… Monasteries and Hermitages of Maronite clerics
In all Mount-Lebanon, which is entirely inhabited by Maronites, there are 40 monasteries, the greater part of which is abandoned. In those that are inhabited, there are only two or three monks, cultivating the land and the vines, and raising the silkworms. Older monks work in knitting mats. They make their living from these hard routines. Their monasteries are located in remote places, on arid rocky lands, where nature was pleased to form these solitary, grotesque and repentant hermitages. Nevertheless, after seeing these places, we become very excited and start comparing them to the disappointment and contempt of the non-spiritual world. Some of the hermitages seem to be suspended from the sky, especially the Mar Challita hermitage, where Saint Alexis lived for seven years. Accessing this one is extremely difficult: To enter the place, you must climb a 25-foot long ladder. The entrances to other hermitages are similar to that of caves and accessing them is also very difficult. The hermitage where our monks live, and where I also lived for a year, is called the hermitage of Our Lady of Hawqa. It is so fearsome that the boldest men would shiver when approaching the precipice. After having climbed four hundred steps, most of them carved in rocks, one must pass over a tree that nature –or to put it better, God– has made it grow from the rock, to facilitate the entry and the passage to the hermitage. Furthermore, if the inhabitants of these hermitages need water, they must go to the torrent below, hitting another four hundred steps. There are other locations that are so high on the rocks, that if there were no ruins of both Chapels and other buildings, one could not believe that these places were once inhabited by men. We can only see them with binoculars and are now only inhabited by birds. In fact, there are only Oxifragues and eagles that can reach these places and make their nests; As for the hermitage that Saint Hilarion, built in honor of Saint Anthony, it was also a fearsome place at first, but later on, beautiful gardening and vineyards were added to the scene, and monks with their holy abbot started to live there. Some clerics make their novitiate there, and become teachers. After their novitiate, they move and live in other hermitages, where they are more in the company of tigers, bears and other ferocious beasts, than of human beings.
Nonetheless, among all those which are inhabited, there is a hermitage called ‘Mar Sarkis’ (Saint Sarkis). It is so fearsome that I cannot find the right words to describe it. Besides being in the midst of the highest and steepest mountains of Lebanon, on the limits of a precipitous rocky cliff, it is in a remote area where we see way more ferocious beasts than human beings. Before getting to the hermitage, one must climb some stairs and pass over a scaffold of branches that leads into a cranny that Nature has formed in this rock: It serves as a door and a window to give way to some air and light to the cave. At the bottom of it, there are some sharpened steps in the rock, leading to another dark cave that serves as a church. The church has no light except for the burning lamp before the altar. When I was there with a monk of my Order, it was inhabited by an 80-year-old Maronite monk, named Brahim Sahionni –that is, Abraham of Sion– who had spent more than fifty years at this place, leading a truly anchorite life. It was far more beautiful to look at his life than to live it…
Extract from Roger, E. (1664). La terre sainte. Paris: Antoine Bertier.