I spent most of the hike down the rim of Qaddisha Valley worrying not so much what would happen if I slipped and fell down the mountain gorge, but about the social protocols of visiting with a hermit. After all, hermits, by definition have chosen solitude over company particularly strangers popping in uninvited. But Our Lady of Hawka Monastery, a 13th century shrine built into the side of the valley's red sandstone cliffs and one of the region's last functioning hermitages, is considered something of a national treasure in Lebanon. Even if phoning ahead to arrange an audience is not an option, this treacherous trail is well traveled.
When I arrived at the monastery grotto, the only sound to be heard is the cooing of two white doves overhead, as if to emphasize the sanctity of the setting. Since just a few centuries after the dawn of Christianity, holy men have come to the mountains of northern Lebanon in search of solitude, although the attraction of the ascetic life may have faded somewhat in the modern era. Father Dario, a 73 year-old Colombian priest, took up residence at Hawka eight years ago, becoming one of just three hermits left in Lebanon.
That status certainly makes the visitor nervous about imposing. What if I stumbled into the monastery in middle of holy mass? Or interrupted the Father at some key moment in his contemplation of divine creation? Or more likely, what if the reason he renounced a life of earthly pleasures was to get away from the likes of foreign journalists for whom he is a fascinating curiosity? Surely someone who chooses the life of a hermit has what those of us who work in the urban corporate economy might call "people issues"?
Despite my trepidation, it turns out that the only ritual required in requesting an audience with the hermit is a knock on the door. Father Dario emerges from his quarters wearing a black cowl and a warm smile. He explains that although he has many visitors some of whom wake him in the middle of the night, or use his pencils to graffiti their names on the walls of his cell all are welcome. It is the duty of Christian hermits, he explained, to serve both God and humanity through prayer and penitence, and that apparently includes suffering fools gladly.
Indeed, hermitism in the Catholic Church and its eastern branches is not some kind of a primal escape to nature and freedom, but a role defined by canonical law and subject to the discipline and hierarchy of the Church. To become a hermit, one first has to be either a member of a monastic order, or to be consecrated by a bishop. Father Dario had been a Catholic priest living in Florida and making $200 an hour working as a psychologist when God told him to give up his worldly possessions and take on the contemplative life. But the Word of the Lord wasn't all it took to turn Father Dario into a hermit: Only ten years after moving to Lebanon and becoming a Maronite monk did he receive his bishop's blessing to take the next step. He moved out of the hectic life at the main monastery, where Lebanese monks enjoy their mobile phones and Mercedes Benz cars, and into the silence of the valley. Now, he spends his days on a tight schedule: 14 hours of prayer, 3 hours working in the vegetable garden, 2 hours studying mystical texts, and 5 hours sleeping on a wooden board with a stone under his head. "At the beginning it is difficult," he said, "But now I can't sleep with a pillow."
Unfortunately, for all his trials in the proverbial desert, Father Dario has little in the way of gnostic wisdom to offer the passing hiker, though he does have a funny story about what it's like trying to get through Homeland Security onto a flight to the Middle East when you have the same last name Escobar and birthplace Medellin as a legendary narco trafficker. "Many people come here because they think I know the future," he says. "I only know one thing: that we all will die." Then he tells me to get married.