has few. Whereas the way to Father Antonious’ is at most a 10-minute walk, the 45-minute walk to Father Escobar’s hermitage is rocky and steep. He even keeps a store of food available for the times when the monastery cannot deliver his meal.

I met Father Escobar in the mid-1980’s when he was a monk at Qozhaiya and delivering the daily meal to Father Chayna. We met again in the early 90’s and he told me of his wish to become a hermit. He wondered then if he could win the difficult struggle over mind and body. He became a full-fledged hermit in August 2000.

The tradition of the hermits that began in the deserts of Egypt still thrives in the mountains of Lebanon. Few professions either in the church or outside it have such stringent requirements. But for those called to serve God in this walk of life, there is no more fulfilling vocation.

Marilyn Raschka is our Beirut correspondent.

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