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The Gift of Remembrance: The Many Beautiful Faces of Balamand

by V. Rev. Jason DelVitto, Ph.D.

Almost one year ago, from May 20th through May 28th, 2014, I had the distinct honor and pleasure to accompany His Grace Bishop Thomas (Joseph) to the Balamand Monastery of the Dormition of Our Lady the Virgin Mary, the Balamand University, and the St. John of Damascus Institute of Theology. Balamand is located in the region of Al Kourah, approximately 45 miles north of Beirut. This was my second trip to Lebanon, the first being the occasion of the consecration of our three new bishops for the Antiochian Orthodox Church in North America, 2011.

As our beloved hierarch Metropolitan Philip of thrice-blessed memory had recently fallen asleep in the Lord, His Beatitude Patriarch John X had called for a meeting at Balamand of the Local Synod of Antiochian Bishops in America and members of the Board of Trustees of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.

On this soon to be one-year anniversary, I would like to offer a reflection on our trip, sharing my impressions regarding a unique opportunity for which I remain eternally grateful. As a start, as I traveled with Sayidna Thomas, I was afforded the opportunity to gain a sense of the work and life of the students of the Theological School of St. John of Damascus and to meet with its administrators and students and instructors. I was greatly edified by the people that I met there and the work that is being done at the University and School of Theology.

At Balamand, our days consisted of attending the various liturgical services at the monastery church, meeting and dining with the students, especially those of the School of Theology, and sharing ideas and experiences with them relative to church life in America and to their lives at Balamand. Throughout our stay, Sayidna and I had the opportunity to meet and visit with various hierarchs, clergy, professors, administrators and students of both the University of Balamand and the Theological School. Among those whom we visited was the President of the University, Mr. Eli Salem. We also met on several occasions with His Grace Bishop Ghattas of Balamand and members of the University staff; Professor Eli Karam; Dr. Walid Mobayed, Director of Admissions and Registration; Dr. John Hanna Jirjis El-Nakat, Chairman of the Department of Chemistry; Mr. Wael Al-Nakat of St. George Hospital and University Medical Center in Beirut; Mr. Simon E. Najm, Librarian of the Institute of Theology; and other staff members. Sayidna and I were deeply impressed by the loving dedication of the staff of Balamand, who reflect not only academic excellence in teaching, but at the same time serve as witnesses to the Orthodox Faith to all whom they serve. We were truly blessed to meet, dine and visit with these dedicated Orthodox Christians.

During our travels, we were lovingly hosted on multiple occasions by members of Sayidna Thomas' beloved family, the Hyder family. Among the immediate family members whom we met were Lodi, the mother of Wael and Ghiwa; Wael's wife Cyrine (the oldest, she is Wael's and Ghiwa's mother, Wael is married to Cyrine, Ghiwa is little Myia's mother) Najwa is the second oldest, she is Carol's mother); and our most gracious and attentive hostess Jacqueline, who lives at the Hyder family home in which we stayed for a majority of our trip. Mr. Michael Joseph, a cousin of Sayidna Thomas, who lives in the United States, is the brother of our main hostess Jacqueline.

Our Main Hostess Jacqueline, on right, with her gracious relatives who served us so wellOur Main Hostess Jacqueline, on right, with her gracious relatives who served us so well Members of the Hyder familyMembers of the Hyder family

The Hyder family lives in the town of Fih, located just a few miles from Balamand. It is in the town of Fih that the Church dedicated to St. Simeon the Stylite is located, and it became very apparent to us that this saint is greatly loved and honored by the faithful people of Fih. At the Church dedicated to St. Simeon, Sayidna and I attended the Divine Liturgy and were warmly welcomed by the parish priest and his spiritual children. We also visited the elementary school in Fih that was founded by Sayidna's great grandfather, Jacob Hyder of blessed memory. We also met with the administrators, teachers and students. This school continues to this day to provide much needed educational opportunities for its students.

 Fr. Jason with children and staff members at the elementary school in Fih,  Lebanon, established by Jacob HyderFr. Jason with children and staff members at the elementary school in Fih, Lebanon, established by Jacob Hyder  Fr. Jason  with Fr. Peter Shazore with some of the singers from his parish in  Imzaineh, Wadi al- Nasara, on the eve of their performance in AmiounFr. Jason with Fr. Peter Shazore with some of the singers from his parish in Imzaineh, Wadi al- Nasara, on the eve of their performance in Amioun

We continued our travels to various areas surrounding Balamand, the landscape of which is exceptionally beautiful and is exceeded only by the beauty of the people whom we met. For me, one example this beauty was a trip that we made to the town of Amioun, home to the largest population of Orthodox Christians in Lebanon. Amioun is located approximately 49 miles north of Beirut. There we met with His Grace Bishop Elia, the Orthodox Bishop of the Syrian District of Wadi al-Nasara (Valley of the Christians), and attended a wonderful choral concert by His Grace's young adult choir which traveled from Syria for their performance. Leading the choir members along with Bishop Elia was Fr. Peter Shazore, parish priest of a village in Wadi al-Nasara, the home town of one of my grandparents on my mother's side of the family. What a joy it was for me to meet Fr. Peter and his spiritual children from a part of the world that I knew only through my own family's conversations. And the choir was superb!

As our journeys continued, we had the opportunity to visit with the then-current Patriarchal Vicar to America, His Eminence Metropolitan Silouan, who personally drove us to St. Symeon the Stylite Church and Monastery. We also visited the Greek Orthodox Women's Monastery of St. James (Jacob) the Persian, located in Deddeh, and were graciously hosted with refreshments by Abbess Fevronia, along with some of her monastics. We were given a tour of the monastery church and chapel, where we venerated the relics of various saints, including those of St. James and the Forty Holy Martyrs of Sebaste. This monastery is located on a high plateau overlooking the Mediterranean Sea and is approximately five miles from Tripoli. The monastery grounds and the view overlooking the sea are exceptionally beautiful.

We also journeyed to meet with His Eminence Metropolitan Basilios of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Akkar. Following a visit with His Eminence, we then traveled along with him to one of his parishes, the Church of the Dormition, located in Akkar approximately five miles from the Syrian border. It was in the home of Fr. Khalil Gergieg, pastor of the church, and his Khouria, where we enjoyed a beautiful meal and fellowship that afternoon. In attendance at the meal was the mayor of Akkar, North Lebanon and Mr. Walid R. Metri. Following the meal, we were graced with a tour of Fr. Khalil's very beautiful church and its spacious and well-appointed social halls. Fr. Khalil's son, Fr. Joseph Geriege, and Kh. Diala, serve the parish of St. George Church in Altoona, Pennsylvania.

 A joyful encounterA joyful encounter His Grace Bishop Thomas Presiding at Liturgy, St. Symeon Church, Fih, LebanonHis Grace Bishop Thomas Presiding at Liturgy, St. Symeon Church, Fih, Lebanon

I recall with great gratitude the hospitality that we were offered by so many people, which truly reflects the traditional hospitality one finds among the people of the Middle East. Yet, hospitality has faces and names, it's not an abstract idea, but it was incarnated in the lives of those who were so gracious to us. I lovingly recall the heart-warming evenings that we spent with Sayidna Thomas' family and their friends. Especially impressive were those moments following the wonderful meals (or shall I say "banquets") that we enjoyed and shared, when "multitudes" of family members, from little children to family elders, would gather in the home of our guest. And, more often than not, we were treated to members of the family who would spontaneously stand up and start singing beautiful hymns of the Church to the delight of everyone.

As the end of our trip drew near, Sayidna and I began to make preparations for our journey home, saying our goodbyes to everyone as they asked Sayidna for his blessing and entreating us not to forget them in our prayers, assuring us that we will always have a home with them in Lebanon.

What graceful and abundant generosity we shared through the opening of our host's hearts and homes to us with Godly hospitality! For me, this was truly an experience of agape, a love that can only come from God and received and shared by those who experience His love.

A refreshing trip this was indeed for me, and I remain most eternally grateful to God and our beloved hierarch Sayidna Thomas for affording me the opportunity to travel with him during those memorable days.

With Gratitude in Christ,

V. Rev. Jason DelVitto, Ph.D.
Pastor of St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church, Bridgeville, PA.
Adjunct Faculty, Department of Theology, Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, PA.
Professor of Dogmatic Theology, Byzantine Catholic Seminary, Pittsburgh, PA