"We live only to discover beauty. All else is waiting."
Suppose there are souls who believe that they have been able to touch true beauty with their eyes by frequenting diverse and varied landscapes. In that case, there are few who have had the opportunity to admire, on a July day under a clear Lebanese sun, the immaculate splendour of the Holy Valley. Yet, such was the privilege of the five volunteers from Tripoli under the confident guidance of Father Bechara, a Maronite priest in El-Mina.
Arriving at dawn on the slopes of the Qadisha, "holy valley" in Syriac, our footsteps first led us to those of the last hermit living in Lebanon. Five Europeans in search of the living incarnation of early Christianity. The image is beautiful even if the door of the hermitage remains closed. Is its inhabitant simply absent, or does he not wish to see his voluntary retreat disturbed by our arrival? We knock, call, drum, but only the force of silence responds to our attempts.
This disappointment hardly moves us, and we quickly swallow the few leagues that separate us from the monastery of Our Lady of Qannoubine, where the Maronite sisters who occupy it give us a warm welcome. Qannoubine, a word of Greek origin, means "common life". If the etymology is pleasant, the history is glorious. Tradition has it that this monastery was founded on the initiative of Emperor Theodosius the Great in the 4th century when the aging Roman Empire officially embraced the Christian religion. Moreover, instructed by Father Bechara, we learn that these walls, coiled in the rock, sheltered the seat of the Maronite patriarchate for four centuries. Braving wars and persecutions, the patriarchs were able to find in these walls a haven, under the protection of the Virgin crowned by the Trinity, the main theme of the splendid fresco, which decorates one of the sides of the church. Thus, in this sacred building, blessed by the centuries, we become truly aware that history is always young when it bears witness to a moment of greatness.
Our steps then lead us to the troglodyte hermitage of Saint Eliseus, which offers us the pleasant spectacle of architecture dancing with nature. Thus, as we walk along corridors and wooden staircases, our hands brush against both walls made by human hands, and rock faces polished since the beginning of the world. This singular setting facilitates the evocation of the hermitage's hours of glory, of the valley and of the caves that crisscross its sides in their hundreds. We learn from a French priest we met by chance that these caves were home to thousands of hermits from the dawn of Christianity and that none remained empty of prayer and meditation for long since a younger hermit immediately took the place of the one who had died. Through the rustling of the olive leaves in the light breeze, we can almost hear the echo of the prayers uttered since late antiquity by these men in search of the absolute. A wild nature where the exhilarating breath of the idealism of the Eastern Christians passes.
As if to give substance to these stories, we soon discover the village of Beqaa Kafra, whose high altitude is matched only by the fervour inspired by the man born there. Saint Charbel was born, a Maronite monk and hermit in the 19th century, who was venerated throughout Lebanon by Christians and non-Christians after his death and was finally canonized in 1977. At the bend in a winding alleyway, we pass five seated villagers. Their faces light up with a frank smile when we greet them, delighted as they are to see foreigners visiting their country in these troubled times.
We meditate in the house where Saint Charbel was born, which has been transformed into a chapel and then in the church next to the grotto where, as a child, he prayed while grazing his father's flocks. Everywhere the same radiant face of the Lebanese saint is offered to our gaze. This portrait, we are used to it, has a prominent place in all the Christian houses of the country. Nevertheless, walking on the ground that Charbel walked on, brushing against the buildings that were familiar to him, and walking along the streets where his vocation took root, we are no longer looking at a man but admiring the face of a saint in the case that brought him to the heights of spiritual life. It is almost as if we are looking at the face of an Old Testament patriarch, so much so that it exudes nobility, serenity and oriental mysticism.
From the outskirts of the village, we can see majestic bell towers standing proudly in the middle of a village shimmering in the fading sun. This is Bcharré, the Christian village where Khalil Gibran, the famous Lebanese poet, was born. Is it any wonder that the proximity of wild nature and the contact with the monks of the Qadicha have aroused the poetic inspiration of a child of the country?
As the day ends, we want to discover the cedars of God, one of the last vestiges of the ancient forest that covered the summit of Mount Lebanon in biblical times. In the hollow of a valley, we enter the lair of the sacred giants while a sweet scent of conifers surrounds us. Moving easily along the marked paths, we walk among hundreds of trees of gigantic stature, some of which are two thousand years old. Confronted with their imposing mass and venerable age, we feel like dwarfs facing mythological creatures from another time. No cedar, however, is more admirable to us than the one engraved by Alphonse de Lamartine in 1832. In place of an inscription, we discover a tree that was once struck by lightning and then sculpted by Rudy Rahmé. The Lebanese artist, shortly after the civil war, represented Christ on the cross.
As the sun sets over the Holy Valley, this last image remains in our minds on the road to Tripoli. It is the terrible symbol of what we are volunteering for in the Land of the Cedar, that of this centuries-old tree, once vigorous and respected by the world but recently struck by lightning and dying like the Crucified One, soon to be resurrected.
Sylvain, volunteer in Lebanon.