Under the guise of “when in Rome, do as the Romans,” on our first full day in Beirut, my travel partner Mary and I decide to go to church. There’s a large Greek Orthodox Church down the street from the Albergo Hotel, so we meet early in the lobby to head to 7 a.m. mass. Truth? We don’t actually know it’s a Greek Orthodox Church and are left to ponder what we’ve got ourselves into. When the priest, chanting Arabic, heads down the aisle, with a large brass orb, spewing water left and right, I genuflect politely. Mary, who has a lot more experience with this kind of thing that I do because she’s a bonafide “P.K.” (Preacher’s Kid) suppresses a giggle. When I go to a church different from my own, I typically just follow the crowd. It’s usually easy to gather when I’m supposed to get up or kneel or pray. Granted this service is in Arabic, but frankly, Mary and I are completely baffled. The sparse congregation looks as ancient as the building itself and they cross, bow, kneel and pray willy-nilly. Mary and I opt to follow the lead of the nun seated in the pew in front of us. The challenge is that this nun’s behavior seems to be as random as her church mates. Mary and I get up, sit down, kneel and finally opt to sit in the pew quietly glancing left and right occasionally to see what others are doing.
I’ m not sure if it’s boredom, hunger or just a sense of adventure, but when communion is offered, I join in the line and eagerly accept a stale wafer. I get no “Body of Christ” from this Arabic speaking priest but do get along, curious stare. Later when we describe the scene to David’s Lebanese friend Gabriel, he explains, “Ah, you were at a Greek Orthodox church,” and then adds a guffaw as if to say, “What did you expect?” Gabriel is Maronite, which is the main Christian group on Lebanon. You know how they call Episcopalians “Catholic light?” Well, I call Maronites “Catholic heavy.” They hold their masses in Syriac-Aramaic, the same language spoken by Jesus.
There hasn’t been a census in Lebanon since 1936, but it’s estimated that roughly 24% of Lebanon’s population is Christian with Maronites leading the pack. The Maronite religion was founded in the 5th century by a hermit called Maroun. I’m not exactly sure what qualified him as a saint after his death, but do know he was really good at finding and converting lost souls. Next Sunday, Mary and I will wander down to St. George, which is the big Maronite Church in downtown Beirut. They have a Facebook page so we’ll see what they do with these lost souls.