ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Piously Poised on a Precarious Perch

Seclusion, silence and spirituality revive a fourth-century Lebanese convent.

The Lebanese village of Hamat is a traveler’s dream. The tiny Greek Orthodox village sits on a high plateau with plunging precipices that look down on both manmade and natural wonders: A medieval Arab castle, a Crusader town, the churning waters of the Mediterranean and a naturally formed face on a cliff that still carries its ancient name: Theouprosopon, “the Face of God.”

In the far north lies the sprawling city of Tripoli, once a Crusader town and still home to an impressive Crusader castle. To the east lie the Lebanon Mountains, which shelter an ancient grove of cedars dating back to the time of Christ.

Physically, Hamat survived the Lebanese civil war intact. But the universal disruption in the flow of Lebanese life sent many of its sons and daughters out of the country in pursuit of security and employment.

High achievers these Hamatis – they are doctors, engineers, technicians, computer programmers. Many made their way and fortune in oil-rich Arab countries and in the United States, Canada and Australia. Many return annually to oversee the building and then enjoy new homes that reflect their success.

With such natural beauty and vivid human life, tradition has it that that Hamat was named after a donkey, and a dead one at that.

A man and his donkey were passing through the land where Hamat now stands. The way was steep and the donkey was less than enthusiastic about the climb. The man urged his beast on, crying out, “Ha! Ha!” – a kind of donkey “Giddy up!” This poor old donkey had heard one too many “ha’” in his lifetime and as he approached the top he fell to the ground and died. The donkey did not have a name so the man referred to him simply as Ha. And Ha had died. In Arabic, this was “Ha maat.”

In sharp contrast to the ill-named but truly lively Hamat is the quiet convent called Deir Nourieyyeh, named for Our Lady of the Light and located about a mile from the village. A miracle occurred here in the early fourth century and pilgrimage to the area hasn’t stopped since. The present Greek Orthodox convent, or deir, is a white limestone building shaded by green cypress trees. The courtyard provides seclusion from the outside world but frames the heavens and maintains the focus of the convent and its nuns.

Built in the late 19th century as a monastery, the structure was soon abandoned and fell into disrepair. In the 1970’s Greek Orthodox nuns reinhabited the buildings and repairs began.

The priest who celebrates Divine Liturgy is from a neighboring town. While at the convent he keeps in touch with his home base by cellular phone rather than trust the unreliable local telephone line.

The keepers of the convent are the nuns themselves. Clad in black, they appear and disappear among the arches, corridors and rooms of the convent. Sister Mounira is a self-appointed spokesperson for the sisters. She reviews the rules and routine with me. Only for extreme medical reasons do the nuns leave the convent. None of them drive.

“Not nice to have a nun drive,” Sister Mounira states with conviction. When necessary, they depend on the priest for transportation. Family members visit occasionally but are asked to keep their visits short. No newspaper, television or radio interrupts the nuns’ routine.

At Deir Nourieyyeh austerity is a foregone conclusion. While the average American woman has 12 pairs of shoes, a nun at Nourieyyeh makes do with one pair.

Meals at the convent are simple and almost meatless. Squash and carrots, potatoes and soup – simple but healthy fare. Mottoes also abound: “Take from the land only what you put into the land.” Gardening and tending to the olive trees consume much of the nuns’ day but repay them nicely on the dinner table.

Sleeping is considered a useless inactivity. Sister Mounira even scowls at the thought: These are nuns at work and nuns at prayer.

The sisters share everything and in such close quarters toes are occasionally stepped on. Sister Mounira explains that hurt feelings are dealt with through a simple “round robin” of forgiveness prayers said at day’ end.

The nuns of Deir Nourieyyeh command respect and a steady stream of visitors often seeks their counsel. For those troubled by physical or mental pain, the nuns pray for the transfer of that pain from the sufferers to the nuns themselves.

The ruins of the early Christian monastery are near the convent in a cliffhanger of a location, and with a cliffhanger of a story to boot. A plaque hanging over the chapel door of the ruined monastery tells the story of the fourth-century structure.

The monastery was built on the orders of Theodosius I, a fourth-century Byzantine Emperor, to commemorate a miracle that occurred below in the frothy sea.

One night a ship floundered in the angry sea. The doomed passengers, one of whom was Theodosius, screamed, “Mother of God, save us!” Suddenly a light appeared and a voice said, “don’t be afraid. I am with you.” Then the sea went calm and on the shore they saw the Virgin Mary carrying Jesus. Light radiated around them. Slowly the ship made it to shore where the passengers knelt and praised God for their salvation.

The Emperor ordered the building of a monastery in a spot that overlooked the sea but was so precariously poised that the world would not notice it.

The monks who lived there – once numbering 300 – dedicated their solitary lives to prayer, fasting and worship.

Today its desolation draws pilgrims and tourists: The stone steps leading from the modern deir above to the ruined one below have been worn smooth by the thousands of feet that have trod upon them.

In spite of its neglect in the past, the ancient monastery has recently undergone a partial face-lift. This is not an easy task, as the building’s stones have tumbled down the cliffside and are difficult to retrieve. The deir’s ruined state, however, will always add to its mystery and mystique. Aged but ageless, it serves the spiritual needs of its visiting pilgrims.

Twice a month, a poor but dedicated woman named Raf’a carries her bucket full of cleaning supplies and cleans the simple chapel. Icons and paintings, plastic flowers and cold stone floors receive a thorough scrubbing, dusting, polishing or mopping. Candle stubs are removed. The occasional empty camera film box and once-fresh flowers are gathered up and thrown away. Raf’a asks nothing for this work.

Deir Nourieyyeh’s little light shines very brightly on August 14, the eve of the Feast of the Dormition of the Virgin. Traffic jams seem oddly appropriate that evening; many pilgrims park in the village and walk the mile or so to the convent where Divine Liturgy is celebrated. Whether they walk that mile for its practicality or penance is a good question.

Holy Week, however, is when Nourieyyeh really shines. The nuns of Nourieyyeh never leave the convent during this time. Prayers are plentiful and vigils are long. The nuns sleep very little, opting instead to remain at prayer in the church.

The order of events at this place of worship is different from our Western Holy Week. Thursday evening begins with the appearance of the crucifix. The passion chapters are read and all candles are extinguished. There is a procession with the cross and the Gospels are read.

Friday morning opens with a celebration of the Divine Liturgy and a series of prayers for the dead Christ. Christ’s funeral is observed on Good Friday. The epitaphion, or altar cloth, becomes a shroud of death and is hung over the door of the church. Flowers fill the church in commemoration of the death of Christ.

Saturday is another day of liturgy and special prayers, but everything really builds up to Saturday evening, when the courtyard at Nourieyyeh is filled with villagers and visitors. Each person holds a candle to greet the risen Lord.

The Divine Liturgy starts in the evening and goes for hours. Only a few of the worshippers can crowd into the church, but the doors are left open and a public address system makes it possible for all present to hear the activity inside.

Toward midnight the priest and parishioners leave the church and the doors are locked. The prayer vigil continues and with it comes a feeling of expectation. The priest then pounds on the solid wooden church doors. There is no response. He pounds again. Still no response. A third time and suddenly the church doors are thrown open. The “stone” has been removed and the dead Christ becomes the risen Lord.

Prayers and liturgy continue deep into the night. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that there is no Easter morning service in many Eastern churches.

Easter Monday, for those of us in the West, is just another Monday, but it is very significant to Eastern Christians. Early Monday morning a liturgy using the Gospel of John, chapter 20, verses 19 through 25, is celebrated. These verses tell of Christ’s first visit to his disciples and his instruction to spread the Word:

“And Jesus said to them: ‘Peace be unto you; as my Father has sent me, even so do I send you.’”

As the Easter celebrations come to a close and life resumes its normal pace, the nuns of Nourieyyeh return to their gardens, their sewing of vestments and shrouds and their prayer and counseling of the spiritually needy.

Marilyn Raschka is a frequent contributor to Catholic Near East.

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