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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.

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Tags: Lebanon Sisters Pilgrimage/pilgrims Monastery