By Mark Whitters*
A dream came true for me this past summer. I was able to spend two months in Lebanon both to advance my knowledge of the Middle East and its cultures, to find time to rest and to find time for spiritual renewal and reflection. If you do not know what I am talking about, then you either have not been to Lebanon or have not been away from it long enough. For me, a non-Maronite and a non-Arab speaker, I was able to get a critical perspective on my own Roman Catholic faith and my Western lifestyle.
I will share with you few of the strengths that I have encountered in Lebanon, strengths which most Christian Lebanese may not recognize about themselves.
Strength Number One: The hospitality of the Lebanese Christians
31 May, Qornet. Hospitality is at the top of all priorities. I can come at any hour and to any home, perhaps any office or work place, and expect a welcome. Last night I dropped in on a friend, Joseph, not I alone, but five others as well. It was close to 10:00 p.m. on a weekday. Joseph had just moved into this new apartment a scant two days earlier. So there were piles everywhere. He was in the midst of finances. His wife Nicole was laying down in the next room, almost nine months pregnant and exhausted from her two daytime jobs. Joseph is an engineer and he told me that he had numerous job deadlines approaching, yet as soon as we appeared, he broke into a big smile, shook our hands, welcomed us, and acted like he had nothing else to do but socialize with us. Out came the beer, the bottle of Scotch, and the soft drinks. The drinks were quickly followed by nuts and chips and the special beer snack preferred by Lebanese: green almonds. After about two hours of fellowship, Joseph brought out his guitar, and we all sang songs. At midnight he turned to me and said: "Do you want to go out for ice cream?" This is an irrepressible generosity of heart.
8 July, Maghdouche. We return from Sidon to Magdouche in time for the Sunday family dinner in Hasim's home. Abouna Nazih and all of Hasim's siblings and their spouses and children gathered at a long makeshift table. All the women are bustling around in last minute "banquet" preparations, and the men hang around the table drinking Arak and chattering in Arabic mostly, but often for my benefit in French and English.
Serving the food begins with me, so it dawns on me that I am the guest of honor for the feast. Hasim's mother watches eagle-eye over my plate to make sure it is never empty, and Hasim's women relatives suggest all sorts of different foods to try on the table.
Alas! It must come to an end. As soon as the fruit come out marking dessert. I make motions to leave. Every adult stands to bid me farewell, whether with a handshake or a 3-fold Lebanese kiss. I run upstairs to the other families in the apartment building and go through the same ritual with each of the families who hosted me.
Parting is such sweet sorrow! I must confess that it was always easier for me in Lebanon to kiss the women and shake hands with the men, but in Maghdouche I could have kissed everyone. Had I had the social liberty I would have kissed their hands and patted their backs too. They had given a cup of cold water to a thirsty soul, one of Christ's little ones.
17 July, Achrafie. I ring the doorbell cautiously. A voice comes through the intercom. "Yes?" I explain I am here to see someone inside. When they realize, I am a friend of one of the employees and a foreigner. I am immediately invited up. The office is Elie Chidiac and Associates Engineering in downtown Beirut, near the National Museum. Inside are air-conditioned quarters providing space and comfort for numerous engineers and their computers. All eyes are upon me when I enter, and all work stops. I am embarrassed to interrupt everyone's work. My friend is not here. But Elie Chidiac, the president, is in and wants to see me. I am directed to his office, and Mr. Chidiac stops his work, sits me down at his desk, and begins to speak with me as if he had been waiting for me all day. He asks about my research, my travels, and well-being. He orders coffee for me and sips his own coffee slowly as if to tell me to relax and make myself at home. Meanwhile all around us the phone is ringing, and the normal office bustle is picking up again. Twenty minutes later Elie instructs his secretary to phone my friend on his portable phone. My time with Elie shows the difference between Western functionality and Eastern sociability. Strength Number Two: Lebanese Christians have more family unity than Western Christians.
Strength Number Two: Lebanese Christians have more family unity than Western Christians.
28 June, Antelias I had just finished "lunch" with Charbel's family a lavish two-hour feast really. So now, I thought, I go home. Wrong. Charbel simply assumed I would spend the rest of the afternoon until dinner, with the family. One hour was spent playing basketball with the boys and neighborhood children. Another hour was spent in a siesta . . . Not too much later came supper, which was much too soon after lunch for me to eat anything. Even then supper did not end my day with the family. Instead, there were family prayers around the parent's bed and nighttime kisses from all six of the children. You know What? When I heard, the children individually prayed in English, thanking God for "'Ammou (uncle) Mark's visit," and after their kisses and entreaties for me to spend the night with them. I would have spent another week! There is enough love circulating here that it includes the whole family from the 15-year-old to the 2-year-old to a complete stranger who is now as close as a long lost uncle.
Strength Number Three: Lebanese Christians tend toward community and avoid harmful isolation and individualism.
21 July, Bikfaya. Abouna-George always smiles. The light which shines off his prematurely balding head is token of his interior joy and constant good humor. Already he has said his goodby and given me the Trinitarian Kiss. [I Left Lebanon on July 24]. But now at the wedding of our mutual friends at the neighboring Orthodox Church, he cannot resist his gregarious and mirthful nature. Very few people especially the young -- can resist his charm. "I was asked by a friend to give a blessing to her car, I told her I would pray for her driving, not for her car, since that time, she has had three accidents" he jokes. "Finally I prayed the Greek Catholic prayer for cars. Know what? She has been fine ever since!". Life has not been kind to this twenty-something priest. His mother is dying of cancer. He has inherited a moribund parish, rife with conflicts and jealousies. Yet he is always leading the music section for the folk dance, playing the derbaki and calling out the dance instructions. Always smiling, and occasionally cracking a joke. "Abouna George" I say, "would you give a blessing?" Having received his special "traveler's blessing" Greek Catholic and Arabic to boot, I depart.
While in Lebanon I attended payer meetings, which brought together believers from the Maronite, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Syrian Orthodox, Armenian, and Protestant churches in an atmosphere of mutual acceptance and joy. The lesson here is that the Christians of Lebanon must unite for the spiritual well being of Lebanon. This may not be so easily achieved on the institutional and hierarchical level. However, it has begun on the grass-roots level and should be nurtured. I was impressed by the fervor among young people, especially in the Greek Catholic churches which have made youth ministry a priority. The charismatic renewal meeting I have attended stirred the enthusiasm of young and well-educated people. In a climate of economic and political uncertainty, the youth have recognized that the security and stability are found in God's eternal Kingdom. If those living in the country and those returning to it can hold on economically and learn to cope with the present situation of disorganization and inconvenience, they may find it easier to raise a family and live in an atmosphere more receptive to traditional family values than America or France. I returned from Lebanon with a bit more understanding of the complexity of the Middle East and an appreciation of its cultures. More importantly, I was greatly rejuvenated in my faith in the Lord and in my love for God's people. May it last until my next visit!
* Mark Whitters is a graduate student in Ancient Biblical Studies at the Catholic University of America.
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