Deep in the mountains of Northern Lebanon near the towering Forest of the Cedars of God lies the Qadisha Valley. This beautiful and unique landscape, carved out by the Qadisha River, holds within it an immense history of Christian prayer and monasticism dating back to the 5th century.
In the early days of the Christianity, many communities fled to the Qadisha Valley as a refuge from persecution in the east. The arduous journey required to enter into the valley provided a natural protection from persecutors creating a space to where the Christians could flee. The various natural caves and rock formations throughout the valley provided locations for the establishment of many monasteries and hermitages, some of which can still be visited today. While there have been a few different Christian groups that found a haven in this valley, the Maronite Catholic Church has been the dominant community present there throughout history.
Qadisha is an Aramaic word that translates to "holy" or "sacred." Upon entering the valley, it is clear as to why this name is so fitting. As you descend into the gorge, the presence of prayer and the sacredness of the space are tangible. You feel your heart grow quiet in acknowledgment of the vast number of holy souls who have spent their lives here in contemplation of the mystery of God. Simply gazing out into the rugged landscape, you are stuck with awe at the majesty of creation. Looking down as you walk, delicate purple and white flowers line the path and remind you of the intricacies and subtleties of God's love. All of these things are an invitation to forgetfulness of self, to meditation, and to prayer. One beautiful way to enter into prayer based on the tradition of the Maronite Catholics is the haziz prayer. This prayer of the heart has its roots in the beginning of the Maronite church and involves taking one verse from Sacred Scripture and repeating it continuously in your heart. As the verse is repeated, it slowly sinks from the mind into the heart and draws you more and more deeply into the presence of God. As you descend into the Qadisha Valley, your steps parallel the rhythm of the prayer. Over and over while walking, you repeat the verse and listen to the Lord speak to your soul. With each step of descent He leads you deeper into His love.
Walking along the path, you come upon the many natural caves that have been used as Maronite hermitages and monasteries throughout history. Even today, you can find hermits, monks, and nuns who live and pray in these nearly inaccessible places. Of these, one of the most significant is the Qannubin Monastery. This is the oldest of the Maronite monasteries and was the seat of the Maronite Patriarch for hundreds of years. Inside of the monastery are various frescos depicting scenes from scripture and tradition, including a beautiful image of the Coronation of the Blessed Mother.
Also in the valley, you can see many terraces for growing grain and other produce for the nourishment of the Christians living in the valley. It is impressive to contemplate the simple and austere life that so many have taken on out of love for God. Sometimes, in the mornings and evenings, fog descends throughout the valley. It has been said that this fog is the incense rising from the monasteries of the monks and nuns as they pray their morning and evening prayers. Hiking through the Qadisha Valley is an experience unlike any other. One bend after another, the path weaves downward. Each step of descent draws you deeper into your heart, deeper into God. The pace becomes rhythmic and soothing. The gentle sounds of the breeze and the running river quiet your mind and invite you let go of all distractions. Lost in thought and prayer, the majesty of the valley becomes the backdrop as you find rest in God.