Sunday Orthros, Hierarchical Divine Liturgy and tour of Balamand Seminary, Monastery and University; Visits to Deir El Natour and Deir El Nourieh Monasteries - 11/07/10

Tripoli, Lebanon

The delegation awoke especially early to attend Sunday Orthros and the Hierarchical Divine Liturgy at the Balamand’s Church of the Dormition of the Theotokos. We were greeted by His Eminence, Metropolitan GEORGE (Abu-Zahkem) of Homs, Syria and His Grace, Bishop GHATTAS (Hazim), the new president of the seminary and abbot of the monastery. Sayidna JOSEPH had the honor of presiding over Orthros at his home of many years, where he studied at the feet of some of the greatest church leaders and professors of theology, including his spiritual father, Patriarch IGNATIUS IV. Sayidna had two of his delegates chant in English with him for the benefit of the rest of the group, and they were complemented by the awesome voices of the seminarians. Our priests helped serve Orthros, and they both remarked that they just wanted to stand there and listen to be seemingly carried into Heaven like the rest of us. Fortunately, we recorded the choir’s majestic voices and will post the tracks on this website for everyone to hear.

The three hierarchs concelebrated the Divine Liturgy that no one wanted to hear come to an end. Sayidna JOSEPH preached the homily in which he discussed the day’s Gospel lection, and also addressed the delegation’s purpose to Balamand students and parishioners. He said that we are in the Middle East to reconnect with our roots in this holy land, both spiritually and with our families. Sayidna JOSEPH stressed that both sides have much to offer to each other and we must take advantage of our time together to share our talents.

The group had lunch with the seminarians and then met with Sayidna GEORGE and Sayidna GHATTAS to discuss the seminary and the Church at-large in the Middle East. On the latter subject, Sayidna GEORGE said the Church continues to be a beacon of hope and social change in the Middle East and hopes to eradicate any misperceptions in the eyes of the world. He reminded the group to constantly check with several sources, especially in the newsmedia, to get the right story so that they do not think of a region simply ripped apart by a constant state of warfare. Sayidna GHATTAS, who took on his new roles only within the last month, then discussed Balamand’s role in training future clergy and monastics that can minister in the twenty-first century. Many parishes must share their clergy, so Sayidna GHATTAS hopes more graduates can fill the leadership voids and keep people connected with Christ and His Church.

We then toured the monastery and seminary grounds, which offer simple accommodations that are still sufficient for those who live there. (The doors to the cells are no more than four feet tall.) Next, the delegation rode around the rest of the campus, which stretches beyond both historic institutions and includes the full-fledged University of Balamand. It features several schools of various academic disciplines that also welcome Christians and Muslims alike.

A full day at Balamand was not the end of the group’s activities. We continued in the area to two historic monasteries: Deir El Natour and Deir El Nourieh Monasteries. The first means “the protection” and is named in honor of the Virgin Mary, in particular for the feast of her Entrance into the Temple in Jerusalem at age three (November 21). Deir El Natour has only one resident: the abbess, Mother Katerina, who with God’s help has protected this monastery and the surrounding area for more than forty years. She used to house a school for mentally-challenged children and never stopped serving the surrounding area, which came under attack several times during the Lebanese Civil War. Mother Katerina herself was attacked by thugs, hit in the head with blunt objects that left her with a neurological ailment that does not allow her to stop shaking. Nevertheless, she has been undaunted in her ministry, telling her visitors that constant hope and persistence in our work and daily lives—without complaint—will reap greater rewards.

Our trip to Deir El Nourieh was a quick one, but this monastery is not without significance. It means “the light” in honor of the time when a sailor was stuck on the nearby Mediterranean Sea on a sinking ship. He could not find the shore in the middle of the dark night, so he prayed to the Virgin Mary for help. She revealed herself in a bright image (like a lighthouse) and directed the sailor to safety. After this, the light ran out on our day, so we concluded with a group meal and went to rest for the next day.