Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Monastic Renewal in the Patriarchate of Antioch Part II: The Monastery of St. George Deir el-Harf

The second part of Carol Saba's series. The French original can be found here.

I. Lazarus Saturday. March 27, 2010. Monastery of St. George . Deir el-Harf. Mount Lebanon.
The monastic community of Deir el-Harf is at a new stage of its long path in the service of the Lord and His Church. The angel of the Greek Orthodox diocese of Mount Lebanon, Metropolitan Georges (Khodr), wearing his Episcopal mandyas (the large mantle colored purple for bishops and black for monks) and the insignias of his station as the pastor of pastors of the diocese of Mount Lebanon, upon which the monastery depends canonically, enthroned the new abbot of the monastery, Joseph, handing him the cross, the symbol of his abbatial authority.

II. The enthronement of the successor in the presence of the predecessor.

Transitions are rarely done this way. This enthronement is very reminiscent of the spirit of the place. A place of succession in monastic service. The enthronement of the new abbot of the monastic community, Archimandrite Joseph (Abdallah), in the presence of the former abbot, Archimandrite Elias (Morcos), who has been at its head of the community since 1961. Great is the grace that allows for spiritual fatherhood to be transmitted in this way to the successor, the elder’s disciple, in the presence of the predecessor! The new abbot prays for the old abbot in his presence! The old abbot receives this prayer and raises his own in turn so that the Lord affirms and strengthens the community’s new pastor who is now in charge of its spiritual direction and its economy.

III. The Pastor’s Cross, the support and symbol of service.

“Take this cross and support yourself with it and keep your community and your parish in peace for you will be responsible our God and you will make an account before our God on Judgment Day.” Metropolitan Georges addressed these important words to Archimandrite Joseph at the moment of his enthronement, a service that resembles the enthronement of a bishop. Archimandrite Elias, weakened by age and illness, had himself wished for this succession and asked for it from his bishop, Met. Georges, one of his first companions in the service of the Lord at the beginning of the Orthodox Youth Movement in the Patriarchate of Antioch. Fr. Joseph, a disciple of Fr. Elias, is a rising figure in contemporary Antiochian monasticism. A man of great spiritual value, of great sweetness, evangelical, a hesychast, a spiritual father to a great many, he is now charged with the spiritual direction of one of the monastic communities that has been a beacon of monastic revival in the Patriarchate of Antioch during the twentieth century. Since then, it has become a center of spirituality and service shining in the heart of Mount Lebanon.

IV. Metroplitan Georges’ Homage to the Elder, Archimandrite Elias. “My brother abbot, before addressing you , my heart compels me to give thanks to our Lord for all the grace he has given Archimandrite Elias (Morcos) and through him this brotherhood. I know his struggle, his obedience to the Lord and his great loyalty and faithfulness. I wish him a long life so that we may continue to benefit from the grace of his prayers.” Father Morcos is one of the most senior elders of the patriarchate. One of the most remarkable spiritual figures in the Patriarchate of Antioch, he is one of the first generation of the pioneering founders of the Orthodox Youth Movement (MJO) of the Patriarchate. Over the course of his life, he has been one of the principle sources of inspiration for the development of the MJO and a tireless spiritual companion through his writings, his lectures, and his spiritual direction, to numerous generations of faithful and members of the Movement. He was one of the four or five volunteers who, carried by the MJO’s wind of renewal, presented themselves before Metropolitan Iliya (Karam) of Mount Lebanon, in the middle part of the 1950’s, in order to reignite the monastic flame at the heart of Mount Lebanon at Deir el-Harf.
V. The bishop’s exhortation to Archimandrite Joseph! Then he addressed the new shepherd of the community and said, “As for you, my brother Joseph, you know all of this. There is no need for me to remind you of anything. You know all the obedience that you monks present to the Lord Jesus and that we will all return with him tomorrow to the Heavenly Jerusalem. You understand the principles and the rules, including those of the liturgical life, so I will not remind you of all that. And you, higumen Joseph, have been graced with the charism of good relations with your spiritual children and your brothers. You have received the gift of sweetness which comes from the Holy Spirit. We have need of another virtue, and it may be that you already have this gift in a certain manner: determination where it is necessary and firmness where firmness is necessary. The act of bearing those brothers who are weak or who are becoming weak. Above all, it is important that you preserve the unity of this brotherhood, the seriousness of each of its members, the purity of its steps, and the simplicity of its life and path of asceticism.” Metropolitan Georges continued his pastoral sermon to the Abbot Joseph saying, “This new responsibility of yours brings forth virtues that maybe were existent or maybe were not in the heart of the community, or maybe they were few in number- I don’t know, God knows. But I pray with the brothers present here that the Lord gives you the grace of direction to be a leader of men, a grace that the Lord exercised. He always had the sweetness which is present in his relations with all people and he also had determination and firmness with impostors. I do not believe that there are any impostors here, but one of the brothers could become weak, could slip, or could experience a pain and become sad. It’s for you to manage this with wisdom. I have no doubt that God will grant you this wisdom. Positions within the Church bring their virtues. This is what I pray for. I remember that the icon of the protector of this monastery represents a knight who has brought down the dragon, that is, sin. From now on you are charged with brining down all the dragons here, so that only the praises the monks sing to our Lord and God Jesus Christ with his Father and his Holy Spirit may remain. Amen.”

VI. Deir el-Harf. A place of spiritual combat in the heart of Mount Lebanon. Between earth and heaven. 27km from Beirut. On one of the hills of Ras el-Matn (literally, head of the Matn), a mountainous region northeast of Beirut characterized by its dense pine forests rising 1040m above sea level. The Monastery of St. George is located in the middle of a pine forest where the monks’ prayers constantly mix, very naturally, with the twittering of the birds of the mountain and with the classic chirping of the cicadas. Everything here leads to contemplation. The beauty of the place favors praise and the action of grace. The monastery’s foundation in the modern era goes back to 1790. At least, that is when the names of the successive abbots of the monastery become known from the archives of the Archdioceses of Beirut and Mount Lebanon. At the time, these two dioceses constituted a single diocese. They were divided in 1905. Oral tradition claims that in the same region there was a monastery founded by Crusaders that was destroyed by the Mamluk sultan Baybars who ruled between 1260 and 1277. Other traditions place the foundation of the monastery further back in history, to the 5th century on top of a former pagan temple.

VII. Legend or not, the monastery is always there, valiantly under the protection of St. George. The legend of the more recent founding of the monastery tells the story of a young Orthodox shepherd born in 1306 in the village of Raha located in Jebel Druze. He fled his family, who desired to force him into marriage to a cousin, something contrary to the canons of the Church. Seeking to escape this fate, he desired to become a monk and took refuge in the ruins of the monastery at Deir el-Harf. One day, a horseman in white appeared to him in his sleep at the foot of a tree and encouraged him to persist in his monastic pursuit, ordering him to remain in this place where, he said, a monastery had been dedicated to him but had been destroyed because of the avarice of the monks who had previously been custodians of the place. Wehbeh ibn Muhsin al-Lakhmi finally remained there for decades, becoming the first monk and superior of the monastery. He was joined by his brother, who discovered the gift of healing that the Lord had granted to Wehbeh. The monastery became a place of pilgrimage because of the many miraculous healings made by the intercession of St. George. Wehbeh died as a monk in the year 1411 at the age of 105. Two years before his repose, in 1409, a Druze prince paid for the construction of a church in this place in honor of St. George who, according to tradition, helped him win in battle against his enemies. The same prince donated the lands that today form a large part of the monastery’s possessions, which allowed the reconstruction of the monastic buildings that had been in ruins.

VIII. Interruption and resumption of monastic life. The monastery’s church, according to an inscription, was rebuilt in 1790 by Jonas, abbot of the monastery, and was once more destroyed during a battle between the two great Druze families in the region, the Yazbakis and the Jumblattis. It was once again destroyed in 1860 and was not again reconstructed until 1890. The monastery never ceased to know the vicissitudes of history, which time and again forced the monks to leave their place and take refuge here and there. The continuity of monastic life in this place thus knew many periods during which monastic life was interrupted. During a brief time at the beginning of the 20th century (1922-1927), the monastery was transformed into a school. Several attempts at refounding the monastery were attempted during the middle of the 20th century, notably two attempts at starting a community of nuns with the blessing of the bishop of Mount Lebanon, Metropolitan Elias (Karam)- in 1939-1941 (Mother Anastiasia, Adele Karam) and again in 1954 under the direction of a Russian nun, Mother Blandine, which eventually moved to the monastery of Mar Yacoub (Deddeh in Koura).

IX. The monastic flame is relit at Deir el-Harf in 1957 and still burns! In 1957, with the blessing of the bishop of Mount Lebanon and predecessor to Archbishop Georges (Khodr), Elias (Karam), a monastic community for men was founded at Deir el-Harf. Its membership was largely drawn from young men belonging to the Orthodox Youth Movement. The first two monks arrived in November 1957: Chafic Mansour (the current Metropolitan of Lattakia) and Elias Yacoub, both from Lattakia. They were soon followed by Habib Fahdeh and Marcel Morcos, (Archimandrite Elias Morcos). During the service of vespers on August 28, 1959, the Feast of the Decapitation of St. John the Baptist, that brothers Chafic, Marcel, and Ibrahim took the monastic habit in the presence of Metropolitan Elias (Karam) of Mount Lebanon, and of Metropolitan Elias (Mouawad) of Aleppo, the future Patriarch Elias IV of Antioch. It is at this time that the monastery invited Fr. Andre Scrima, the Romanian monk and theologian, bearer of the hesychastic tradition throughout the world, who exercised an important role as spiritual father to the fledgling community.

X. Archimandrite Elias, abbot of the monastery. Starting in 1961, Archimandrite Elias (Morcos) was confided with the spiritual direction of the monastery. Under his direction, the monastic community has developed and blossomed and become the spiritual emblem of the monastic renaissance at the heart of the Patriarchate of Antioch during the second half of the 20th century. During the war in Lebanon, the monks had to leave the monastery for four years, from 1983-1987.

XI. The katholikon (principle church) of Deir el-Harf has a very beautiful 19th century wooden iconostasis and frescos painted by Romanian iconographers in 1971, under the direction of the famous Romanian monk and iconographer Fr. Sofian Boghiu, thanks to the help and support of Patriarch Justinian of Romania. The iconostasis also has very beautiful icons painted in the post-Byzantine Cretan style dating to 1815. One is of the Theotokos Hodigitria and the other of Christ Pantokrator. These two icons, very similar in style, seem to have been painted on the premises of the monastery itself by a Cretan deacon named Gideon who lived at the monastery. In their age and their style, these two icons indicate the cooperation between post-Byzantine Greece and the churches and monasteries of the Patriarchate of Antioch.
The monastery also contains a very large library with some 1500 volumes of theology, spirituality, iconography, Church history, and patristics in Arabic, English, French, and Greek. There is also a collection of manuscripts. The oldest, dating to 1704, is a copy of the Ladder or Virtues. From 1959 to 1969, the monks edited a well-respected journal of theology and patristics, “Les Cahiers de Deir el-Harf.”

XII. Deir el-Harf is a center of spiritual regeneration, a place that has been and continues to be not only dedicated to the monastic life, to contemplation and prayer, but also a place open to the entirety of the Church. For a long time the monks have undertaken liturgical and pastoral service in all the villages around the monastery. It is also a place that is open and sensitive to the universal vocation of the Orthodox Church. The famous Romanian theologian and hesychast, Fr. Andre Scrima (1925-2000), was called by the brothers of the nascent community in the late 50’s to spiritually accompany their monastic labor. He stayed there for several long stretches and had very close ties to the community. Deir el-Harf has been and continues to be a nursery for publication, edition, translation, spiritual direction where young people and young monks meet to engage in dialogue and to bear together, in prayer and reflection, the service of the Church of Antioch and its witness in the world.

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