Our Lady in Lebanon

Ya Aadra — “Oh Virgin.”

That's the spontaneous plea cried out by Lebanese Christians in moments of distress.

The fact that the entreaty is heard so often in this land of 4 million — about 35 % of whom are Christian — is testimony to the fervent devotion to Our Lady found here.

“When American Protestant missionaries began arriving in Lebanon in the mid-19th century, the Lebanese Christians realized that the Protestants didn't share Lebanon's love for Our Lady,” explains Jesuit Father Martin McDermott, an American who has served in Lebanon for 31 years. “The Protestants thought of her as an ordinary woman, so their mission has had very limited success in Lebanon.”

Most of the Christians here are Maronite Catholics. That explains why the tiny country — it's only about the size of New Jersey — has at least 3,000 churches, chapels and shrines dedicated to the Blessed Mother.

By far the most-visited tourist site in Lebanon is the Shrine of Harissa, Our Lady of Lebanon. Located 16 miles from Beirut and perched atop Mount Lebanon, and topped by a beautiful Marian statue rising 1,886 feet above sea level, the site is breathtaking. It affords spectacular views of Lebanon's countryside and the Mediterranean Sea.

“What a beautiful horizon!” That was how Pope John Paul II reacted at Harissa as he gazed at the sunset and the sea of Lebanese youth gathered to be with him on May 10, 1997.

The shrine's origins trace to Maronite Patriarch Elias Boutros El-Hoyaek and Msgr. Carol Duval, who decided in 1904 to commission a token of grateful devotion to Mary on the 50th anniversary of the dogmatic proclamation of the Immaculate Conception. The statue was consecrated in May 1908 upon the 50th anniversary of Our Lady's apparition to St. Bernadette Soubirous in Lourdes, France. This first Sunday in May has since been Our Lady of Lebanon's feast day.

The statue was crafted in Lyon, France, of molten bronze and painted white. The 65.6-foot-high stone base, with steps spiraling up to Our Lady, was designed by French architect Gio in the shape of a trunk, like that of a cedar tree. Our Lady towers over this pedestal; she stands 27.8 feet high, 18 feet wide.

Inside the base of Harissa is the lovely “Mother of Light” (Oumm En-Nour) chapel. Crafted stone-by-stone in the old rustic Lebanese architectural style, it has but a handful of pews, offering a quiet oasis for prayer. The altar's crucifix, tabernacle and “Mother of Light” statue are all carved from Lebanon's cedar wood, known as Arz al Rab — “God's Cedars.”

“She stands up majestic like the cedars in Lebanon,” reads the inscription above the chapel's entrance. For the pilgrim, standing high above the sea and nestled under Our Lady's outstretched arms, with the sky as her blue mantle, it's easy to feel a childlike sense of peace and security.

Nearby, the adjacent basilica hovers over Harissa. Architect Pierre El-Khoury's design was inspired by the Lebanese cedar tree and Phoenician ships. Construction began in 1970 and continues, although it looks completed. Inside the basilica, Harissa's shrine is framed within the church's massive window (137.8 feet tall). It seems a reminder that Our Mother is always with us. The basilica seats 3,500. When Pope John Paul II visited, tens of thousands of youth overflowed this huge church; the crowds spilled onto the grounds of Harissa and down the mountain road.

Miracle Worker

During my first visit to Harissa, I was amazed how many people climb the 110 steps of Our Lady's pedestal barefoot, sometimes even on their knees. Even more impressive are the youth groups who make the pilgrimage on foot from villages sometimes more than 35 miles away during May. It's just a 10-minute drive from Jounieh at sea level to the 1,886-foot summit of Harissa. Hoofing this steep road could challenge even a seasoned mountaineer. Yet, as I witnessed just last month — May, Mary's month — walking is the preferred mode of travel, even among the elderly, for those who make this popular pilgrimage.

Harissa averages about 3,400 visitors per day. That number soars up to 20,000 during May and on the feast of the Assumption.

I was surprised to see that Muslims, who also have a devotion to Our Lady, make up a good number of pilgrims. “In the Koran, they consider Our Lady the best woman in the world,” Father Hannoun Andraos, superior of Harissa, told me. “She is Jesus' mother, And Muslims do believe that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit.”

While I was meeting with Father Andraos, a trio of gentlemen from Sri Lanka and India came to visit. I thought of the Three Kings: their names in English mean “money,” “king” and “sultan.” They were planning a procession of Our Lady of Sri Lanka from Beirut to Harissa. With childlike enthusiasm, they summed up their devotion: “We are Muslim and Hindu, but she is the mother of us all. We love her.”

Father Andraos added that, in the last few years, there has been a noticeable increase in pilgrims from Iran — sometimes as many as 300 a day. They come in tour buses, spending one day in Lebanon. Harissa is at the top of their itinerary.

Countless miracles have been reported at Harissa, such as cures of illnesses and handicaps. Babies born after years of childlessness are especially common. One of my friends believes she is still alive today because of Our Lady of Harrisa. When she was a child, she and her family were on their way to the shrine. This was before the safe highway road was constructed. On one of the dangerous hairpin turns near the summit, their car tumbled down into the deep valley. Miraculously, they all survived the accident.

To mark the centennial of Harissa next year, a footpath called “The Way to Heaven” (Darb Essama) is being built. It will go from Jounieh up to Harissa and feature seven stations for praying for specific intentions, including the family, the elderly and poor, the culture of death and unity in the Church.

If you've been considering a pilgrimage to a faraway land in which Our Lady is revered with special passion, maybe Harissa, Lebanon, is your place and 2004 is your year. You'll be far from home, but right at home with your mother.

Doreen Abi Raad writes from Beirut, Lebanon.

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