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One Man’s Way of Peace in Lebanon

Retreating to a life of prayer in Lebanon also means being a missionary. At least Pere Antonious can still insist that his picture not be taken.

“If you ever come and don’t find me in the chapel, go up to the roof and call yaa habiis – oh, hermit! I’m never far – probably working in the garden.”

For a 75-year-old hermit-monk living in the Qozhayah Valley in the mountainous northern part of Lebanon, Pere (Father) Antonious is a surprisingly busy, energetic man. With bright blue eyes and frail hands he welcomes many a visitor to his hermitage throughout the summer, and he even receives a few others who seek him out from the seclusion of the winter’s snow.

Peaceful solitude is rare in Lebanon – as are hermit-monks. But peace is the rarest commodity in Lebanon. Perhaps that is why the only hermit in Lebanon is such an interesting, admired, even envied individual.

This kindly man knows the workaday world. In his early priesthood, Pere Antonious spent ten years in Europe studying theology, and he has a doctorate in philosophy and religion from the University of Strasbourg in France. He also studied law and worked as a judge in Lebanon’s religious courts, specializing in annulment and inheritance cases.

Later he turned to monasticism. A long Lebanese tradition of hermits was behind the monk’s decision to leave the communal life of the nearby monastery of Mar (Saint) Antonious. Lebanon’s most revered local saint, Mar Charbel Makhlouf (1828-1898), was a hermit for 40 years of his life.

“I thought about becoming a hermit for a long time,” he admits. And then in 1983 he made the pledge to live the rest of his life in the footsteps of so many others who lived in dozens of small caves which dot the cliffs of the Qozhayah and neighboring Qaddisha valleys.

When he first left the nearby deir (Arabic for monastery) to move into the simple stone hermitage, it was run down from years of neglect. Its previous occupant had died some fifty years before.

Originally constructed in 1716 under the supervision of the head monk of Deir Antonious, its stone walls were giving way. The roof had leaked so badly that the chapel interior was ruined. The antiquated water system needed replacing, and the garden and vineyard longed for a caring hand. Pere Antonious, then in his late sixties, accepted these challenges as part of his decision to become a hermit. While workers from nearby villages did the masonry and plumbing, the monk struggled with the weeds that had long laid claim to the terraced garden.

Located on the spur of a mountain ridge, the hermitage now is strong enough to defend itself and its hermit against rains and snows that start in early November and continue until April.

The water system includes a white fiberglass reservoir, and electric lights replaced old gas lanterns. The summer garden is a tidy array of potatoes, corn, and tomatoes. The vineyard’s grapes and the fruit of twin pomegranate trees also go to the monks of the deir. As Pere Antonious points out, “Hermits own nothing – not even vegetables.”

Attached to the chapel are simple quarters where the monk sleeps and washes. A mat on the floor is his bed. A vine-covered walk running the length of the building is his cloister where he walks back and forth while reading the Bible or a prayer book – his year-round exercise for body and spirit.

His simple life is also marked by sacrifice. Once a day he eats a sole meatless meal brought up from the monastery, in accordance with traditional Lebanese hermit life. He offers cold spring water, olives, and bread to his visitors.

Pere Antonious also offers challenges to his guests with the question, “Could you live the life of a hermit?” For the gregarious Lebanese, his seemingly lonely yet joyful life is a mystery.

After 5:00 p.m. the habiis (Arabic for hermit) devotes the remaining daylight hours to hoeing and watering the garden. On Sundays Pere Antonious devotes this time to additional prayer instead of work.

Even without radio, television, or newspaper, the habiis is well-informed on national and world events. “Visitors tell me the most important things that happen,” he says. “Isn’t that better?”

He also receives mail – much of it from Lebanese who have emigrated to Australia, the United States, or Canada. Smiling as he points to a stack of correspondence, he says, “Hermits just don’t have the time to write letters.”

A small daily calendar with Mar Charbel’s picture on it hangs on one of the chapel walls. Each January 17, the feast day of St. Anthony, he honors the monastery’s patron and his namesake in a special way. On that day only, he leaves his hermitage and walks down the valley to the deir, where he celebrates Mass, greets the monks and visitors, and then walks back to his humble abode. How does he handle the snow which covers the area – elevation, 3,500 feet – at this time of year? “It’s not so bad,” he says. “I wear boots.”

A hermit with a sense of humor and a wonderful opinion of the world is an important treasure in a country torn apart by 13 years of war. His visitors, many of whom know nothing but the life of strife, sense his unique perspective in that tragic country.

Yet his life is completely patterned after the traditional life of Lebanese hermits – a daily routine that is hundreds of years old. Of the four activities that characterize his day, the most important to him is prayer. When visitors enter the chapel, the monk is usually standing or kneeling in prayer.

He also devotes himself to reading the Bible. He will challenge a young man who has visited him before, “Have you read the Bible since you were here last?”

The third daily activity is physical labor, which the monk does except on Sundays. In the summer the garden requires all the time he can spare. In the winter he does simple household tasks and a bit of snow shoveling.

Prayer, reading the Bible, and physical work are often interrupted by the fourth activity, mission. Hearing confessions, listening to the problems of visitors, or praying with them defines mission for Pere Antonious.

Although he speaks enthusiastically about the first three activities, ironically it is mission that gives this hermit his greatest reward. His apostolate comes with the life of a mysterious, prayerful recluse in modern Lebanon. But you can sense his joy in serving spiritual needs. “A man came to see me several years ago and asked me to hear his confession – the first he had made in 25 years.”

Visitors of all ages meet, pray, and converse with the habiis in the small chapel, whose altar displays a painting of an early Christian hermit, Mar Boula. In his hermitage in the Egyptian desert, the early recluse lived on only half a loaf of Arabic bread each day, which tradition says was brought to him by a crow. It is also said that the young Saint Anthony had a vision which led him to visit Pere Boula just before the old hermit died.

Lebanon’s Mar Antonious monastery fittingly named its nearby hermitage after Mar Boula. And now the 272-year-old hermitage is home to another Antonious.

A small library in the corner of the chapel holds books in Arabic, French, and Italian, the languages Pere Antonious knows best. The shelves are filled with well-used prayer books, religious commentaries, and books by modern theologians. He takes pleasure in texts on ecumenism, especially those which focus on the similarities among Christian sects rather than on their differences.

The pere’s eyes sparkle when he talks of infitaahs, or breakthroughs among Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, and the Maronites, Lebanon’s largest Christian church, of which he is a member.

He mentions December 1965 with obvious pleasure, for then Pope Paul VI held a joint Mass for Roman Catholics and Greek Orthodox in the Vatican.

Pere Antonious speaks even more enthusiastically about his own ecumenical experiences. “Muslim sheikhs have visited me here, and they are always welcome,” he says. What he calls “the door of dialogue” is always open to Christians of all kinds.

“Don’t think of Christianity as having sects,” he cautions. “Think of it as having many colors, like flowers in a garden.”

The prayerful solitude of this hermit-monk surely is a source of wisdom. Lebanon, it seems, could use more hermit-monks.

Marilyn Raschka writes from Lebanon, where she has lived and worked for years.

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