I woke up this morning to a view of the sun rising over Syria. Fr. Rachad and I are on mission in the Beka’a valley of Lebanon. An active civilian border crossing is 8 miles away, and Damascus is another 15 miles over a mountain pass. I get up early and take a run on this chilly morning in late March. In every direction I jog, I gaze up at snow-covered mountains.
Two thin but majestic mountain ranges span the length of Lebanon. The Beka’a is the corridor of farmland and villages in the long north-south valley. The Jordan river begins here, the same valley that passes Mount Hermon (Jabel Al-Sheikh) to become the Hula Valley, then dropping down into the Sea of Galilee, then opening up into the Jordan Valley and finally the Dead Sea. When someone Lebanese tells you about the Beka’a, they give you a peaceful smile that echoes the quiet, fertile peace of the valley.
Our mission team includes Zeta, a young lay member of the Beatitudes, and Carine, a French consecrated lay associate of the Little Sisters of the Lamb. We have gathered 50 French humanitarian volunteers and 20 Lebanese local youth for a weekend retreat.
The Salvatorian Fathers (an active Melkite order) hosted our leadership team last night. The town, Zahle, is the city that numbers the largest community of Melkites in the world (Arabic-speaking Byzantine or Greek Catholic). The bishop who lives here has the ancient title of Metropolitan of Antioch. The two priests were Syrian. They gave us a warm welcome and then went back to their evening activities—one writing an icon, another sharing pizza and smoking nargila (water pipe) with young friends as they watched a soccer match on TV.
Carine has been a missionary for many years in various countries – this is her first year in Lebanon, with Syrian refugees up on the northern border. She and Fr. Rachad did all the planning. This is the first time I saw her, but she looks familiar. She approaches me: “Wait, you’re Abouna Anthony! We’ve met! In fact, my encounter with your group of Americans in Lourdes is the reason why I’m in Lebanon!”
She grabs the attention of the 15 young leaders and tells them all the story of how last October, on the lawn across from the Grotto in Lourdes, I asked her and a couple sisters to introduce their community to our Immersion team. She had just been praying to discern where the Lord wanted to send her next, little did we know. She asked what we were doing. We said we were hopefully on our way to Lebanon for three months. (Israel was still closed, and Lebanon was our plan B). Lebanon resonated in Carine’s heart and she brought it to prayer and to discernment with her bishop. Here she is now!
Abouna Rachad shows a joyful and sensitive authority with young people. He is a Lebanese priest with whom I made my final vows and was ordained. His second cousin, Maribel, also happened to be among the leaders. Maribel says she lives for mission. At 20 years-old, she speaks passionately about sharing Jesus with children and with the handicapped. Carine, Rachad, Maribel, the other young leaders, and I spent the evening cooking, sharing dinner, and planning for the weekend.
The young crowd rolled in the next morning. The French are all around 22 years-old and the Lebanese around 20. The French missionaries are mostly here with an association called SOS Oeuvres de l’Orient, where youth take a year of service for the Lord, mostly in Arab-speaking countries. They live and serve two-by-two. Some have boring desk jobs and light hours, many volunteer in schools or nursing homes, and others are on the terrain with kids at boarding schools or orphanages from early in the morning till late at night.
Halfway through the year, this retreat is a crucial chance to step aside and listen to God, to recognize how He is at work in their life and mission, and to renew their strength to serve and to be a gift amid such a depressing and challenging social situation.
This is also a chance to exchange the different spiritual gifts between the French and the Lebanese. The French youth are struck by the Lebanese devotion and identity as Catholics, and by their close, affectionate ties of family and community.
One young man from Versailles shared that he is wary of returning to the individualistic, secular society and lifestyle in France. He feels such support and vigor in a public culture that proclaims the faith with statues on street corners, mentioning God often in conversation, and social life filling and surrounding the parishes and community Catholic centers. He also says he receives so much from having a roommate, despite the freedom he enjoys back in France with his own room. He says he needs brotherhood, just like his older brother who chose to enter seminary with a vibrant religious order last year.
The Lebanese are struck by how the French feel freedom to choose their faith, and they are jealous of the French young people’s horizons of opportunity. They reflect about their own faith and even try to understand Islam. The Lebanese go with the flow of their family’s faith. Wounds from the past still hurt, and there is a feeling of being trapped.
The Lebanese youth are focused on enjoying the present, but have a hard time looking forwards and building a future. The economy has plunged into ruins. Politics and public infrastructure are hopelessly crippled. To give you readers some idea – while the cost of living is in most ways on par with Europe, a teacher’s salary in Lebanon is $100 per month! Lebanese young adults are leaving the country in droves to find reasonable job and career opportunities.
During the retreat, the reflections seek to strengthen the prayer lives and paths of discernment in the lives of the French youth. Themes directed towards the Lebanese zero in on their difficulties facing the temptation of marijuana and other drugs, and on trusting the Lord amid feelings of despair in the tailspinning economy and politics.
Our weekend climaxes with a long prayer evening, filled with an amazing spirit of communion between all of us, in the midst of our differences. So many young people let pairs of young leaders pray over them. So many come to confession and spiritual direction with deep wounds and deep desires. In the chilly early morning, a group of young men, responding to my invitation, join me for a silent run a few times around the farm and lake of the premises. The joy and energy seems to say to me that they are ready to go forth with renewed hope! What a grace to be here and support this time of renewal for youth and young missionaries in the peaceful Beka’a Valley.
Zooming forward, two and a half months have passed since I wrote the story above. Since then, I have continued to meet so many missionaries, both young people and religious. I have also continued to see flames of faith grow among young people. Most of what I witness and encounter is through the groups of young people and families who pass through our house and retreat center.
I am especially encouraged by our weekly prayer and formation group. 50 bright young Lebanese participate — a flame of hope! Let us pray for these and all young Catholics today, to have the courage to make commitments and to have the wisdom to walk with Christ through suffering.
The community here is determined to install solar panels so that we will no longer be dependent on generators and their cost of petrol. Please let us know if you know any persons or associations who might help sponsor the $150,000 project. If you would like to contribute, here is our giving page.
Pray for the complex politics and economy here, and moreover, for a renewal of prayer and community to root the people in the midst of the poverties.
In His Grip,