Lebanon’s “Clash of Civilizations”. A Message for Our Time?

There is a another angle one can view what many are calling the present or pending “clash of civilizations”. One that a faithful Catholic should consider, or any Christian for that matter. Considering the historical record, Lebanon has been there and done that. Pope John Paul II is quoted as saying that Lebanon is “more than a country; it is a message.” But why and how? From antiquity to her civil war in the last part of the 20th Century, Lebanon can resonate in the hearts and minds of present-day Christians facing an uncertain future. To gauge, and even alter our course in history. For in Lebanon, the Holy Spirit of God is at work.

Many in the west have a limited view of this region, associating Lebanon with her drawn out civil war of over 25 years. To orient the reader, Lebanon is located just to the north of Israel, and is situated between the geographic east and west. Lebanon is know in history as the crossroad of civilizations. Lebanon was visited by Jesus Himself , preaching and healing in Sidon and Tyre (Mathew 11, 15). Since the time of the apostles, Lebanon has been predominantly Christian.

 

Some of us may be familiar with a recent Saint in the Catholic Church. St. Charbel Makleuf, of the Maronite rite. The Maronites were founded in the 5th Century by the Syrian monk and hermit St. Maron, a contemporary and correspondent of St John Chrysostom. The Maronites established themselves in the mountains of Northern Lebanon. From here they resisted attempts by the invading Islamic Caliphs to absorb them, eventually earning their tribute. The Maronites fought along with the Crusaders in the 11th through 13 Centuries. In this period the Maronites sought union with the Latin Patriarch in Antioch, but formal union with Rome did not occur until the 16th Century, enabled by Jesuit missionaries. Maronite monasteries and convents were instrumental in preserving Arabic and Syriac manuscripts, even helping to oppose the Turkish empire’s attempt to obliterate the arabic language. The first printing press in the middle east was imported by the Maronites in 1610. Maronite scholars played a leading role in a renaisance of middle east literature, even on Islamic history, in the 19th and 20th century. After the dissolution of the Ottoman empire, the Maronites were the primary force in forging the republic that is now Lebanon.

In antiquity, the region that includes present day Lebanon was under the governance of the first Christian Church, the Church of Antioch. Antioch sits just above Lebanon geographically. This Church was founded by Sts. Paul and Barnabas, and their first bishop was none other the the Apostle Peter, before he left to Rome. The Church of Antioch produced St. Ephrem the Syrian (4th Century), Doctor of the Catholic Church, and St. John Chrysostom (5th Century), Father and Doctor of the Catholic Church. Together with the sister Churches of Alexandria in Egypt and Jerusalem, these Byzantine Churches preserved the sacraments for 2000 years. Nearly annihilated by the first Moslem invasion, the Byzantine Church in Lebanon survived subsequent invasions through a spirit of cooperation. Not so during the Crusades, as politics won over theology, and the victors replaced the Byzantine with the Latin, driving out the Byzantine faithful. The Byzantine churches were rebuilt after the Crusades were driven out by the Islamic Mamelukes. In this era and during the subsequent four centuries of Ottoman rule (1516-1920), politics favored the east over the west, and the autonomous Christian Churches were encouraged to ground themselves to Constantinople. Lebanon was different. By the 1700’s, a movement had begun to unite with the Church with Rome, while preserving the eastern liturgy. In John 17:23 Jesus prays: I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me. In 1723 the Byzantine Bishop of Sidon requested communion with Rome. The Melkite Greek Catholic Church became official and the Church of Antioch divided. While the remaining Orthodox continued to form three autonomous churches, the Melkite Catholics were unique in being scattered in the regions of Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria while under one Patriarch (Antioch). The ensuing Melkite era is known for missionary and educational works through out the middle east, but not without resistance and even persecution, and even from the Orthodox. In Lebanon this was rare; here the seeds were being sown for the republic of the 20th Century.

 

In the 1950’s Lebanon became a shining star in the middle east, with peaceful coexistence between Moslems and Christians. A republic with democratic principles. The emergence of prosperity attracted powerful financial interests however. The culture began lending itself to materialism and unbridled commercialism. The moral culture suffered; a culture of corruption and even secularism incubated. Nationhood and patriotism lost their true meaning. Lebanon’s civil war lasted over 25 years, a war that the majority of the population did not want and that was largely manipulated, on both sides, by outside forces with their own agendas. Eventually this lead to a seduction of both Christian and Muslim sides, leading in events that neither side can look back at without shame. As a result of the civil war, the Christian census nearly halved from 60% to 35% (mostly from exodus). A strong movement promoting unity between Melkites and Orthodox was also halted by Lebanon’s “clash of civilizations”.

This history may so far resonate with readers, that Lebanon is a message for our time. But there is more.

There was a light that emerged from the period of civil war, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Part Four of the Catechism, “Christian Prayer” was written by a Melkite priest living in Lebanon during the civil war. Here is what then Cardinal Ratzinger said about how Fr. Corbon, who lived amidst the terror, was chosen to be associated with the Catechism:

“After having resolved to add a distinct fourth part on prayer to the first three, we looked for a representative of Eastern theology. Since it was not possible to secure a bishop as author, we settled upon Jean Corbon, who wrote the beautiful concluding text on prayer while in beleaguered Beirut, frequently in the midst of dramatic situations, taking shelter in his basement in order to continue working during the bombardments.”

 

So we can say that in a time of anguish, during a clash of civilizations, a priest of an eastern Catholic rite composed the part on prayer in the Catechism. One of the most inspired texts of our time and a fixture of our faith. According to Reverend Cassian Folsom 0.S.B, a teacher at the Pontifical Liturgical Institute of Saint Anselmo in Rome, from an original publication in Homiletic and Pastoral Review, April 1996, Fr. Corbon’s hand also appears in another part of the Cathechism:

“However, the sub-section entitled The Liturgy: Work of the Holy Trinity (CCC 1077-1112) bears the unmistakable mark of Fr. Corbon, and reflects the single most important insight of his book, The Wellspring of Worship, namely, that the liturgy is essentially Trinitarian in nature.”

Here comes another message for us from the clash. Fr. Folsom goes on:

“The action of the Father as the source and goal of the liturgy (CCC 1077-1083) is commonly understood, and the work of the Son in the liturgy (CCC 1084-1090) is even more familiar … The action of the Holy Spirit, however, is more hidden, more mysterious, and for that reason less known, and less frequently the object of theological reflection.

For that reason the section on the work of the Holy Spirit in the liturgy (CCC 1091-1109) is remarkable for bringing to light an aspect of the Church’s pneumatological [of the Holy Spirit] tradition, formerly hidden from a large majority of Catholics. Even from the very practical point of view of length, this section is longer and more fully developed than the sections on the Father and the Son, precisely because this element of the liturgy has been largely overlooked by the Western Church in the past. Here the hand of Fr. Corbon is clearly in evidence.”

 

In Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter Orientale Lumen, Section 6, we read: “Certain features of the spiritual and theological tradition, common to the various Churches of the East mark their sensitivity to the forms taken by the transmission of the Gospel in Western lands. The Second Vatican Council summarized them as follows: “Everyone knows with what love the Eastern Christians celebrate the sacred liturgy, especially the Eucharistic mystery, source of the Church’s life and pledge of future glory. In this mystery the faithful, united with their Bishops, have access to God the Father through the Son, the Word made flesh who suffered and was glorified, in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. And so made ‘sharers of the divine nature’ (2 Pt 1:4) they enter into communion with the most holy Trinity”.

Indeed, as descibed in Fr. Corbon’s book, the liturgical expressions in the eastern churches (and increasingly in the english version of the Latin Rite) emphasize the epilcesis or “calling down” of the Holy Spirit. According to the eastern traditions, the epiclesis is the vehicle of a mighty synergy between God and man. Centered in the liturgy, man then lives out this synergy by consenting to it in prayer.

In these sections of the Catechism, we read:

CCC 1091: The desire and work of the Spirit in the heart of the Church is that we may live from the life of the risen Christ. When the Spirit encounters in us the response of faith which he has aroused in us, he brings about genuine cooperation. Through it, the liturgy becomes the common work of the Holy Spirit and the Church.

Later we read (CCC 1099) that “the Holy Spirit is the Church’s living memory”.

With a possible world war between east and west looming, or a clash of civilizations, western Catholics may want to pause and take a deep breath in considering their role in forming history. Pope John Paul II would often describe the Catholic Church as needing to ‘breath with both lungs’. With this reminder and elaboration on prayer, and this mystical understanding of the role of the Holy Spirit, we can become more fruitful for God.

In a recent Zenit article (March 22,2006), Michel Aoun, interim Lebanese leader, talks about the role of apostolic Christianity in the resolution of the clash.

“For us, the expression “Maronite” is no longer the exact term; there is much more talk of “Christians” in general. We regard the rites as secondary traditions, because we are all Christians for Christ,whether Maronite, Greek-Catholic, Melkite, etc.”

He then goes on to say:

“Christians have brought about the unity of Lebanon; they were the only ones who cohabited with the different Muslim groups, when coexistence among the different Muslim groups did not exist.

They have a historic role, which is to live their mission, to be an element of understanding, a federalizing element of the people of Lebanon in its different components. Playing this role, they can, I believe, recover their function in the republic and participate in politics and in the socioeconomic construction of the country.”

Lebanon is presently being taunted again. The threat of a world wide clash is knocking on her doors. Perhaps as a sign of an age to come in the world, Christian religious fervor in Lebanon this time is flourishing, as are monasteries and seminaries. They cannot keep up with the demand from new candidates. A whole generation has been let down by their parent’s culture and are seeking answers in the Truth of the Ages.

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Lazarus

A Physician. Born into God's Kingdom at Deir alMukhalis in Southern Lebanon.

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