The following is my translation of a passage from the book La Communaute Monastique de Deir el-Harf by Houda Kassatly, published in 1996 by Balamand University. Deir el-Harf was one of the first monasteries in Lebanon to become renewed with vigor and activity during the 20th century and it remains an important monastic center and place of pilgrimage in Lebanon. I hope this will be the first of several posts on this monastery. For another account of the monastery's history, go here.
Though the origins of the monastery of Saint George goes back into legend, from the eighteenth century written documents allow us to establish an exhaustive list of the superiors who succeeded each other in directing the monastery and who were regularly named by the bishop of Beirut and, from 1901-- the year of the creation of the diocese-- by the bishop of the diocese of Botrys, commonly called Mount Lebanon (the diocese on which the monastery of Saint Georges canonically depends). The diary of the monastery allows us as well to recover the history of the school that would be created in 1922 at the monastery under the mandate of father Basilios Sidawi.
But this list and the information collected does not allow us to assume the existence of a well-established monastic community. Even if various superiors succeeded each other at the head of the monastery, it is difficult to affirm that the higumen gathered around himself monks desirous of consecrating their lives to God. The monastery of Saint George suffered, it seems, the consequences of the decrease in vocations recorded at this time. The twentieth century, however, will reveal itself to be the century of the restoration of the monastic life. The first attempts at giving a new spiritual impulse to this place will, however, not last long.
Between the years 1939 and 1941 a female monastic community was founded by Adele Kazan, Mother Anastasia. Designated superior of the monastery of Deir el-Harf by the metropolitan of Byblos and Botrys, Elia Karam, she established a rule for the monastic life of a community of nuns to which she gave the name “al-thaluth am-aqdas” (the Most Holy Trinity). However, due to the opposition of certain priests, she had to put an end to this brief project and establish herself in the village of Amioun where she founded a school named “Al-Islah” (Reform), open until now.
In 1949 bishop Elia Karam gave his agreement to the project of archimandrite Theodosius Moutlaq of founding a monastic community named “al-Fadi al-Salih” (the Good Redeemer). It was planned that the members of that community would dedicate themselves to priestly service and the education of the young. The archimandrite also hoped to form an association of laymen with the same name who would care for the expenses of the community and he proposed the opening of a school and an orphanage. In 1950 he accepted his first novice who had to leave the monastery the next year, however, due to family opposition. The project was the definitively abandoned.
In 1954 some young women, members of the Orthodox Youth Movement, moved into the monastery with the agreement of bishop Elia Karam and under the direction of a Russian nun, Mother Blandine. But very soon the community preferred to choose a residence, and this for good, at the Monastery of Mar Yacoub in the village of Dedde in Koura.
1957, the monastic renewal
It was in 1957 that the Orthodox Church of Antioch was renewed with monastic tradition, thanks to the aspiration of certain members of the Orthodox Youth Movement to the monastic life. Monasticism had passed through a serious phase of decline in the absence of male vocations even while monasteries with nuns stayed lively. Metropolitan Elia Karam gave for the use of the group one of the monasteries under his jurisdiction, and it was the monastery of Saint George of Deir el-Harf that was chosen in 1957 to house this monastic renewal. Father Daoud el-Mur, who was charged with the handling of the assets of the monastery was moved some time afterward into another monastery. On November 7 1957 Chafic Mansour and Elia Yaccoub, both originally from Lattakieh, moved into the monastery, followed on November 27 1957 by Habib Fahde and on December 5 of the same year by Marcel Morcos. Monastic life was organized, divided byween work, prayer and study. At the beginning, the direction of the monastery was confided alternatively (every three months) to Chafic Mansour and Marcel Morcos. However, at the end of August 1958 Chafic took charge of the monastery. On June 8 1958 bishop Elia Karam vested brother Habib in the habit of novices under the name Agapios. On February 9, 1959 father Anthony Mansour of Lattakieh, after having served as priest in the monastery of Our Lady of Bkiftine, joined the community. He was followed on the 17th of the same month by a student from Beirut, Ibrahim Bedrane.
It was at this time that a letter was sent to Father Andre Scrima who was in India. They asked him to join the community so that it could profit from his experience and knowledge, since for the Orthodox East, the monastic life is essentially a living tradition. One does not improvise a science, and even less so the “spiritual science” , the most demanding of all. Since its origins, it was received, assimilated, lived, renewed, and passed along. The arrival of father Scrima marked the link between the monastic tradition, coming through Romania, and the new life being reborn on Lebanese soil. For this purpose father Andre Scrima arrived at the monastery on Palm Sunday 1959 and began to give daily lessons in monasticism.
On August 28 1959, at the service of vespers for the Beheading of John the Baptist, in the presence of bishops Elia Karam and Elias Mouawad of Aleppo, the brothers Chafic, Marcel, and Ibrahim were vested in the habit of novices.
In 1960, Fr. Simon Khoury of the Orthodox Youth Movement went to the monastery several times a week in order to give the monks lessons in the Psalter and Byzantine music. In the spring of 1961 brother Marcel Morcos was chosen as higumen of the monastery. In 1962 father Andre outlined the rule of monastic life, and continued to provide, every summer, his teaching on spirituality, monasticism, the liturgy, and Holy Scripture. In addition to these courses, brother Marcel gave the monks supplementary lessons and undertook the translation of articles and books.
The monks organized the everyday life of the community. They shared the work in the fields and current affairs. Metropolitan Elia Karam confided the handling of assets to brother Agapios, the monastery was put back in order, the buildings repaired, and a reservoir and wells were dug. The monks made many indispensable acquisitions and repaired the rooms in order to be able to receive visitors.
In the month of February of 1962, brother Chafic Mansour left the monastery, opting for ministry in a parish (he would later become bishop of Lattakieh in Syria). Four brothers remained: Marcel, Antoun, Agapios, and Ibrahim gave their monastic vows on June 24, 1962.