Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Above the City in “The House of the Master”

We have some pictures. Here's the narrative.
On a Sunday in early March – it’s our first sunny day in Beirut – we drive, in two cars, up the mountains to Beit Mery, where we can see the snow, and the mountains, and the hillsides with wildflowers and olive trees. We park on the summit, stroll to a Maronite Church built on the site of an old monastery with Roman ruins. The churchyard includes a healing tree, a regional Oak, thick trunk, different looking leaves. I am made to touch it; a photograph is taken. Ta da! – all better!
Then you walk over to a vantage point and look down. Guess what, there’s a huge city spread out down below. You can see the shoreline, the sea. On a clear day those who know Beirut can undoubtedly point out the different districts; the airport on one end of the city, the port on the other.
When you walk to another open vista and look inland, guess what. Mountains; the range on the horizon covered with snow.
I learn more about the village of Beit Mery from sources consulted afterwards. At the time I had heard the name as “Mary,” but the name has nothing to do with the famous mother of the Holy Land. The place name, I’m told, comes from Aramaic and means “The house of my Lord or Master.” The columns we saw, and photographed, are among the ruins of old Phoenician and Roman temples, according to one source. Another says Roman and Byzantine temples. The Maronite church and monastery, again sources say, sit on the remains of part of the old Roman temple.
One of the sources identifies the long-ago monastery as “the Maronite Monastery of John the Baptist.” That’s certainly interesting. We may not have a Virgin Mary connection here, but we get an opportunity to think about John the Baptist. Nowhere in Lebanon is that far from Galilee. It seems very possible to me that the very old churches of the Levant would know traditions, stories, whatever we call them, that remember the teachings and activities of the potential Messiah who goes down in Gospel history as foretelling of, and deferring to, the greater one who is to come.
We have simpler ambitions. The group of us – Eynas, who drove the three of us up in her car on a busy, chaotic highway to the village in the hills, following Eileen and Cedric with 10-month-old Eloise – walk around the new church and the old ruins, enjoy the views, pose in the sun, remark on the wildflowers at our feet against the snows in the distance. We wear parkas. It’s chilly in the wind, but springlike out of it.
Next we drive a short ways to a restaurant called The Tiger, opening the joint up with our arrival. A few minutes later a party of German friends of Eileen and Cedric arrive. They have a 1-year-old. More of their friends arrive. The place resounds with happy Europeans. They laugh, shout, greet each other with enthusiasm and play with each other’s babies; eat and drink and converse with gusto, seeming to flourish in Lebanon’s easygoing society.
Then a quick-flowing flock of local girls, their dark braids bouncing, scamper over to see and adore the babies. Which moment leads, in a somewhat inexplicable fashion, to this poem.

The Fountains of Beirut

Let us now sing of
The happy father, who clings to his child
Like a precious gift, a savior,
A female emanation of God’s happier musings
He builds a living bower of Care
Applianced by the Stroller of Forgiveness
He lifts his treasure up
To garner Smiles of Human-aided Flight
Abetted by careful words from the young and certain wife
Who has come to study the waters of Beirut

And let us celebrate the muses, the daughters of the mountains
Who dash like Naiads born of flowers on Olympian hillsides
(Outside Beit Mery’s windows the mythopoeically snowy peaks)
A flock of dark-braided river nymphs
(Golden waters pouring from the snow-capped heights to the rivers and the sea)
With the glee of instinct flowing to the living touch
They surround the cherubim in diapers, little Eros and Psyche,
Rushing like the waters down the mountains to the Fountains of Beirut
A ceaseless tide of renewal,
Which fills the human heart, in the words of the immortal Blake,
From Love the Human Form Divine

We live – for so the muses show us,
The nymphs proclaim,
Speaking ancient tongues to those who cannot hear –
And so persist in living
On little snow-capped islands
Of Beauty and of Hope