By Most Rev. Richard W. Smith, Archbishop of Edmonton

Monday, September 18, 2017

Lessons From Lebanon

In the course of a visit to Lebanon, St. John Paul II famously observed that Lebanon is more than a country; it is also a message. My visit there last week confirmed this insight. As I look back and reflect upon the experience of encountering the Lebanese people and learning a few things about their beautiful country, three aspects of that “message” stand out for me. 

Pope John Paul II with former Lebanese statesman.
1. Particularly striking in Lebanon is the way that faith is woven into the very fabric of the culture. Everywhere, one can find symbols of faith displayed quite visibly. Faith is openly practiced and one’s religious identity and background is readily acknowledged. The differences in the belief systems are quite marked, of course, yet the people are striving to live together as citizens of the one country. It is not easy, I’m sure, and far more complex than I can appreciate, especially given the rather tumultuous history of religious conflict. Yet, they are somehow making it work. There is an important lesson here for us. In the West we have somehow developed the strange idea that, in order for us all to get along, we need to hide our faith, to keep it private and not allow it to enter into public discourse. However, a pluralistic society such as ours should be just that: pluralistic, i.e., fully welcoming of the views and insights of all citizens, including those perspectives that are informed by faith traditions. Lebanon teaches that it is possible. Indeed, it should be expected. 

A typical Lebanese breakfast.
2. Lebanon is deservedly known for its hospitality. Every time we turned around we were offered something to drink (love the coffee!), and it felt like every second meeting was a multi-course meal! (That’s not a complaint, by the way. The cuisine is delicious. Who knew I would actually enjoy eating raw goat meat? But I digress.) Yet, as I mentioned in my last blog post, the real lesson in hospitality was given in the context not of the dinner table but of the settlements for displaced persons. Most of the displaced are from Syria, a country which only a few decades ago was waging a vicious war against Lebanon. In spite of this, the border has been opened to them. Furthermore, the presence of 1.5 million people from Syria (and that is just the number of officially registered; the actual count would be higher) in a country of only four million is placing an enormous economic and logistical burden on the shoulders of the Lebanese people. This situation is not, admittedly, supportable in the long run, and solutions will have to be found quickly, but the readiness of the Lebanese to welcome the stranger and, yes, the enemy to an extent that calls for great personal and national sacrifice is extraordinary. That’s hospitality. 

Downtown Beirut, Lebanon.
3. The third aspect of the “message” that Lebanon is came to me in a rather unique fashion. The hospitality provided to our delegation extended to assuring our safety. We travelled everywhere by military convoy. Really, you haven’t lived until you’ve hurtled at breakneck speed along Lebanese roads or through Beirut streets in a multi-vehicle motorcade, sirens blaring, and manned by special forces commandos with weapons at the ready. I kid you not. One might reasonably expect that this might have left us just a little frazzled. Yet, it didn’t. The driving was clearly in the hands of professional and competent soldiers who obviously knew what they were doing, where they were going, and how to get there safely. We just surrendered to the experience, let them do the driving, and were thus carried to whatever place we were intended to visit. On the last evening, one of the delegation, Archbishop Christian Lepine of Montreal, commented on the lesson in this. We need to learn to let God do the driving in our lives. If we, by following the teachings of Christ and the promptings of the Holy Spirit, abandon ourselves to God, who knows exactly what He is doing and where He is leading us, then we shall arrive safely at the destiny He intends for us. 

A beautiful country, and, at the same time, a profound message. That’s Lebanon, and I am grateful for the blessing of encountering it.

St Elie - St Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Catholic Cathedral