Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Intellectual Life at Deir el-Harf

The following is also taken from La Communaute Monastique de Deir el-Harf by Houda Kassatly. The manuscript collection of Deir el-Harf is digitized and can be obtained from the wonderful, glorious Hill Museum and Manuscript Library. They even have extensive sample images from that collection, among many others!


Copying manuscripts was considered one of the most important activities prescribed by the monastic life insofar as this work allowed for a form of bodily action to be associated with intellectual activity. As a general rule, monks would not sign the result of their efforts, their anonymity corresponding to their detachment from the world. For this reason, manuscripts that are signed by monks are accompanied by many formulas of humility, compunction, even of contrition and repentance.

It is not necessary here to study the manuscripts of the Monastery of St. George since they are already catalogued and their contents analyzed in the recent publication “Les Manuscrits arabes dans les Monasteres orthodoxes d’Antioche au Liban” (Beirut: Centre d’Etudes Orthdoxes d’Antioche, 1991). Suffice it to note the existence of sixteen manuscripts, the oldest of which “The Ladder of Virtues” dates to the year 1704 and the most recent to the year 1867. The existence of these manuscripts, some of which are signed by the monks of St. George who copied them, and the theological character of a part of the texts allows one to presume that at an early point this place must have been a center of spiritual life.

Theodosius Moutlaq, in his book on the monastery, notes the presence of a manuscript containing sermons and that the patriarch Cyril VI al-Za’im gave it as a “waqf” [endowment] to the monastery, and that it dated to the year 1713. Our attempts at finding a trace of it have been in vain, the manuscript remaining lost.

According to the diary of the monastery, a priest, Youhanna al-Kassouf copied some texts of which we unfortunately find no trace.

Literary Production

For the monks, adherence to the monastic life means the responsibility to spread the word of Christ. The higumen of the monastery should see to it that intellectual work be one of the activities of the community. Translation and writing are part of monastic work. A monk should always seek to learn deeply-- but also to make known-- the tradition of the Fathers of the Church. From the beginning of monastic life at Deir el-Harf, the monks pondered what the contents of a library should be. Gifts from many friends allowed them to realize their project and to assemble a great number of books in Arabic, French, and English, as well as some in Greek. These books cover various subjects: theology, spirituality, liturgy, literature, and patristic. The monks thus succeeded at putting together an important library containing more than four thousand titles.

However, local conflicts, especially the events of the Mountain War (1983), which forced the monks to flee the grounds for a period of four years, are the cause of the disappearance-- during the displacement-- of a large number of the works. Still, we count some 1500 titles which are again within the monastery library.

In order to promote the spiritual life among the faithful, the monks edited between the years 1959 and 1969 a journal called “Cahiers de Deir el-Harf”. This publication included principally biblical meditations, articles on monasticism, texts from the Fathers of the Church, apothegmata of the Desert Fathers, and studies on the liturgy. It ceased publication after the twenty-fifth issue.

The monks went on to translations of religious works and have published a certain number of books which appeared in the editions of al-Nur and Patrimoine Orthodoxe des Peres. Additionally, father Elias, current higumen of the monastery, has published many articles in collective volumes. [An complete list of the books written at the monastery, 28 in all, is found on pages 87-88 of Kassatly's book.]

This contribution to the domain of writing and these numerous books make the place an important center of spirituality. The publications of the monks, some of which have had multiple editions, are distributed on a large scale in Lebanon, as well as in Syria and Egypt, where they are considered standard reference works.

Monastic life lived in unity (interior spiritual life, shared community, and liturgical prayer) are always offered and available to others. According to their availability, the monks of the monastery of Saint George took charge of pastoral care for the parishes of neighboring villages, chiefly in the villages of Ra’s el-Matn, Jouret Arsoun, and of course Deir el-Harf, before the events in Lebanon. Additionally, father Elias, superior of the monastery, occasionally gave a course on the spirituality of the liturgy at the Saint John of Damascus Institute at Balamand.

It must be noted that, born from the results of the renewal that was carried out by the Orthodox Youth Movement, the monastic community of Saint George maintains close relations with the members of that movement. The monastery remains an important place of spiritual retreat, for gatherings, and for the organization of summer camps (a pine forest near the monastery is reserved for this use). It is a center of intense spiritual life for the adolescents who find the necessary conditions there for contemplation, spiritual guidance, and confession: the fathers of Deir el-Harf are the spiritual fathers of a great number of young people.

The reception of guests remains the difficult but radiant task of the monastery’s monks. Many people have accomplished the first steps of their spiritual life while with them. Some have even later on become priests and bishops and continue to keep privileged relations with the place.

It also must be noted that, during the period preceding the Civil War in Lebanon, a certain number of people came from the West to experience eastern monasticism, the faithful reflection of which they found a living example at the monastery of Saint George.

During the fifteen years of the war, the monastery of Saint George suffered from the vicissitudes of local conflicts. It was not able to preserve its territory as a haven of peace and the monks had to provisionally abandon it. This detachment from the place is not something new for monks who over the course of history have, as is recorded in the chronicles of church history- often been forced to abandon the place they had chosen as the refuge of their faith. The monks of Deir el-Harf were forced to leave the monastery in 1983 for a period of four years. They went-- first and for a period of one year- to the monastery of the Dormition of the Theotokos at Kaftoun and then established themselves in the village of Dhour el-Choueir in an apartment offered to them by a friend. They reclaimed the monastery in 1987.

When peace returned to Lebanon, the monastery was entirely restored and the traces of the damage that it suffered is no longer apparent. The monastery has confidently taken back up the path that it had led. With peace, it has again become the intense center of spiritual life that it seemed to be destined to become since its beginnings and which its geographical location in a region difficultly accessible to all, had overshadowed. The monastic community has countered external instability with its own interior quiet and stability, passing the years of the war faithful to itself and confident in its path.

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