Friday, July 31, 2009

A Biography of Metropolitan Elias Kurban (1926-2009)

The following is taken from today's edition of the Lebanese newspaper an-Nahar, which is owned by the Orthodox Tueni family. The Arabic original can be found here. Another summary of his life, written by Metropolitan Phillip of the Archdiocese of North America can be found here.

Here is a short summary of the life of the Metropolitan of Tripoli and al-Koura for the Greek Orthodox, Elias Kurban:

-- Born in 1926 in Ein al-Sindyaneh, Dahour al-Shoueir, Lebanon.
-- Ordained deacon in 1946 by the thrice-merciful Patriarch Alexander Tahhan in the Church of the Cross in Damascus. He continued to serve there until 1948.
--Came to Beirut in 1949 and served its church as a deacon. He studied in the American University and graduated with a diploma of higher studies in history.
--Travelled to the United States of America in 1954 and served as a deacon at the Cathedral of St. Nicolas in Brookyln. He enrolled in St. Vladimir’s Seminary and received a degree in theology.
-- The thrice-merciful Metropolitan Anthony Bashir ordained him to the priesthood for the parish in Boston in the United States in 1957, where he served for five years.
-- The Holy Synod elected him metropolitan of the Archdiocese of Tripoli, al-Koura, and their dependencies, on February 10, 1962. The thrice-merciful Patriarch Theodosios VI consecrated him on March 18, 1962. He would continue to serve the Archdiocese until his last breath.
-- He wrote studies and articles in various Orthodox papers and journals, as well as a number of books, including “The Orthodox Patriarchal Crisis: 1890-1900” and a series of booklets about the Church’s Holy Mysteries.
--The archdiocese witnessed a material and spiritual renaissance under his tenure, including all the parishes, the schools, the technical institutes, charitable institutes, centers for the mentally disabled, homes for the elderly, health centers, and a school of church music.
-- He built a new metropolitan complex in Tripoli after the destruction and burning of the old complex in al-Zahiriyya during the painful events in Tripoli in 1985. Likewise, he erected many new churches and parish halls in each parish of the archdiocese.

ليكن ذكره مؤبداً

Yesterday, Archbishop Elias Kurban of Tripoli and al-Koura fell asleep in the Lord.

Amandia has posted a video which features Sayidna Elias's renowned voice. It can be found here.

May his memory be eternal!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A Wise Comment....

This was written, anonymously, in the comments to a post from a few days ago, and I think it's worth your attention----

FYI, Father Touma is fluent in English. He studied theology in the U.S. and is a graduate of Saint Vladimir Seminary in the 70's. You may not find articles written by him in English because he went back to Lebanon after he graduated and has been ministering to mostly Arabic speaking spiritual children since.
The problems that we have now in North America are not specific to this land. They are spiritual problems par-excellence manifesting themselves in one way or the other. They have problems in Lebanon and Syria too. I am sure that there are problems in Greece, Russia, Jerusalem, and other places. They may not have attracted that much attention on the internet but this doesn't mean that they did not exist. Any person with enough spiritual depth from any country, whether they are fluent in English or not, whether they live in the U.S. or not, would easily tell you that the problem we're going through is a spiritual problem and is inherent to any man-made organization as it relates to our fallen human nature. It was only a matter of time before the symptoms started to show up, and they will continue to take us from one crisis to the other until either the whole thing collapses, or until we recognize that we're all in need to refocus ourselves on repentance and love. The Church of Christ is where love abounds and nothing else. Money, buildings, investments, endowment funds, financial assets, publications, etc, are not what kept Orthodoxy alive for hundreds of years. If anyone just imagine how life was 50 years ago and more, and think of all the hardships that our ancestors went through from famine, disease, illiteracy, poverty, persecution, wars (with the last 2 recent ones WW I and WW II)... What kept the faith alive? Wasn't it because of the grace of God and the prayers and the sacrifices of our holy mothers and fathers who did their best for their church and for each other! That's what we need to work on! "In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, for I have conquered the world"... "Do not be afraid little flock, for it pleases your Father to give you the kingdom"... "Seek first the kingdom of heaven and its righteousness and all things will be added to you"...
God bless all of you!

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.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Monastic Renewal in Lebanon: Deir el-Harf

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.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

More Pertinent thoughts from Archimandrite Touma (Bitar)

My last translation of the essay by Archimandrite Touma of the Monastery of St. Silouan in Douma, Lebanon, “Pastoral Care and the Crisis of Power” , has apparently made its way across the internet in a way that I’m not all that comfortable with. It always needs to be pointed out that these things are amateurish translations from a semi-anonymous blog by a layman not associated with the Antiochian Archdiocese in North America. But then, in that whole mess, I think this is the first time that someone bothered to listen to a Lebanese or Syrian voice... let alone a monastic voice.

[Correction-- the editors of were very gracious in correcting their original ambiguity in attribution. I greatly appreciate this, since I know right now is very busy for them.]

All that said, Fr. Touma’s essay for this week, published on his website on July 19, is interesting when read together with the one from last week. But, the Arabic is in a couple places frustratingly oblique to me, so if you can make suggestions for improvements to this translation please, please do! Also, please if you’re going to repost this (or anything else I put here), link back to me and to the original Arabic so people will know what the source of the text is, take it with a grain of salt, and hopefully help me to improve my translations….

Thoughts for Inner Ears

In paradise, anger was blessed. The Lord God sewed it in man to give him an instrument for violently repulsing from himself every trick of the devil that aims to separate him from the true God and to remove him from keeping faith in God. The devil tricked Adam and Eve and they did not use the incensive faculty within them to deter it. If they had done so, they would have been saved and would have been preserved from the grief that followed. When the devil’s trick appeared to them, they fell into the same thing that the devil had fallen into-- worship of the self. Man, through accepting the devil’s advice, left the sphere of God and entered into the sphere of the devil. Since then, he has been behaving, in a spontaneous way, according to the devil’s behavior. As for anger, in the state at which Adam and Eve arrived, it became an instrument of oppression and devastation, of man having power over man and of death. This is how man’s worship of himself began to be expressed. Anger became a faculty destructive to God’s creation after having been a faculty for preserving it. It was no longer and instrument for defense of truth. Instead, it became a weapon for falsehood.

The Lord Jesus’ human nature was the nature of man in paradise before the fall. For this reason his incensive faculty was centered on zeal for God. When he went up to the temple and saw people buying and selling and realized how they had turned the house of God into a merchant’s bazaar, he became fiercely angry out of zeal for the Truth. He made a whip and beat those who were there and overturned they moneychangers’ tables and the seats of the dove-sellers, saying to them: “My house shall be called a house of prayer, and you have made it into a den of thieves.” (Mark 11)

In order to return man to the worship of God in spirit and in truth through the keeping of the divine commandment, it is not permitted for those who consider themselves to be of God to resort to violence. The counsel for them is: “Be as wise as serpents and as meek as doves” (Matthew 10:16). In order for man to reach the humility which the Lord God desires, one must imitate him in this. His incensive faculties do not return their right state and they do not recover their divine role in the defense of the truth and the preservation of God’s creation. Up to that point violence remains an evil and a tool in the hand of the devil. The apex of the devil’s tricks and Satan’s deceiving man is for Satan to push man to violence and killing in the name of God. Jesus pointed to this matter when he said to his disciples, “The hour is coming when those who will kill you will think that they are making an offering to God. They will do this because they did not know the Father and they did not know Me.” (John 16:2-3)


The devil sometimes speaks the truth. He spoke the truth, for example, when he once called the Lord “Jesus, Son of God” (Matthew 8:29). Not everything the devil says is a lie. That said, he remains the deceiver and the father of lies (John 8:44) because he intends to deceive people at all times, whether he speaks the truth or lies. His first and final goal is not to witness to the truth but to cast man into error. He forever moves with the spirit of falsehood. Thus, when he speaks the truth it is only for the sake of falsehood. This is his art and his wickedness. If he only spoke lies then no one would believe him and everyone would leave him. For this reason he weaves truth with falsehood and falsehood with truth. It is impossible for man to know the truth of the devil from the exterior. It is only exposed through the Spirit of God.

Let us understand: the devil has only one goal in his dealings with people and that is to distance them from God. In order to reach that goal, he works to make people think as he does. He does not want to dominate us from the outside so much as he wants to dominate us from the inside, by putting his thought inside us. He makes us think that what he wants for us is exactly what we want ourselves. His motto for us is this: “Realize yourself and do what you yourself want.” He spreads his thought in people and disappears from sight. In this way he makes us like him and turns us into his workers. He succeeds when a person makes his own way of thinking and says, “This is my thought. This is how I think” or when a person reaches a degree of blindness of heart that he thinks that his thought, which comes from the devil, is from God.

This is the logic of the worship of the self and secondly it is the logic of the most wicked power among people. The further man gets away from God, the deeper he is mired in worldly power. Jesus warned us about assuming power, in general, on this earth, because it is impossible for us to take it on without being subject to the thought we talked about above. It is impossible for a person to assume power according to the world without the thought of the devil arising. Power is the first step of the devil’s work and the ideal field for the realization of his thoughts and plans. After man fell, the acquisition of power according to the world became automatically the thing that his soul most desires. Man is born strongly inclined towards this-- every man. Thus, for those who believe in Jesus there is another saying and another commandment and another logic. This is how Jesus spoke: “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10)

The great temptation for every person, whether he believes in Jesus or not, and so especially for those who are considered servants of Christ -- and we do not have church leaders in the exact sense of the word but rather servants-- I say that the great temptation for all people is the temptation of power. For the servants of Christ, this is even more so, considering their position, being exposed to power not only according to this world but to wielding power in the name of God. That is, to give power, which is from the Holy Sprit, a divine dimension as well. For that reason the servants of Christ, if they are not so in truth, then they are among the children of Satan and his workers par excellence, whether they know it or not, because they steal what is God’s, by ill will or by stupidity, and they sign it over to the devil. In this context, their problem and what causes them to fall into Satan’s trap is not that they do not preach the Gospel but that they “speak but do not act (Matthew 23:3).” By their extended pretense of ignoring practice, they lose their sense for divine things. Their exterior says that they are men of God, but their interior is firmly rooted in the service of Satan. This is the typical state for the devil’s work. Thus they claim service and they insist that they are servants of God, all the while wielding power through the spirit of the world. They call for Christian love but they do not love. They always have their excuses. They call for tending the flock of Christ but they only tend their own notions and their own passions. They call for mutual forgiveness but they hate and take revenge. They call for guarding the lost sheep but they drive away people. They call for the worship of God but in the depths of their souls they only seek veneration and honor and flattering words. With words, they show zeal for the Gospel but in their inner hearts they only have zeal for what is their’s. Their honor is above Christ’s honor! They go against the smallest ordinance of the Church for a tiny gain and they consider it pastoral care and economy! They hold services but they only worship themselves and what is their’s: their appearance and their voice and their clothes and their sermon. Their concern is for people to hold fast to them and not to God and for the people to speak well of them. When they speak the truth, they sign their truth over to the falsehood which is in them because their hearts are not for God. Truly they are not!

This sort of satanic temptation, and this poisoned internal environment which reigns in an almost generalized and automatic way over most of the people in our church, especially the pastors, cannot be opposed with theoretical knowledge, but rather with the Spirit of the Lord and the exercise in practice of keeping the divine commandment and walking in holiness. The ignorant is led to God by one who knows Him- that is, one who loves Him. When one blind leads one blind like himself, they both fall into the devil’s pit. For this reason the Church has historically taken great care with the selection of her pastors from among the saints and those who know God and practice the principles of the spiritual life. You cannot give what you don’t have in Christ’s Church. Only one who fears God is able to lead Christ’s flock to the fear of God. Only one who is repentant can lead Christ’s flock to repentance. Only one who loves God can lead God’s flock to the love of God. Only the servant of Christ can lead for Christ’s service. One who keeps fasting and prayer and vigil [can lead people] to fasting and prayer and vigil. One who walks in holiness [can lead people to] holiness. Only one who has the Spirit of the Lord can lead Christ’s flock to the Spirit of the Lord. This is true practical knowledge for us and divine philosophy. Theories and knowledge have no value in themselves in this matter except as preparatory education, but they do not make saints. Experience shows that one who does not know puts value on the formulation of theories and the collection of information, but one who knows does not value theories and only has need for a little theoretical information. Most of his knowledge is practical, so what he learns, he learns from above. One who walks in holiness is the knowledgeable one for us, even if he doesn’t have an elementary education, and one who does not walk in holiness remains ignorant even if he memorized all the books in the world!

Today, unfortunately, the standards have changed. Holiness is no longer the environment and the school and the concern for most of the flock of Christ or its pastors. In any case, holiness is no longer in the consciousness of the ordinary faithful, but of wonder-workers! We no longer insist on our pastors being saints. In any case, there are no longer many saints. The environment that we have become self-satisfied with does not lead to bringing forth saints. We are satisfied, in most cases today, with people who have ordinary, acceptable behavior. We rarely look into the internal condition of our candidates for our pastors or even into their past behavior. The matter is entirely set aside when selecting a bishop. This makes for a not insignificant possibility of an error happening and causes embarrassment for the church when it is uncovered after some time. that some who are ordained have a shameful past. Other times, some bishops lay hands on men whom they know, more or less, to not be worthy of service and they find no fault in this, even when they stumble.

The sort of pastor that we are talking about today is seen as being more fit if he is educated, with a university degree and a theology degree and is clever with words. He is admired if he is seen as a thinker and an eloquent speaker and a writer. His stock goes up if he knows foreign languages and has a beautiful voice and is enthusiastic and socially conscious and has a knowledge of organizational matters and religious education and has a likable personality. It is not required that he be a man of prayer. That’s his own concern! It’s only necessary that he perform his ritual duties well. Likewise it’s not required that he be a man of fasting! That’s also his own concern! Most people think, in any case, that fasting is excessive in the Orthodox Church and that it is not appropriate to the times or the situation! In general, people get used to living with some of the pastor’s inappropriate proclivities, if he is greedy or vainglorious or self-aggrandizing, or quarrelsome. As far as Christian virtues are concerned, they are rarely met by the people in their pastor and they have no real acquaintance with them anyway. Some take joy in them, when they abound, and some don’t pay attention to them. In any case, most of them are, in our worldly age, superfluous. What’s important is ordinary ethics-- that he not be a fornicator or a thief or a murderer… In this absence of the Church’s original upbringing, it is natural for the standards to be human and worldly!

All these things and others are part of our current situation today because holiness, as we said, is not our concern nor is the pastor as a good example our concern. Our concern is the Church as idea, as institution, as an organization, as a teaching. Our concern is the services and the choir, the social and cultural groups and the religious instruction and church-tourism and so forth. It is not that these questions aren’t sometimes important. But there is one thing needful: the purification of the heart and the acquisition of the Holy Spirit. This is a deviation from the essence of the matter that keeps those who are considered believers-- most pastors and flock equally-- pagans, worshipping themselves, seeking their own glory. They are only concerned with their own power and their own reputation and their own honor. They are satisfied with only the outward form of the worship of God. What is sought in any case, in the understanding of the people, is not change of heart but rather some practices and the keeping some obligations and giving lip service. In what pertains to the exterior of the church, today, it is sometimes, but not always, gleaming by worldly standards, souls graze in their own impurities and lack of awareness. Is this not the ideal church the devil desires and lords over? A worldly church, ritualistic, like a museum, a nominal Christianity but without Christ and without holiness and without truth and without Spirit and without new life, filled with the thoughts of the world and the concerns of the world! Is this not the church that most people receive today and for which they work? The devil has succeeded in making people think that this is the true and desirable church of modernity!

This is exactly a church against Christ! And we, without our attention to holiness, are building it contentedly, persistently and continuously!

Archimandrite Touma (Bitar)

Abbot of the Monastery of St. Silouan the Athonite Douma

Sunday July 19, 2009

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Agapius of Manbij's World History

Roger Pearse, a very active amateur of patristics, has just put online his translation of Alexander Vasiliev's 1915 French translation of Agapius (Mahbub) of Manbij (Hieropolis, Mabbug)'s world history, the Kitab al-'Unwan. This important work had not been previously available in English despite the French and Arabic editions having been prepared almost a century ago. Roger has been quite interested lately in encouraging, often with his own money, translations of otherwise unavailable patristic works, especially from Arabic and Syriac. He then releases everything into the public domain.

Agapius was the Orthodox bishop of Manbij in what is today northern Syria in the 10th century and is the earliest Christian historian to write in Arabic. His history is particularly notable because it preserves otherwise unknown fragments from the 2nd century Christian writer Pappias of Hieropolis as well as some philologically important citations of Josephus.

You can find the text on Roger's patristics website here.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Archimandrite Touma (Bitar) on Ecclesiology

I started this blog with the intention of never commenting on the current controversy in the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America. In fact, for geographical reasons I’ve never been a member of that diocese and so it's hardly my place. The purpose of this blog is to increase awareness of the Arab heritage of the Orthodox Church among English speakers and hopefully to encourage love for our Arabic-speaking brethren in Christ. That said, I ran across the following comments by Archimandrite Touma (Bitar), abbot of the monastery of Saint Silouan at Douma and author of Forgotten Saints in the Antiochian Heritage, about the ecclesiological controversy which has lately flared up in the Church of Antioch. As readers of this blog might guess, I have great respect for Fr. Touma. His thoughts on the current crisis were posted on his website on July 12, and I have yet to find any notice of them on the anglophone Orthodox web. Since his words need to be heard, I will post my own translation of them here. Please, if anyone has any corrections to the translation, let me know in the comment box.

Pastoral Care and the Crisis of Power!

In the See of Antioch, at the current time, there is a confrontation, a crisis of opinion, and painful consequences may follow. Are the bishops, within an eparchy that is headed by a patriarch or a metropolitan as an ecclesial administrative unit, bishops over a territory and a faithful people, or are they auxiliary bishops (asaqifa musa’idun)?

The traditional position, within the Orthodox ecclesiological framework, makes the bishops within a single eparchy brothers and the primate (mallak) of the eparchy first of all the first among equals and secondarily the head of a local council, governed by principles and canons and made up of the bishops of that eparchy. This assumes that each of them oversees a territory and a people. In principle, bishops are not titular or auxiliaries, dependent upon the metropolitan or the patriarch.

But, historical events came about in past eras that divided some bishops from their territories and their flocks, as happened in the Byzantine Empire after the fall of some of its regions to the Ottomans. It was hoped at the time that exiled or refugee bishops would return to their regions. However, matters became more complicated and situations worsened and such bishops found themselves permanently exiled from their flocks. Or, the dioceses which they had overseen in principle were emptied of their Orthodox people.

With the passing of time, this inaugurated the custom of consecrating titular bishops who, at first, longed for military or political turnarounds that would return an Orthodox presence to their former regions. When the years went by and the winds did not blow as the boats wished, hopes changed to almost a formal etiquette, and the custom became firmly entrenched of choosing titular bishops who quickly became helpers (musa’idun) or auxiliaries (mu’awinun) to some of the actual primates of the eparchies, dependent on the patriarch. This gave birth to an unintended custom, without any ecclesiological base. However, it became accepted and enshrined in practice insofar as the ancient traditional practice among us of each bishop being the bishop of a people and a territory into decline in practice. With it, the page closed on local synods within one eparchy and it sufficed to have synods on the level of patriarchates or the equivalent.

Some circles, today, hold fast to the contingent practice over ecclesiological theology because it has become widespread and followed for many years. The temporary became permanent. Others hold to intellectual principles of ecclesiological theology and hope to rectify the current historical deviation in this situation and to return dioceses to their traditional function, especially since there exists a need, here and there, for more bishops of territory and people so that we do not go too far in making the episcopate in general only an administrative, ritual function. The bishop is the pastor par excellence and must remain so in practice.

Between those who seek this or that line of thought, today, there is confrontation and debate. It does not appear that it will result in a speedy understanding in the foreseeable future and it is to be feared that it will grow into an impasse and from there into something with an unpraiseworthy outcome.

How to get out of this dilemma?

The answer is not easy. However, if we were to put forward the reasons for this crisis, we do not find it to be simply ecclesiological or canonical in nature, but also historical, temperamental, and psychological. We have become accustomed to such with the passing of generations! It is not easy for those who have become accustomed to sole power in their eparchies and to dealing with titular bishops almost like deacons to have partners in power within the lifetime in which they work. Let us say it frankly: the problem is the problem of a power struggle! Few are prepared to let go of their prerogatives! The issue, at the base, is not ,as it is put forward, a theological issue and it is not a pastoral issue. What determines the traditional or the ecclesiological, theological or the canonical argument, at the basic level, is the holding on of each of the concerned parties to the power which they think rightly belongs to themselves and not to others. Each one brings forward this or that evidence, in reality, because it is convenient for him. If we were to hold fast to ecclesiological theology and the traditional canons, in the matter before us, then we would have to openly express only a small number of the positions we implicitly adopt or to which we consent and which are not in agreement with [Orthodox] principles.

The question of the diaspora, especially North America, is today in our opinion the foundation of the current problem and what brought to light the intellectual divide which had long remained hidden. The status of any of the Orthodox churches, the See of Antioch included, is not sound there, either from an ecclesiological or a canonical standpoint. By what right do we hold on to the dependence of the Antiochian Archdiocese in North America on us? That eparchy is no longer at the stage of just being sent out. We helped it during its beginnings, but now it is mature, and more mature than us here in its theology and its learning and its organization. By what right, then, is it assumed that it should be under our care? Is it because some of its people have left us? So what? Generations and generations have grown up there for years and the people in those lands have become American. Is it because there is a sentimental heritage which ties us to them and them to us, or because there is something like nationalist feelings which hold us to them and them to us so that they must be subject to our local ecclesial structure? This has no relation in any case to ecclesiological thought nor to the ancient ecclesiological practice which has come down to us from the Apostles and saints. Thus the practical theology which we use in this matter is faulty and unacceptable if we were to be fair and correct.

And what is to be said about the canonical disorders that we’re up to our ears in over there?

The situation of all the Orthodox eparchies dependent on mother churches in North America is uncanonical. There is one Orthodox church in those lands whose situation is sound and canonical: the American Orthodox Church (OCA). This alone is independent and autocephalous and this is de-facto recognized by the other Orthodox eparchies. Its recognition, formal or implicit, by the eparchies depending on mother churches is clear and frank confirmation that the status of these eparchies is uncanonical and unsound. If these eparchies and mother churches on which they depend were to be logical with themselves and consistent with Orthodox ecclesiological and canonical thought, in the true sense of the word, then they would belong to the OCA or would at least enter into an understanding with it and the thorny crisis of the Orthodox presence there, theologically and canonically, would end. The simplest position and the most sound is for us to leave the Orthodox in North America to themselves and to encourage them to arrange their affairs themselves! We and the other mother churches are the ones who are complicating their affairs!

Naturally, there are those who claim that the problem of the diaspora is, to a great extent, a problem of nationalist sentiment. The sentiments exist, but not to the degree that is thought. The Church in the past has dealt with nationalism-- in Constantinople, in Antioch, and elsewhere-- and she is able to deal with it in every time and place whenever proper ecclesial sentiment abounds. But if nationalistic notions eclipse concern of the Church, then this is a dangerous event and a serious deviation because we are no longer a church possessing one faith, but rather a group of tribes. The truth is that the mother churches hold on to their eparchies in North America because they do not want to be stripped of their prerogatives and their benefits and their power there. The issue of money plays an important role in this matter and likewise does political and ecclesial influence. None of this has any connection to the Church in the exact meaning of the word, not to her theology, nor to her canons, nor to pastoral care for her people nor to her spirituality.

I will return to the subject of the bishops and I will say that the hidden cause behind the debate going on between those who hold to the concept of titular, helper bishops and the concept of local bishops over a people and a territory is, in reality, related to the passions. There is struggle for power, in the worldly sense, going on, and the arguments put forth call for each to claim his own power and leadership. But we have no power to receive, rather service to give for the Church of Christ and the People of God. For this reason, if we were to be just, then we must, first and last, to put pastoral care for the People of God before ourselves and before any other standard. The struggle for power going on today is, unfortunately, on account of this pastoral care! The single legitimate and acceptable question in this context is: what is most appropriate for the care of the Orthodox faithful here and there?

For this reason it is to be hoped that the interaction of the metropolitan with the bishops within a single eparchy, wherever they may be and especially right now in North America, will be first of all with goodness, love, humility of heart, and magnanimity. The issue of the episcopate, which has long been outside the genuine ecclesiology, will not be solved by emptying it of its pastoral content and enshrining its titularity, and not by, in response, idolatrously harping on the application of cannons but rather by the metropolitan embracing the bishops as brothers, and the bishops the metropolitan. Calmly and deliberately we will become able to solve our issues in cooperation and simplicity and flexibility, relying on [Orthodox] principles, and we will raise up the People of God in truth so that God will be glorified in us. The way of dividing, subjugating with decisions from on high, and debasing is of no avail. It will only alienate and create factions and lead to schism! I say this and it is to be feared that we are in a delicate and dangerous situation. Orthodox America will not be treated in the ruinous way we are accustomed to in our lands here! If we do not leave our selfishness and our pride and build each other up with kindness and generosity and put the good of the Church and its unity and theological principles ahead of any personal consideration, whatever it may be, then worse is to come!

Archimandrite Touma (Bitar)
Abbot of the Monastery of St. Silouan the Athonite-- Douma
Sunday July 12, 2009

Monday, July 13, 2009

Our Lady of Babushta

For July 24 in Forgotten Saints:

The Commemoration of the Theotokos Our Lady of Babushta

This annual commemoration is of the occurrence of a great wonder in the village called Babushta [I have no idea how to properly vocalize this Syriac place-name. I’m simply following the analogy of the similar-sounding village Kakhushta.] near Antioch, at a spring. Unclean spirits lived in that place, stirring up dread among the people to the point that no one would dare to go there after dark. There appeared in that place an icon of the Theotokos Mary with great light and it cleansed it of what had been there. When the people of the village of Babushta saw this great image and that radiant light and realized that the unclean spirits were driven away by its power, they sent to the people of the surrounding villages and announced the news. So people brought them the sick, the deaf, the blind, and the lame. When they looked upon the radiant image, the evil spirits immediately left from the possessed among them, the sick were healed, the ears of the deaf were opened, sight returned to the eyes of the blind, and the legs of the lame were made hale. They praised the Lord of the Worlds [an Islamic expression- rabb al-’alamin] who had given them His grace through this image.

Then the people sent to the great City of God, Antioch and informed the Patriarch, Saint John [Fr. Touma speculates that this refers to either Patriarch John V in the ninth century, or John VII in the eleventh century] and all the clergy about the matter of this great divine image not made by human hands, sent as a gift by God. The patriarch gathered the clergy, the priests, the monks, the deacons and the archons with all the people of the city and told them the news that he had received. Then they went out with pomp to that great sight. They arrived at the village of Babushta and found the matter as they had been told. They praised the Lord of the Worlds and counted it as a mercy from the Merciful Lord [also an Islamic expression, al-rabb al-rahim]. Then they began to give thanks with praise and psalms, repeating ‘Lord have mercy!’ On that day God worked through the icon great signs. When the patriarch approached the spring the divine image leapt from the water and landed in front of him.

Then the patriarch took the icon and he and those with him brought it to the great church in the great City of God, Antioch, singing praises to the Theotokos and to our Savior, Jesus Christ. The image to our own day [that is, according to the 12th and 13th century manuscripts] works dazzling wonders and famous signs. Who is the man who can count its signs and miracles at every time and hour? For this reason, we ask our Lord and God, Jesus Christ, the Lover of Man to have mercy on us by the intercession of his Mother the Lady of Babushta and of all the saints, amen.

For the above account, Fr. Touma relies on three 12th and 13th century Arabic manuscripts now at Mount Sinai but copied in Syria. Their language, like much Christian Arabic of the medieval period, is flavored with many Syriacisms and it is possible that they have a Syriac vorlage. The account is also interesting for the picture it possibly gives of church life not long before the destruction of Antioch and the massacre of its Christian population by the Mamluks in 1268. Because of those events, we have no way of knowing in this life how this wonder-working image of the Mother of God, sent from heaven, actually looked. For pre-modern posts on this blog, do not take a lack of images as a sign of laziness, but rather as another testimony to what has been lost under the Muslim yoke.

The Holy Martyr John of Merv

Fr. Touma Bitar tells us in his Forgotten Saints that that according to the Muslim scholar al-Biruni (d. 1048), the calendar used by the Orthodox in Khwarizm (that is, eastern Persia) commemorated on July 14 a martyr named John from Merv in modern-day Turkmenistan. He was killed by the Muslims for his faith in Christ in the first part of the 11th century.

Friday, July 10, 2009

July 10th: Saint Joseph of Damascus

Today is the commemoration of St. Joseph of Damascus, who was martyred during the anti-Christian riots that swept Syria in 1860. For a detailed account of his life, look here. He is especially dear to the author of this blog because of his activity in copying and comparing Arabic manuscripts and translating: "Apparently, he did not consider himself worthy to keep pace with the great Fathers of the Church; he confined himself to translating, editing, and presenting their writings to the faithful as a pure, intact and unblemished heritage."

Today the Church sings to him (in the fifth tone):

O faithful, let us honor the martyr of Christ,
The priest of the Church of Antioch,
Who baptized the land, the churches, and the people of Syria,
In the word of the Lord,
In his blood and in the blood of his companions.
Being baptized, since his youth, by the light of the Gospel,
He labored, taught
And kept the Church of Christ with her sheep.
Therefore, O Joseph the Damascene,
Be our example and our protector
And our fervent intercessor with the Savior.

هلموا يا مؤمنون نكرّم شهيجد المسيح
كاهن بيعة انطاكية
الذي عمّد أرض الشام وكنائسها وشعبها
بكلمة الكلمة
ودمائه مع رفقته
لأن منذ الطفولية اصطبغ بنور الأنجيل
فعمل وعلّم
وحفظ كنيسة المسيح وخرافها
فيا يوسف الدمشقي
كن لنا قدوة وحافظاً وشفيعاً حاراً لدى المخلص

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Forgotten Saints for July 9th

The Appearance of the Theotokos at Dafni in Antioch

This feast goes back to an ancient Syrian tradition in which the Theotokos appeared to Saints Peter and John at a spring of water in the area of Dafni, which is one of the suburbs of Antioch. This happened after the Spirit of the Lord carried the two apostles from Sion, Mother of the Churches, and placed them in the region of the City of God, Antioch.

The Restoration of the Temple of the Three Saints Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael.

We have no details about this feast.

For these two commemorations, Fr. Touma relies on three Syriac manuscripts of Orthodox provenance. According to his view, the Temple of the Three Holy Youths was likely in the region of Antioch, as it is only mentioned immediately following the celebration of the Appearance of the Theotokos in Dafni and seems to have been connected to it in some way.

Forgotten Saints in the Antiochian Heritage

One of the most important recent works on Arabic-speaking Orthodoxy is the book Forgotten Saints in the Antiochian Heritage by Archimandrite Touma (Bitar), abbot of the Monastery of Saint Silouan at Douma (al-Qiddisun al-Mansiyun fi al-Turath al-Antaki, Beirut: Manshurat al-Nur, 1995).

Correction: thanks to some research by 'Flavius Josephus', it turns out that Fr. Michel Najim (who still has a pretty nice website) hasn't translated this book. So, somebody needs to!

The recovery of ‘forgotten saints’ is especially important in the life of the Churches of Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria because of their unique histories under Islamic rule and the later domination of their hierarchies by ethnic Greeks. In the case of the Patriarchate of Antioch, many people wrongly assume that Greeks held exclusive control of the patriarchate until the 20th century. However, from relatively shortly after the time of the Muslim conquest of Antioch until the Melkite Schism of 1724, most patriarchs were Arabic speakers or biculturally Greek and Arab. (In future posts I hope to elaborate much more on the medieval history of Arab Orthodoxy…).

However, two historical events led to the tragic loss of much of Antioch’s Arab heritage-- the Crusades and the subsequent rise of the Mamluks in the 12th and 13th centuries and the Greek takeover of the patriarchate in the 18th century. While the Byzantine re-conquest of Antioch and the Syrian coastline as far south as Lattakia in the 10th and 11th centuries led to a revival in Christian learning in both Greek and Arabic, the subsequent conquest of the entire Levant by the Crusaders led to the exile of much of the native Orthodox clergy to Constantinople, increasing the pace of the Constaninopolization of native Antiochian liturgical practice. With the final defeat of the Crusaders at the hands of the Muslim Mamluks, Antioch was sacked and its monasteries (including the Monastery of Saint Simeon, which at one point had the world’s largest church) destroyed. During the period from the 13th century until the 16th century, there is a dramatic drop both in the number of original works written by Orthodox Christians under the Muslim yoke and in the number of manuscripts copied.

Under the Ottomans, things generally improved. While the Patriarch of Constantinople was legally the head (millet bashi) of all Orthodox Christians in the empire, the patriarchs of Antioch maintained a fair degree of autonomy and were able to bolster this with newly-established ties to secular and religious authorities in Wallachia, Moldova, Russia, and even Georgia. The patriarch Macarios ibn al-Za’im (d. 1648), who traveled to all of the aforementioned countries as patriarch, is perhaps the greatest figure of Arabic Orthodox revival in this period. Of his many activities, one that he gave special attention was the copying of old manuscripts, often by his own hand or the hand of his son and archdeacon Paul, and the general revival of the Patriarchate’s heritage, both Arabic and Greek. Of his many works (almost all of which remain only in manuscript!!!), is Saints of our Country (Qiddisun min Biladina), which records the lives of saints of the Patriarchate of Antioch from the earliest martyrs through his own time, and includes a number of saints from the Islamic period whose memory had fallen out of regular celebration. Sadly, less than a century later the events surrounding the schism of the Church of Antioch into Orthodox and Uniate parties led to the installation of an almost entirely Greek hierarchy, a situation mirroring that of the contemporary Patriarchate of Jerusalem. These hierarchs, ignorant of local customs, simply followed the customs and celebrations of the Church of Constantinople. And so, even after the return of the patriarchate to Arab leadership after over 150 years, much had been lost.

The work of Fr. Touma to recover the lives of many of these saints is a very involved undertaking, requiring the use of over a dozen Arabic manuscripts as well as a host of other primary sources and western scholarly works. It provides as much material as he could find about each liturgical commemoration (since the Church of Antioch commemorated a number of miraculous events and relics in addition to her saints) as it appears in his manuscripts and provides a detailed account of his sources and other available historical information. The book itself is of a scholarly quality on par with the best western work (unfortunately not always the case with modern Arabic-language scholarship) but is also written with a deep sense of reverence toward the saints and love for the Church of Antioch.

Monday, July 6, 2009

How to Translate the Psalms

The following is from the forward to Isaac the Athonite’s translation of the Psalms, written by Archimandrite Cassianus of Dayr al-Shafi’a al-Harra (Monastery of Our Lady of Fervent Intercession), Bdebba el-Horsh, North Lebanon. This translation of the Psalms was published in 2000 by the same monastery.

This is how the Elder, Father Isaac the Athonite appeared to me time after time. He would leap about the ground of the Holy Mount Athos, gliding like a hart around the channels of water that he had dug with his own hands on the grounds of his hermitage, seeking the underground water from God’s heart, shining with the stars in the Virgin’s Garden and clinging to the full moon which shined from behind the wall in that small cell. After roaming the night in prayer, he would come to us, looking through the window and pouring into our sleep-wearied eyes what he had gathered from the lights of the night. He would call out to us, “Come to praise! Come to the church! Let us praise the Lord with the ten-stringed Psalms!”

When I banished the weight of sleep from my eyes, I would see him carrying in his hand a small notebook with a blue cover as he walked to the church. He would enter the temple and begin preparation for the Divine Sacrifice after he placed that notebook on his desk among his books and his prayer-ropes and his papers.

Time and again curiosity pressed me to want to know what that ascetic elder was reading at night under the light of the stars. I tried to ask him many times, but I held back, imagining that he recorded in it the names of some afflicted people in order to pray for them at night.

The years went by and the days and nights passed, and the thought remained, asking me, “On which page of the notebook did he record my name?” until the day came when the truth was made clear. Our last encounter on the ground of the Holy Mount Athos was in the cell of the Resurrection on September 27, the feast of Saint Isaac the Syrian.. At noon, after the elder rested from the morning prayers, he sat next to me on a wooden seat. In his hands was the priests’ service-book, recently printed, which we had worked on together. He kissed it, placed it on his forehead, and said to me, “I will give you a book for you to print in the same way and for you to publish with the same binding, so that the Arabic-speaking sons of our Church will benefit from it.

He went into his cell and came back with that blue notebook and handed it to me. I grabbed it like a hungry man grabs a crust of bread. I opened it and I found that it was a book of the Psalms that Father Isaac had written with his own hands and translated from the Greek Septuagint which our Orthodox Church relies upon. I leafed through the book and found its words to flow forth brilliantly, like sweet water.

On the morning of the next day, after we finished the Divine Liturgy, he started to recount to me the story of this book. He said, “When I would read the Psalms in Arabic I would come upon many unclear meanings and I became alarmed when I compared some verses as they appear in the Arabic to the reliable Greek text because I found them to be very far from the intended meaning. There were unclear words or phrases or more in almost every Psalm, to the point that it leads to a lack of clarity in the text and the total discarding of the intended theological meaning as it was put forth by the Holy Fathers like Basil the Great, Dionysios, and Nicodemos of Mount Athos, whose many volumes I would read in order to understand just one sentence. So, I am able to show them in Arabic as close as possible to the intended theological meaning.


I would often stop at certain verses, pondering on them and praying, asking the Prophet David, ‘How should they be composed according to their true meaning?’ In that way I passed the nights and the hours of the day, searching and refining until I arrived, finally, at a faithful Arabic translation.

This does not mean that I deny the blessed efforts of those who worked before me, and for this reason you see that I preserved the words and phrases that my predecessors translated clearly, and which I found to correspond to the original Greek text, because the ears of the faithful have become accustomed to hearing them and have become familiar with them. I only updated what appeared to me to not fit with the original text in a simple, comprehensible way. While clarifying the meanings, it was necessary to rely on the Fathers of the Orthodox Church who explained the verses of the Psalms with the light of their divine inspiration and the profundity of their prayer and giving praise. “

I took the book as a blessed, precious gift and left the Holy Mountain for Lebanon, carrying a letter to His Eminence Metropolitan Elias (metropolitan of Tripoli) from Father Isaac asking his blessing to print the book.

I spent nearly two years refining the words of the book, numbering the verses according to the order followed in the Greek translation and writing out the vowels for important words so that they can be read in the Arabic language without hesitation.

I wrote to Father Isaac asking him to explain certain points and his explanation was the last written words that his hand wrote with ink before he left and was transported to the Land of the Living and the Living Word.

After I finished ordering and arranging everything that was necessary, I gave it to be printed at Pascha, so that it would be a holy, inspiring Pascha to those who accept it with faith and reverence, and a humble offering to our Lord Jesus Christ, the first and most glorious Pascha, so that He may forgive the sins of the Elder, Father Isaac the Athonite and make his memory to be eternal among the righteous and the saints, the Orthodox who have shone forth in piety and asceticism during the two thousand years since Christ walked the earth.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Isaac the Athonite, part III

The completion of parts I and II.

On his return to Lebanon, he was ordained as a priest at the Patriarchal Monastery of the Dormition of the Mother of God at Balamand by the laying on of hands of the patriarch Elias IV (Mouawad), with the name Philippos. He then lived in the period between 1973 and 1975 in the little monastery dedicated to the memory of the Holy Greatmartyr George the Victory-bearer, a dependency of the Monastery of the Mother of God at Hamatoura, in the region of Zgharta in North Lebanon, a metochion of the Archdiocese of Mount Lebanon on the territory of the Archdiocese of Tripoli and Koura.

Father Philippos took to his assignment at the monastery of Saint George with much enthusiasm. He immediately put himself to work restoring the monastery's church and the monks' cells which circled it. He also cared for the neglected fields, re-planting olive trees and grapevines. Father's personality and the work that he did began to bear fruit and the monastery little by little became a well-known place of spiritual renewal that attracted more and more souls to the Lord. It is worth noting that Father Phillipos served during his stay in that monastery the parish dedicated to the Holy Archangel Michael in the village near Ras Kifa.

But the Grace of God had forseen a different destiny for him. Thus, under pressure from the war in Lebanon, he had to leave his monastery, located as tradition demands on a mountaintop, which had become a valuable military position, and to seek refuge once more in Thessolonica where he was raised to the rank of Archimandrite in 1976. He exercised his priesthood in the city itself, at the church of Saint Barbara and he had charge of the theology students from the Patriarchal Monastery of the Dormition of the Mother of God at Balamand for the faculty at Thessalonica.

In 1978, he obtained permission from +George (Khodr) of Mount Lebanon, upon whom he still depended, to join the monastic life on Mount Athos. He moved to the Monastery of Stavronikita and received the name of his patron saint, Isaac the Syrian. He could thus follow more closely the teachings of his spiritual father, the elder Paissios, who lived in the hermitage dedicated to the Venerable Cross not far from the monastery.

Father Isaac would speak of his encounter with Saint Isaac in the introduction to his Nuskiyyat, his translation from Greek into Arabic of the Ascetic Discourses and Letters of Saint Isaac the Syrian. He reccounted to us that a venerable monk of Mount Athos said to him, when he still knew very little of the saint, "Have you come here from a land that has produced so many saints like the virtuous Isaac the Syrian in order to learn the fundamentals of the monastic life?" Father responded, "Yes, holy father, for the experience of our fathers has been transmitted here and I have come to recover it in this place."

One year after arriving at the monastery of Stavronikita, he retired to what would become his refuge, the hermitage of the Ressurection which he himself restored in the region of Kebssala, not far from Karyes, the capital of the Holy Mountain. He lived there alone for four years, a life of hard asceticism and struggle. He was confronted with many temptations and trials that sought to make him leave his solitude, until one day when, overwhelmed from the tourment of his thoughts, his fatigue, and his sufferings, he discovered a small grave while he was walking nowhere in particular. He stopped in front of it and prayed fervently, calling up within himself the memory of death. Then he said with a resolute voice, "Here I may die." From that moment, the thoughts which were tormenting him completely disappeared. This memory of death never left him again, since according to the monastic tradition, he dug a grave of his own size with his own hands in the garden of his hermitage. He censed this grave every day until his body was laid to rest there after his falling asleep in the Lord Thursday, July 16, 1998.

He remained on Mount Athos from 1978 until 1998, the year of his repose, and was known for his asceticism and spiritual combat. He became, by the grace of God, a renowned spiritual father on Mount Athos and in Greece, demanding of himself and a fervent promoter of the assiduous practice of the sacrament of confession.

In his lifetime, he also became a living bridge between the Church of Antioch and the Holy Mountain. He often said, "I represent Antioch on Mount Athos," and he was proud of it. Lebanese, but also arabic-speaking Christians of the patriarchates of Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria, as well as others who came from the New World came to receive his blessing and to ask his advice. He also made a number of short trips to his country of origin, Lebanon, as well as Syria, Jordan, and Egypt.

May his prayers accompany us, amen.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Isaac the Athonite, part II

Continued from part I.

The liveliness of his spirit and the zeal that Fares showed in his studies certainly encouraged the hegumen Yuhanna to authorize him to expand his studies, which he did by enrolling at the school attached to the Patriarchal Monastery of the Dormition of the Mother of God at Balamand in the region of Koura, North Lebanon. He thus found himself under the authority of +Ignatius (Hazim, the current Patriarch of the Orthodox Church of Antioch and all the Orient) who was at that time bishop and superior of the monastery.

He was ordained deacon with the name Phillip at the monastery dedicated to the Holy Greatmartyr Jacob the Persian at Deddeh in Koura in 1963, by the laying on of the hands of +Elias (Kourban), metropolitan of the diocese of Tripoli and Koura, under whom was the monastery of Bkeftin to which he was attached. He was noticed throughout that period for his attentiveness at prayer, his carrying out what he was entrusted to do in peace and with much zeal, and his obedience to his superiors.

Providence, as usual, used local circumstances and caused him to leave the school of Balamand to head to Patmos in Greece in 1968, where he received the diploma sanctioning the end of his secondary studies.

He then persued his desire to deepen his knowledge of scripture by becoming a student at the faculty of theology at Thessolonica, where he served as a deacon at the Cathedral of Saint Dimitrios, patron of the city. It should be noted that he was known for having a very beautiful voice, which attracted many of the faithful to hear the Antiochian deacon chant and say the litanies in Arabic and Greek.

But the most important event for him during this time was that he became acquainted with the Holy Mountain of Athos and with the monastic life that was cultivated in that garden of the Mother of God. There in particular he met the one who would become his spiritual father, the Elder Paissios (+ June 12, 1994).

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

عذراء يا أم الإله

From the wonderful French-language blog of the parish of St. Ignatius in Nice: O Virgin Pure sung by Archimandrite Pandeleimon (Farah), higumen of the monastery of Hamatoura.

Archimandrite Isaac (Atallah) the Athonite (1937-1998) Part I

While there has never been a specifically Arabic-speaking monastery or skete on Mount Athos, there have been many Arabic-speaking monks who have gone to the Holy Mountain to seek their salvation. This is evidenced by, for example, the Arabic signature on the 14th-century "Declaration of the Holy Mountain in Defense of the Holy Hesychasts". In our own time, Isaac the Athonite travelled from his native Lebanon to the Holy Mountain, where he became a disciple of the Elder Paissios. The following article, which I will translate in installments, was written in Arabic by Archimandrite Isaac's brother Anthony and annotated by
Fr. Ephrem (Kyriakos), abbot of the monastery of Saint Michael in Baskinta.. The translation here, however, is from the French translation of that document by "La Rédaction", published in Le Bon Pasteur, the bulletin of l'Association des Chretiens Orthodoxes d'Antioche et de leurs Amis, no. 4, March-June 2006.

Father Isaac was born to Martha and Nemr Atallah on April 12, 1937 in a Lebanese village called Nabay in the region of North Metn, dependant on the Orthodox Archdiocese of Mount Lebanon. He was given the name Fares. He grew up in a pious Orthodox family and learned from his father, the parish cantor, love for Christ and faithfulness to the tradition of the Church. From his youth he was attracted to solitude and prayer. It would often happen that his parents would lose track of him until they would eventually find him praying in the fields surrounding his village, not far from the house of his birth. He was already finding all his happiness in nearness to God and His Church.

One day when he was still fairly young he left the family home to join the monastery of the Prophet Elias in Shwayya, in the region of North Metn, but his father set out to go find him. At that time they said, perhaps to console him, that it was not the tradition of monasteries to accept the eldest son of a family as a monk since he is the family's support. Fares agreed and returned home.

He did his primary studies at the school of his village, Nabay, then he left school to work as an apprentice carpenter. At the end of his apprenticeship, he went to practice his trade in the "carpenters' souk" in Beirut. It is there that every evening, at the end of the work day, he took courses in Byzantine chant in the Ashrafiyya district of Beirut at the school of Mitri el-Murr, Protopsaltes of the Church of Antioch.

In the summer of 1962, at the age of twenty-five, he made his life's decision. In his small bag, he carefully packed his clothes and left his work at the grand Phonecia Hotel, which was the standard for Beiruti luxury at the time, and returned to his home after having turned in his resignation. When he arrived before his father, for whom he had enormous respect and unfailing obedience, he handed him his savings passbook, saying "This savings account has been opened in your name. When it matures, I would like for you to withdraw this money and distribute it equally among all the members of the family. As for me, I don't need anything because I am going to the monastery." His saddened father asked him, "What can I offer you in this world so that you don't become a monk?" Fares answered him, "Even if you give me this world as an inheretence, my eyes will not covet it! My life is not here, but in the monastery." Nemr, his father, tried hard to dissuade him from following the path of monasticism by putting preassure on the other members of the family, but it was in vain.

The same day, Fares took his bag and headed with his brother Anthony towards the monatery of the Dormition of the Mother of God in Bkeftin, in the region of Koura, a place he had never seen. He only had its adress and the name of its higumen, Archimandrite Yuhanna (Mansour), the future Metropolitan of Lattakieh in Syria, who had had his formation in the bosom of the Orthodox Youth Movement in the city whose bishop he would later be.

Arriving at the place, Fares got out of the taxi and got down on his knees, facing the monastery and, lifting up his arms, he recited a prayer then crossed himself. While getting up, he said audibly, "I give thanks to the Lord for having now granted me my desire."

Archimandrite Yuhanna was there at the enterance to the monastery to welcome them. The monastery was largely in ruins, most of its rooms were in a state of delapidation and almost uninhabitable. A single monk lived there besides the higumen. The sun was setting when Anthony went back, leaving his older brother at the monastery. At the family home, everyone was eagerly waiting for him. His father spoke first, saying "So where exactly did he go?" "To the monastery of Bkeftin in Koura," he responded, "but I assure you right away that, given the monastery's state of ruin, and given that Fares last worked at the Phonecia Hotel in Beirut, he won't last two or three days before you see him coming back to the house." His father looked squarely at him and said, "No matter what difficulties he will encounter, your brother will not come back again."