On a sunny afternoon after the sacrosanct holy siesta of the Lebanese, the volunteers visited the Sisters of the Congregation of the Little Sisters of Jesus, founded by Sister Magdeleine Hutin following the inspiration of Blessed Charles de Foucauld.
On the road, squeezed into the back of an old Lebanese taxi, between the jolts and the checkpoints, I discover the town of Hermel, at the foot of the mountains, in the Bekaa plain.
Through the half-closed windows, I see cars driving the wrong way, stopped on the side of the road for lack of petrol, men with guns, Hezbollah flags flying in the wind, women in "hijab". A smell of rubbish mixed with petrol hangs in the air. I've only been in Lebanon for a few days and I must admit that this city is a bit of a change. A certain fear crosses my mind, because I don't feel in a familiar and peaceful environment...
The taxi takes me through narrow streets and into the heart of the city. I cling to my seat to keep from collapsing on top of my neighbour as we pass an imposing mosque. After a chaotic journey, the taxi finally stops in front of the monastery gate. At first sight, the building on the right seems banal, but the cross, the only cross in town, overlooking Hermel and the Bekaa plain sets the scene. I immediately feel at peace. The cross is the first sign that has become familiar to me in the last ten minutes.
The monastery is small. Surrounding two adjoining buildings is a large plot of land where olive trees, vines and other fruits and vegetables grow. In the distance, the mountains of Anti-Lebanon stand out. A magnificent passageway opens up to our eyes as the sun's rays play with the relief.
A sister dressed in blue, a veil slightly askew, stands in the doorway and invites us in. Our taxi driver greets her respectfully before setting off again. We take our seats on the sofas that decorate a rather small room, made of clay, recently repainted in white, as the recent brush strokes attest.
We are soon joined by two sisters who had been busy with daily activities, one in the garden, the other in the kitchen.
The monastery of Hermel is currently home to Sister Anne-Chantal, Sister Monique and Sister Daad, respectively Swiss, French and Lebanese. The oldest, Sister Anne-Chantal, the Swiss, is the oldest in the community. Her history is written on her serene face. The other two, a little younger, have a smile that lights up their faces. Sister Monique, the Frenchwoman, is searching for words, hesitates, thinks, ... she looks like a Lebanese woman now! I can't help but smile discreetly.
Sister Daad is Lebanese. Like a mother, she takes care of us, serves us and refills us as soon as we have finished. Despite the delicate situation in Lebanon, they receive us like kings.
When they arrived in the village, they knew nothing and for some of them, they didn't even speak the language of the country. Everything had to be done and discovered. With their hands and with courage and perseverance, they made a place for themselves in the community of Christians, learning the Lebanese habits and customs with care. By their gestures, they made themselves understood, by their goodwill and their actions, they made themselves loved, by their courage and their holiness, they made themselves respected.
Thanks to their resilience and their prayers, they are now part of the city walls!
Sister Monique recounts her experiences during the Daesh invasion, in an account filled with an indescribable feeling, perhaps a mixture of fear and gratitude.
"The mayor took us into his home for a while to protect us. As the Christians fled Hermel and our Muslim neighbours watched over the monastery, we wondered about our future there. The answer was obvious. None of the Muslim inhabitants of our beloved town wanted us to leave. So, we stayed."
Deeply attached to the families, they have at heart to be witnesses of the immeasurable love of Christ. Thus, they fully fulfil their missionary vocation because, as their foundress said, they are committed to living "a contemplative life ... mixed with the Muslim world in order to make the Lord present there ... and to bring there, beyond material help, the certainty of his Love".
A silence settles in, leaving us thoughtful.
"We can't always attend Mass every day because of a lack of financial means and the lack of a vehicle," continues Sister Daad, a feeling of regret breaking through her voice. So, when Fr Eliane from Qaa cannot bring them the Holy Eucharist, they hitchhike to receive it in nearby villages. Who can understand such a desire to receive Christ if not the Christians?
After having eaten several pastries and coffees, the sisters invite us to visit their living quarters. In the very simple church, between the icons of Christ and the Virgin Mary, we sing in chorus a "Hail Mary" in French and Arabic, in thanksgiving. A moment out of time from which reality pulls us back all too soon.
I follow the Sisters, in on their farm where they grow vines, fruit and vegetables and olives.
Despite their advanced age, they are diligent in their daily tasks: watering, gardening, etc. Last year, with the help of their friends, they harvested 700 kg of olives.
Very soon, volunteers will come to take turns to carry out this task, which they cannot do alone.
In addition to the daily work in the monastery, Sister Daad and Sister Monique work in dispensaries in the town and neighbouring villages, in old people's homes, in dairies and other businesses to support the people and provide for their needs. The gift of self that they show every day is a source of admiration and reflection!
To conclude the visit, we sit down with Sister Monique and Sister Daad facing the mountains. As for Sister Anne-Chantal, she wastes no time and with the help of her walking stick, leaning on a loose post, almost falling twice, she struggles to water the flowers surrounding the monastery. She refuses our help when we offer it. With a twinge of sadness, I can only watch her as she puts all her heart and energy into her work.
A car horn toots to remind us of reality! Our driver is back.
We greet the sisters and assure them of our prayers and support. We offer to visit them regularly. They gladly accept.
What I retain from this visit to the sisters of Hermel is the generosity of their actions, the humility of their words and the simplicity of their welcome. I felt at home! They are the living symbol of Christian values.
The sisters' faith shines as brightly as the Lebanese sun on the Bekaa plain. They are the lighthouse of the city of Hermel.
Marie, volunteer in Lebanon.