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Heading for the Hills

Hermits in Lebanon are a living witness to a rich, ascetic tradition.

text and photographs by Marilyn Raschka

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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.

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Tags: Monastery