Saint Anthony’s monastic life

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Anthony E Dundon

Anthony is a London-based writer and is a member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading

Etched into the cliffs and surrounded by pine and cedar forests, the Monastery of St Anthony of Qozhaya, Lebanon, is the oldest monastery in the Qadisha Valley or the Holy Valley. Dedicated to St Anthony, it dates from the fourth century and is in a remote valley of the mountains of north Lebanon.

Reports of numerous miracles, including cures for afflictions of the mind, mental illnesses and sterility have been attributed to the grotto in the monastery grounds. Early Christians, keen to seek a deeper union with God, practised their faith as hermits or ascetics in this valley where they sought solace.

In the Qadisha Valley, the River Nahr or Nahr Qadisha runs deeply and winds its way to the shores at Tripoli. It flows from a grotto 15,000 feet above sea level and on the eastern side of Lebanon’s highest peak, Qurnat al Sawda. Towering above the grotto is the Forest of the Cedars of God, one of the densest cedar forests in Lebanon.

These forests, much reduced now due to deforestation, contain some of the most ancient trees on earth; many are over 3000 years old. The Phoenicians and Egyptians harvested these trees to build ships. King Solomon, who succeeded his father King David, constructed a chariot and ‘made it of wood from Lebanon’ (Song of Solomon 3:9). This is also where he is reputed to have obtained the wood to build the first Temple at Jerusalem.

St Anthony, also known as Anthony of Egypt and Anthony the Hermit, was a Christian monk, who lived in Egypt at a time of burgeoning Christianity in the fourth or fifth century. He was born c. AD 251. His parents, devout Catholics, died when he was twenty, leaving their estate to his younger sister and him.

He was inspired by Matthew’s Gospel: “If you wish to be perfect, go sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure[s] in heaven. Then come and follow me” Matthew 19:21. He sold the share of his parents’ estate and gave the proceeds to the poor and to churches. In AD 270, he embarked on a life of solitude, devoting himself to prayer and fasting.

Through hard work and determination, St Anthony was the first monk to have eked out a life of holiness in that valley. Word of his piety travelled far and attracted many disciples, who were devoted to spiritual work, renounced secular pursuits and sought a deeper meaning of life. He organised his disciples into a community of monks that settled in the caves of the Qadisha Valley where they devoted themselves to monastic life.

According to Life of Anthony, written around AD 360 by Athanasius of Alexandria, a Christian theologian and one-time bishop of Alexandria for forty-five years, Saint Anthony was a holy man, who portrayed the ascetic way of life in Eastern and Western Christianity. A number of miracles have been attributed to him, especially for curing ergotism, also termed St Anthony’s fire or the ‘plague of fire’, a fungal infestation in rye and wheat, which because of high levels of ergotamine can lead to nerve paralysis and ultimately to convulsions, coma and even death. Sufferers from the condition often sought relief from the relics of the saint. He died in AD 356 and his feast day is January 17.

St Anthony experienced many temptations from the devil but he overcame these evils with the help of prayer and fasting. He was regarded as the ‘father of the monastics’ as he provided spiritual and practical guidance to the other hermits.

In the sixth century, bloody persecutions were rife in the Syrian deserts. The Jacobites, the Syrian Orthodox church founded at that time, were determined to purge the Maronites, a sect of Syrian Christians in Lebanon and the first followers of Christianity in the East. They pursued them until the Maronites found shelter and solace in the caves of the Qadisha Valley, which provided a multitude of slopes and shelters where the monks endeavoured to rebuild their church.

Those who remained survived through prayer and fasting and by adhering to vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Later, the Lebanese Maronite Church was founded – the largest prevailing Lebanese Christian community.

A visit to the monastery is a deeply spiritual experience, where the air is suffused with the prayers of those who passed through its narrow passages thousands of years ago. For pilgrims, it is an adventurous destination and in a beautiful natural setting, which is perfect for contemplating and exploring deeper Christian meanings.

The monastery now houses a museum containing the first printing press in the Middle East. This printing press, which was installed there in 1584, is made from wood. It has numerous steel components, which can press plates to the pages.

Many well-known books were printed here, including The Mass Book, The Book of the Epistles, and The Breviary. It also has a museum, containing vestments and precious objects that have been bequeathed to the monks by kings and leaders of state.

The façade of the Church of Saint Anthony the Great or the Church of the Monastery is simple. Its stones are joined by lead and not by cement. At the Grotto of Saint Anthony, which is beside the church, pilgrims seek healing from a prayer stone which they hold to the back of their head.

Healing is considered to come through praying in this position. The grotto also has chains and manacles and it is to these shackles that patients with neurosis and depression attach themselves in order to alleviate the tensions and anxieties in their lives. People of other denominations also come here to pray and meditate and to obtain blessings.

Qozhaya is part of the Qadisha region and is the site of many churches, hermitages and monasteries, which were regarded as a shelter for pilgrims. Well-wishers were known to remark: “May God make Qozhaya prosperous.”

The Monastery of St Anthony can be reached by a narrow, winding road surrounded by forests of cedar and pine. Visitors and pilgrims also like to visit the Qadisha Valley and other monasteries along the valley.

The fairy cave churches and monasteries of the beautiful Qadisha Valley bring the mystique of Lebanon into our lives. Many sources claim that St Anthony’s Monastery is now one of the safest places in Lebanon, despite the surrounding countries being ravaged by the aftermath of war.

Another popular landmark in the Qadisha Valley is the beautifully restored Mar Lichaa Monastery, which is built into a vertical cliff wall. This was once the residence of the Maronite bishops and the Maronite Order was founded here between 1698 and 1700. In the seventeenth century, a Frenchman, François de Chasteuil, lived here as a hermit. He died in 1644 and is buried there.

Mar Lichaa Monastery houses an interesting acquisition, which still remains a mystery. It is called the Black Slab. This has a medieval sign of Christianity in the Orient engraved on it. The Black Slab is a geometric representation with God at the centre, a cross and the four Evangelists.

The inscriptions on the slab are in Syriac alphabet, which was a written script that was used in Lebanon before the twelfth century. Its origins are unknown, but it is thought that it was brought to the monastery by monks from Aleppo (in Syria) and it may pre-date the oldest archaeological records in Mar Lichaa.

Mar Lichaa leads to the village of Bekaa Kafra (the fertile land), which has some spectacular views of the Qadisha Valley and is 1800 metres above sea level – the highest village in Lebanon.

It was through his great spiritual disciplines that St Anthony encouraged monasticism and freedom from earthly possessions both in Lebanon and throughout the East. The evil one, he said, can be dispelled by prayer and the sign of the cross.

St Anthony the Great is an inspiration for us that a life of humility and prayer need not be impaired by materialism.

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