We were up at 7:45 in the morning, getting ready, changing two diapers, making two bottles, packing two crib/playpens into the trunk, and getting all of us into the car. We were on our way to an overnight faculty retreat with a one year old and a five-week old – bound to be an interesting experience! Both babies behaved themselves excellently during the two and a half hour car drive. Paul slept quietly the whole way. Charbel, on the other hand, doesn’t know what “quiet” means. He spent the time talking, singing, and laughing. When we weren’t listening, he was content talking to his stuffed giraffe.
We arrived in Al Qosh around noon. Eddy heroically took both kids to our room in the retreat center, to change two more diapers, make two more bottles, assemble the two cribs and try to get two babies to take a nap. He was successful at most of these tasks, but both babies declared mutiny regarding the nap. I went to the dining room to eat a quick lunch before getting ready to give the introduction to the retreat.
There was a lovely view from the retreat center. Most people think of Iraq as a barren desert. It definitely is a desert, and gets quite hot in the summer, but it also has its share of greenery that brightens the picture.
Although most of the retreat center was built just recently, the chapel was hewn into the side of the hill in the fourth or fifth century AD. Christians not only worshipped there, but also hid there during times of persecution. In Italy, the Christians developed an underground catacomb system for safety from persecution. In this region, the Christians developed a different system. They dug into the mountain to make their places of worship so they wouldn’t be seen. In times of persecution, the Christian community would flee into these chapels, completely blocking off and camouflaging the entrance below in order not to be found. Since they sometimes had to stay in hiding for weeks or even longer, they made two small openings in the “roof” – the top of the mountain or hill. These openings were just wide enough for one person to fit through. Since there were no ladders, and the openings were high up, three or four men would have to climb up on each other’s shoulders for the top one to finally reach the exit and be able to hoist himself through it. The Christians used this system to send out a couple of men when needed to gather more food, or to act as scouts and determine when it was safe for the group to come out of hiding. When they returned, they would lower the provisions through the holes, and the Christians below would again form the human ladder to bring down their returning brethren. The location, size and height of these openings ensured safety for the Christians. They were difficult to find because they blended in with the rest of the ground on the mountain. Their size allowed only one person to fit through at a time, so it was impossible for an army or group of enemies to enter and, because the holes were so high above the ground of the chapels, anyone that did try to enter had no way of making it down, unless the Christians below helped them lower themselves safely.
The retreat center we stayed at was built onto such a chapel, and continues to use it today. Electric lights and chairs have been added, but aside from that, the chapel has been left as it was when the early Christians first constructed it. As we felt the stone walls, breathed in the cool underground air and heard the silence, it was as though we were touching the past. The Mass we had there seemed to unite us more strongly to the many saints and Christians who have gone before us and, whether here or in other regions, suffered and died that the faith might live, enabling us today to call ourselves Christians.
In the afternoon, we traveled a short distance to St. Hermizd, a monastery dating back to the fourth century. While a newer structure has been added, the original chapel, similar to the one at the retreat center in purpose and structure, can still be visited. The original cells were dug out of the mountain in the area surrounding the chapel. Although a more typical monastery was built down in the nearby town a while ago, one of the ancient cells was still inhabited by a monk until just recently. The monastery is tucked away between some hills, and can only be reached by one long winding path, that made it easy for the monks and early Christians to see anyone approaching long before they could be seen.
Although such a remote location is no longer needed for safety purposes today, it is still a perfect location for a monastery. The fresh air, the view, and the distant noises that gently float up from the plains below make it an easy place to pray and connect with God.
On the way back from the monastery to the retreat center, we stopped at a boys’ orphanage, to see a new structure being built for them, and to play with them for a little while.
We planned to stop at the girls’ orphanage, located a few blocks away, as well, but ran out of time.
Regarding the night at the retreat center… well, I will only say that the babies didn’t sleep the first half of the night because of the teachers, and the teachers didn’t sleep the second half of the night because of the babies. I’ll leave the rest to your imagination! In spite of the exhaustion that ensued, I am glad we had the opportunity to visit these places, and hope we will be able to return to them sometime soon with more time, to look at them more closely, enjoy their beauty, and reflect on the testimony they give to the strength of Christianity throughout the ages, and God’s faithfulness toward his people.