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.

text and photos by Marilyn Raschka

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“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.

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Tags: Lebanon Christianity Monastery Monasticism