Reprinted courtesy of Revd Fr Gregory Hallam
St. Aidan's Orthodox Church,
Antiochian Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom and Ireland
The little voice in my heart saying "Go to Syria and Lebanon" had been my companion for some time, but it was the visit of His Grace, Bishop John to our parish in January that finally prompted me to go. At last I was to visit the Mother Church, the people, (if not the place!) of whom St. Luke spoke in Acts 11:26 when referring to us as "Christians."
The flight was uneventful if a little long with a changeover on my Manchester flight at Heathrow. I arrived at Damascus airport late on Friday evening to be met by Mr. Samer Laham who manages to combine his profession as a civil engineer with that of a facilitator for the Patriarchate. Samer was responsible for organising my pilgrimage and everything subsequently worked flawlessly. Samer introduced me to my stay as we finally wended our way through the narrow streets of Old Damascus (predominantly a Christian quarter) to the Patriarchate. Nothing prepared me for the sheer size of the Patriarchate after the squeeze of our car journey. This vast Arab palace style building needs to be big after all. From here a worldwide Orthodox communion is administered and the affairs of the Mother Church in the Middle East. I was taken to the guest quarters to a very comfortable room with en suite facilities and fell asleep almost immediately, (Damascus is a very busy city but the acoustics of the Patriarchate make for an oasis of peace and calm!)
The following day I was assigned a deacon, Fr. George, who took great care of me during my stay in Damascus. Nothing was too much trouble for him; indeed I was gently and kindly told off if I tried to do anything that was properly his job.
I had been given an audience with the Patriarch, His Beatitude Ignatios IV on the Saturday morning at 9.00 am and my time with him was greatly blessed. The Patriarch spoke movingly of the commitment of Antioch to its mission throughout the world and Britain in particular.
After this audience, Fr. Dn. George took me to the House of Ananias where St. Ananias had prepared upon the Lord's instruction for the healing of St. Paul's blindness after his conversion, (Acts 9:10-19). After prayers in that holy place we moved on down Straight Street, (the main thoroughfare in the time of St. Paul), to the main square in the old city where I was whisked off by taxi to Saydnaya, a monastery with a great tradition of prayer and healing. We prayed in a small chapel which contained a miracle working icon, one of four painted by St. Luke himself. Here is a description of Saydnaya from Balamand's web site guide to Antiochian monasteries:-
"The convent rises above the town like a veritable fortress and is dedicated to the Nativity of the Most Holy Theotokos. One may not enter the small chapel without removing one's sandals; inside, the walls are covered with myriad signs of gratitude to the All-pure One. The Icon of the All-holy Virgin is believed to be one of four icons extant that were painted by St. Luke the Evangelist himself. In the Syriac language this icon is called the Chahoura or Chagoura, which means "The Illustrious, Celebrated, or Renowned." The word is a loan-word from the Arabic Chahira or El Mash Hura which have the same meaning. There are also many other fine icons of the Holy Virgin and the saints, which date from the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries."
After taking coffee with the sisters in the convent salon we moved on to the rock fortress monastery of St. Thekla in Ma'loula high up in the Syrian mountains. Here Aramaic, the day to day language of our Lord is still spoken. The monastery is built into the cliff and the refectory ceiling is that of the cave into which it is built. This spoke to me strongly of the rock-like faith of countless generations of Orthodox Christians in these parts who confessed the faith and refused to apostasise no matter the cost. Some way above the convent itself is the Shrine of St. Thekla, missionary companion of St. Paul. Here, Deacon George and I prayed in the company of an elderly sister. The air is particularly pure up here and the twitter of birds as they fly to and from their nests in the cliff take one back to Eden, a true Garden of the Lord in the desert.
On retiring to the refectory for a magnificent (fasting!) meal we experienced both the grace and humour of the abbess, Mother Pelagia. Mother had to leave us temporarily and she placed the usual bowl of succulent fruit on the table. On closer inspection we discovered the fruit to be plastic ... much to both her amusement (and ours) on her return. Indeed she pointed out certain marks on the plastic apple where one hapless fellow had previously tried to chew. Needless to say the real fruit now appeared! (Oh dear! I have now blown her great secret "trick.") We returned to Damascus that evening much refreshed by our brief spiritual journey into the blooming monastic desert.
On Sunday morning, by invitation, I served with the Patriarch at the Hierarchical Liturgy in the Cathedral. This was to be the first of two magnificent occasions of worship in the Cathedral that day. I had been informed that Metropolitan Saba from Suwayda was to arrive in Damascus later that evening to serve the marriage rite for a Damascus couple in the Cathedral. Fr. Dn. George and I spent the afternoon in Damascus again, this time visiting the Omayyed Mosque and the Church of St. Paul-by-the-Walls where St. Paul had escaped in basket, (Acts 9:23-25). We also visited the Church of the Holy Cross  , one of the larger city churches, and met there Father Peter who showed us round. As the afternoon of the Saturday closed into twilight we made our way back to the Patriarchate, calling on Fr. Peter again at his sister's house. We arrived back just in time for the wedding . This was one of the most magnificent weddings I had ever witnessed yet so natural and unassuming, a glorious and joyous experience. Afterwards, Metropolitan Saba bundled us into his car with his assistant, Fr. Seraphim and we set out on a night journey to Suwayda, the seat of his bishopfric in the far south of Syria, the Archdiocese being that of Bosra Houran, Jabal Al-Arab and Al-Golan. Our journey was lightened by both good conversation and a stopover at one of those famous Arab sweet shops ... another kind of heaven for me!
The following day, Monday, was an all too brief stay in the south, but the highlight, being the day of the Annunciation of the Theotokos, was a Liturgy at which I concelebrated with Sayedna Saba at the church of the Feast in Dar'a near the Jordanian border . This vibrant Orthodox Christian community sung strongly and movingly throughout the Liturgy and I was moved to tears by such sincere piety. Of such we are not worthy. After the Liturgy we retired to the salon where Sayedna Saba and his guests spent some time with the community . We even had a khouria (priest's wife), from Germany amongst us ... all the way from Munchengladbach!
Upon taking our leave from the community we returned to Suwayda with two important stops on the way. The first was at the 5th century church of St. George at Izraa , currently being restored although in much need of funds. If the first stop concerned the glorious past of Orthodoxy, the next heralded its glorious future, a dream, a twinkle in the eye of the bishop! Sayedna Saba showed us the plot of land where he hopes to establish a new monastic community. Currently, the land provides food for the bishop's table; soon we pray God, it will serve the Archdiocese with spiritual nourishment as well.
Upon return to the bishopfric and an excellent lunch Sayedna Saba showed me round a retreat complex he has built with excellent accommodation and facilities for groups who wish to stay in Suwayda to be refreshed as I was. We then talked about the possibility of exchanging lives and liturgical materials of both Syrian and British saints and integrating these into a calendar which the Archdiocese currently publishes.
This stay in Suwayda was all too brief as I had to return early that afternoon to the Patriarchate for another audience with the Patriarch. I had first thought:- "Oh dear! What have I done wrong? " .... I had no need of worry. After Great Compline in the Cathedral, the Patriarch walked with me and shared something more of his vision for the Antiochian Church in Great Britain. With that I went to bed in a great expectation - born both of these words and my forthcoming transfer the next day (Tuesday) to Homs and the Valley of the Christians.
The following morning Fr. Deacon George and I took our leave of each other and I boarded a coach to the city of Homs from Damascus. This journey took about two hours and was an uneventful trip through the more arid central region of Syria, until that is we reached the environs of Homs when everything changed. Here was rich, lush, green fertile land; although Homs itself is an industrial and commercial city of some size. I was collected by car in Homs by Fr. Polycarpos and taken round the old churches of the city, the Church of the 40 Martyrs of Sebaste, the Church of St. Elian   , and a Syrian Orthodox Church (Jacobite) with a relic of the cincture of the Theotokos. The Church of St. Elian is a real treasure. The body of the martyr is interred here intact and whole. We prayed here for some time before moving on to my next place of stay ... St. George's Monastery at Al-Humayrah  .
The journey to St. George's was one of the most extraordinary I undertook in the whole of the Syria. The monastery lies at the head of a feature called "The Valley of the Christians." Here in a lush green valley within rolling hills worthy of any English pastoral landscape lie 45 (I think!) Christian villages with scores of churches and a rich fertile soil dedicated to arable and horticultural farming. The journey through this villages, however, was also worthy in England ... rain ... or should I say storms and cool weather!
Upon arriving at St. George's (not normally this wet and cold I was assured) I was greeted by two new "minders" ... the monks Iousef and Antony , who greeted me warmly and took me to my room. These wonderful people made sure I lacked nothing and when I was ready took me on a tour of the old monastery church in the lower levels of the building. I don't propose here to reinvent the wheel! The monastery has its own excellent web site which I urge you to visit to familiarise yourself with the life and spirituality of this wonderful house of prayer ... St. George's Monastery.
The following day, first thing in the morning, Brother Tony took me up to Krak de Chevaliers, the Crusader Castle of the Knights . He amazed me by his comprehensive knowledge of the vast labyrinth of halls, chambers and passageways in this truly vast castle-city which the Crusaders held on to, besieged from below, for 5 years. Upon returning to the monastery I served with the Prior (Abbot's assistant ... the Abbot is Bishop John) the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts and was delighted afterwards to talk to a busload of English children who had stopped off here on a Mediterranean educational cruise. I think that they were a little puzzled to discover an Englishman, and a priest "to-boot" in such a place as this!
After lunch and well dowsed by rain we drove to the Convent of the Dormition of the Theotokos in Blemana where we received by the sisters and taken directly to the evening service of Great Compline and Akathist. The sense of prayer and love in this place is almost overwhelming. The regime of the nuns is very strict and follows the full round of monastic offices and work. There were many of younger sisters there as well as those who had great experience in the monastic life. The convent had been established by Bishop John some years before ... and this was itself a miracle, the land having been given to the Church by a woman who had received a visitation by the Theotokos herself. It was a great privilege to be there and share in the life of this community. After the service I retired to the "sewing room" where I was to commission a new set of green vestments for our church here in Manchester. After taking our leave of the sisters (and their dogs!) we returned through the drenched night to St. George's.
During my final evening at St. George's I reflected concerning what a spiritual powerhouse this monastery had become in the region. The impact is felt widely in the Valley of the Christians and beyond. On the feast of St. George, for example, over 150,000 crowd in and around the monastery grounds for the festival and although the picture above is from another monastery of St. George on the feast (that of Deir El-Harf) it gives an idea of what happens at Al-Humayrah as well. The Church is alive and well in Syria!
And so to the Lebanon! This was to be my last leg of the pilgrimage, just two days staying in Balamand and visiting Beirut before returning home from that city.
My transfer from St. George's to Balamand was uneventful and the weather had improved a little. Balamand itself is an amazing complex. A Monastery, , Theological Institute, , University, , and High School have all been put together on one site largely through the labours of the present Patriarch and many subsequent leaders including its present Dean, Bishop John (Yazigi).
I knew when I arrived that I would meet up with another of our Deanery priests, a friend of mine, Fr. Philip Hall who was staying a week longer than myself and both weeks in one place, Balamand. Fr. Philip and I had been placed in adjoining rooms and we soon caught up on recent times! Sayedna John had been ill for the last few days with a virus but he still characteristically made time to see us both and much encouraged us with ideas for the development of the Church in Great Britain.
During my stay in Lebanon my "minder" (and translator!) was Fadi Georgi, (left below), and it was he who very expertly both drove and guided both myself and Fr. Philip in and around Beirut. I say "translated" because we were very fortunate on the first evening to hear a talk given by a monk and theologian of great renown in the area, Fr. Ephraim, on St. Gregory Palamas. Fr. Ephraim, of course, lectured in Arabic and Fadi was able to translate very fluently "unspaced" speech of dense theological terms in fluid English, whispered and in the context of a violent electrical storm outside ... no mean feat!
On the day of the lecture, Fr. Philip and I visited two convents in the vicinity, that of El-Nourieh, (Our Lady of Light), , and El-Kaftoon. The two convents are very different. The first is minimally staffed but has a great ministry of prayer and hospitality for visitors. The latter community is larger but with a more contemplative style. We were of course made very welcome in both.
Fadi, Fr. George and Mother Marigho of the Convent of the Entrance of the Theotokos, Ashrafieh, Beirut
On Friday, my last day, Fadi took Fr. Philip and me into Beirut. This should be called the Phoenix city after that ancient Christian symbol of the resurrection. After the unbelievable destruction and hatred of the civil war, the city has reconstructed itself with just a few bombed out buildings left perhaps as a grim reminder. The Church, no less has or is putting her buildings in order. Perhaps the most remarkable case is that of the St. Nicholas parish whose building was completely destroyed. The parish simply moved down below ground into the car park and so expertly converted a large space there that one would have thought that it had been designed as a church in the first place! .
We arrived at this Church whilst the Friday Presanctified Liturgy was taking place. Above ground and on the same site a magnificent new Church has been built ... in marble throughout, .
The air of grace and luminosity will make of this a very fine place of worship. It is hoped that it will be finished and consecrated in readiness for the Feast of St. Nicholas 2002, (6th December). This extraordinary feat of faith moved Fr. Philip and I greatly and we were very warmly received by its priests, Archimandrte Alexis and Fr. Constantine Nassar.
From here we moved on to the bishopfric of Metropolitan Elias of Beirut and although Sayedna Elias was on his way out to a funeral he kindly greeted us and gave us his blessing. We then retired to his chapel to find the iconographers Geron Pozov and Maria,  who explained their wonderful God-inspired work to us. The icons in this chapel are indescribably beautiful ... some of the best I have seen,  .
Intelligent and spiritual composition makes the whole place radiate with light. Geron's work is very definitely a long term project but already the fresco's over the altar are nearing completion. We took our leave of these wonderful Christian people and drove to our final and longest stay, the Convent of the Entrance of the Theotokos, .
As soon as one walks into this convent Church one is struck by the homely spirituality of prayer and love that embraces this place. After praying in church and before an icon at which many healings have taken place, we were welcomed into the salon by Mother Marigho and Father George (above) who explained to us the history of the community. The land was given for its construction many years ago by a relative of our own Fr. Samir Gholam, the Antiochian priest in London. The community was started simply by the holy widow Catherine who drew around her an early sisterhood of prayer. God richly blessed their labours and the seed she planted flowers in the city even today. We were then treated to a most sumptuous meal and taken around the convent buildings with the occasional interjection by the friendly resident parrot. We felt as if we could have stayed there all day ... and longer! Still we had to move on for a final walk around the city centre before returning to Balamand.
Our final visit after a little sightseeing and gift buying was the old Antiochian Cathedral, , of down town Beirut was almost completely destroyed in the Civil War. It is now being rebuilt with the shell and main structure largely finished, although inside it is still a building site, . This was a poignant reminder for us of the destructive as well as creative potential of human beings. Never before has the need to pray and work for justice and peace been so strongly shown, not just in the broken and pot marked stones but in the more hidden fractures of suffering, sorrow and anger that this beautiful land of the Lebanon has had to endure in recent times. May the Lord bring peace to His people!
We returned that evening to Balamand and after Great Compline and the meal we had a final (for me at least) encounter with the students, .
Sayedna John had kindly arranged for Fr. Philip and I to meet with some of them who wanted to ask questions about the Antiochian Church in Great Britain. This proved to be a wonderful exchange and a fitting end to a short but very rich encounter with the Lebanon and its Church. The next day of course I was to return to England via Beirut airport. I made a pledge to come again, hopefully with a group of people next time, God willing.
What can I say of my week at the Mother Church? Simply this; that it was the most wonderful and inspiring pilgrimage of my Orthodox life, (although another pilgrimage to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne and workplace St. Aidan should really take joint first place!) Here is a Church that has withstood the onslaught of persecution and has not only survived but put deeper and stronger roots into the kingdom of God and the homeland of early Christianity. Here is a Church with a great and wonderful Orthodox witness in its saints; St. John Chrysostom, St. John of Damascus, St. Thekla to name a few. Here is a Church that welcomed us into Orthodoxy with a commitment to mission and a vision of Orthodoxy in the West. Here is our spiritual mother and we are her children. Here is where I belong.