Vassula in Lebanon and Syria
27 April – 3 May 2010
A warm eastern welcome.
Tuesday 27 April. We collected Vassula from Beirut airport in the early afternoon. Vassula’s journey was a short one from Athens but Mgr Jeremiah Ferens, who was accompanying her, had spent 26 hours traveling from Brazil. We went directly to the Foyer Saint Michel in Sheileh where our group would be staying for some of the time. Vassula and Mgr Ferens were accompanied by a group of twelve people who had come from France and Switzerland, and the organisers from Lebanon.
Metropolitan Georges Haddad from the Melchite Catholic Church was dining with us; he knows Vassula well and had been with us on the last pilgrimage in Greece. The Metropolitan was keen to welcome Vassula as soon as she arrived in Lebanon because she was to witness at his home in southern Lebanon a few days later.
At the end of the meal, the founder of the foyer Saint Michel, Madame Marie Bassil, introduced us to the children who were resident at the home because of social problems. The children were surprised when Vassula talked briefly to each of them in Arabic.
A dinner had been organised for that evening with Mgr Georges Khodor, the Greek Orthodox Metropolitan of Mount Lebanon, Jbeil and Batroun. Vassula had already met Mgr Khodor a few years previously but she made a full presentation of True Life in God and Christ’s pressing demands, speaking with authority particularly of the urgency of unifying the dates of Easter. Then the Metropolitan questioned all the True Life in God people present about how they had come to be reading the Messages.
Vassula gave Mgr Khodor the book containing all the messages concerning Unity that had just been translated and printed a few days earlier.
The power of the Holy Spirit and a new Beth Myriam
Wednesday 28 April. We had to leave early in the morning to get to the first conference venue at Homs in Syria. Our coach went through Tripoli where we stopped to visit Archimandrite Jean Batch who is under the authority of the Greek Orthodox Archbishop Mgr Ephram Keriakos. During this warm welcome, Vassula gave the archimandrite the anthology of the Unity Messages. Then he started to tell us a story about two peoples who lived on either bank of a river. Each had built beautiful buildings on their side of the river but they were sad not to be able to talk to each other because the river ran between them. So they started to build a bridge, each beginning from their own side. How surprised they were when their constructions joined together to realise joyfully that they spoke the same language. So it follows that if everyone keeps to their own position nothing can change, but if we put God and His interests first, then we work for unity by lowering our ego. Along with Vassula, we were all surprised to recognise the passage in the Messages where it mentions this bridge that will be the new Name of the Lord, which will unite East and West. We were all the more surprised that the Archimandrite was not familiar with the Messages. Vassula opened the book to show him the vision that she had received.
I am going to reach out My Hand and carve on a stick the words: West bank, House of Peter and all those who are loyal to him; then, on another stick I will carve: East bank, House of Paul, together with all those who are loyal to him; and when the members of the two houses will say: ‘Lord tell us what you mean now’, I will say to them, ‘I will take the stick on which I carved Paul’s name together with all those who are loyal to him and put the stick of Peter and his loyal ones, as one; I shall make one stick out of the two and I shall hold them as one; I shall bind them together with My New Name; this will be the bridge between the West and the East; My Holy Name will bind the bridge, so that you will exchange your possessions across this bridge; they will no longer practise alone, but together and I shall reign over them all; ( October 24, 1994)
Then we resumed our journey to Homs, bringing Archimandrite Ibrahim Sarrouj who would translate Vassula’s witness from English to Arabic. We arrived at Homs for the meal at the end of which Mgr Isidore Battikha joined us with his brother Archimandrite Elias Battikha and the Vicar General Archimandrite Bernard Mansour.
Mgr Battikha thinks highly of Vassula and the followers of True Life in God since our visit to him during the last pilgrimage. That is why he came all the way from Alep to welcome us to Syria. We all appreciated the depth of his welcome, which was generous and genuine in the love of Christ.
In the afternoon, Mgr Battikha took us to St Elijah’s Monastery which is under his charge. The sanctuary sheltering the miraculous icon of St Elijah is at the centre of an imposing group of perfectly maintained apparently new buildings. This centre accommodates families for retreats, while also housing an orphanage and a dispensary.
Archimandrite Ibrahim Ghadir, who is in charge of the monastery showed us the icon and explained its history: In the 5th century the place was a military camp, and the small building in the centre already held an icon of St Elijah. The region was ruled by a Turk named Agha. The governor’s son tried to destroy the icon, damaging the eyes with the point of a dagger, and he was struck blind. Alerted by his men, the governor ran to the icon along with his son. He promised St Elijah to give him the surrounding land "as far as a horse could encircle in a day" if he healed his son. They both spent the night at the foot of the icon and in the morning the son saw the light: he had recovered his vision.
After a time of prayer, Archimandrite Ibrahim took us to visit his dispensary. He explained that the centre offers free treatment, with medical consultations once a week and distribution of medicine, especially for coronary problems.
He also explained that he feeds about 200 families by distributing food to their homes, because the local people’s pride will not allow them to beg or to be seen receiving charity from someone outside their family. He explains how it works in detail with its rota system and all the "tricks" they have to use so as not to be seen leaving food. They do this three times a week.
Vassula asked why he does not do it every day and the priest replied that he did not have the financial means for that. After hearing about the needs of the orphanage and food distribution, Vassula offered to set up a Beth Myriam. True Life in God would thus make up the shortfall for a daily distribution. Arrangements are already being made between the Beth Myriam organisers and Mgr Battikha. Before we left the Archimandrite gave us some refreshments and Vassula gave him the anthology of the Unity Messages in return.
The Syrian organisers had invited us for a meal but Mgr Battikha already had some surprises in store. After leading us through a network of streets, we had the honour and joy of visiting privately two splendid sanctuaries, since it was already quite late.
Saint Elian’s Orthodox Church containing the tomb of the martyr was shown to us by Fr Nadim Tamer, who is under the responsibility of Mgr George Abouzakhem of the Greek Orthodox Church. It is the only church – that of his home town – which is dedicated to him. His feast is celebrated on 6 February. In 284, the young Elian belonged to an important family in Homs, his father being the governor’s advisor. Apostasy was rife under the Roman persecutions and people had fallen back into pagan worship. Elian was a committed Christian and refused to make sacrifices to idols. He fasted, visited and brought comfort to people, distributing alms from the superfluity of his paternal home. He had learned and practised medicine and became renowned for it. The doctors in Homes, jealous of the healings he obtained, denounced him to his father as a Christian. His father, because of his social position, had him arrested and exhorted him to sacrifice to idols. But Elain refuses, he is tortured and his father pleads with him. But Elian will not give in. He is finally condemned by his own father to having his hands, feet and head pierced by twelve nails. After performing several miracles subsequently, his relics were transferred in the middle of the fifth century to the place where he was martyred, where a church dedicated to him had been built.
St Mary’s Cathedral at Om al-Zenar contains a rolled up belt of the Virgin Mary’s, discovered in 1852. It had been hidden during the persecutions in a hole made in the altar covered by a stone with the inscription that this church had been built in the year 59. History tells us that Saint Thomas was preaching in India when the Dormition of the Virgin Mary took place. So he asked her for a sign for the benefit of the new disciples, to testify to the Virgin’s Assumption into Heaven. The Blessed Virgin gave him this belt. The belt came back to the east with the apostle’s relics in 394. It was transferred to Homs in 476 then hidden with the relics of St Bassus until they were rediscovered. We were received very cordially by the priest in charge of the sanctuary, Father Silouanos Al Nehmeh of the Syrian Orthodox Church.
After another night walk in the streets of Homs, we returned to the hotel where we dined with our hosts, Mgr Isidore Battikha and his vicar Father Bernard, Archbishop Silouanos Al Nemeh, Archbishop Georges Abouzakhem of Greek Melkite Church, Archimandrite Elias Battikha, Archimandrite Ibrahim Sarrouj and the two brothers who had invited Vassula to Syria, Hanna and Raymond Egho.
The books vanish in a trice
Thursday 29 April. We left Vassula in the morning; she was to visit the Carmelites near Alep. She went separately with Yolla and our Syrian friends. The rest of the group traveled in a minibus to Alep by way of the ruins of Saint Simeon’s Cathedral and the famous norias (wheels with buckets to scoop up water from a stream for irrigation) in Hama.
We sang and prayed along the way until we stopped in front of the huge wheels at Hama. A deafening noise suddenly hit us: the colossal norias were lifting water from the river to the aqueduct at their summit. This perpetual movement, fed uniquely from the river formerly made the irrigation of the surrounding fields possible.
Our second stop was to visit Saint Simeon’s basilica, Qal’at Sem’an, consecrated in 475. Saint Simeon the Stylite or Simeon the Ancient, born in 386, was attracted to the ascetic life at a very young age.
He found perfection through extreme fasting, which attracted crowds to him. Desiring to retreat from the world, he first found refuge on top of a rocky crag about twenty meters square. This did not put off the crowds who came from far away to consult him. He decided to live on top of a pillar whose height it is said changed with time, being 4 meters high at the outset and ultimately reaching 15 meters. Tradition tells us that it was possible only to either stand or sit on it. The saint preached from this pinnacle twice a day. He died on 2 December 459 after spending 39 years on his column. A martyr’s shrine was set up at the pillar, which became a major place of pilgrimage. What is left of the pillar remains amidst the well preserved ruins of the basilica. With its surface area of 5000 sq m, it is equal in size to Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, despite its rural location. Four basilicas with three naves are built around an octagonal centre to form a Greek cross whose midpoint is slightly off centre, recalling the position of the head of the crucified Christ.
We then returned to Alep where the building regulations specify the use of stone. There are wonderful sculpted facades all along the route back to the hotel. After reuniting with Vassula and our hosts we ate together in the Christian part, in an old house built around a magnificent courtyard that is now a restaurant.
We were to meet later at the Franciscan Latin Church: Father George Abou Zakhm welcomed us on behalf of Mgr Joseph Nazaro, bishop of the local Roman Catholic Church, who was unwell and could not welcome Vassula personally. After Mgr Ferens’ testimony, Vassula talked to 400 people. The audience was captivated by her words and several members of the clergy were also present at the meeting. However, nothing had prepared us for the rush that followed to buy the books, and the sellers were overwhelmed by the demand, and with much jostling and commotion the books were gone in a few minutes!
On the way back we stopped briefly so that Vassula could visit the Greek Orthodox Metropolitan, Paul Yazigi. He was not familiar with the messages but he means to invite Vassula during her next visit to Syria.
That evening we were invited to dine with the families of the Syrian organisers. During the meal we received a call from the Mother Superior of the Carmelites Vassula had visited in the morning. The nuns knew the Messages but still had some unanswered questions, so they were not reading True Life in God. Vassula had replied patiently to their questions while she was witnessing to them. Mother Helen, who is familiar with the Messages and values them highly was calling one of the organisers to say that by God’s grace, after Vasula’s visit the sisters had been convinced and now want to read the Messages.
Heart on sleeve and hand on heart
Friday 30 April. We returned to Homs to attend the Mass celebrated by Mgr Battikha. After Mass, Mgr Ferens witnessed to the importance of the Messages of True Life in God and the urgency of Christian Unity. Then Vassula gave her testimony before a full church of 150 people.
Mgr Battikha invited us to lunch in a splendid restaurant set in a very ancient house built in a square with a typical courtyard in the centre. During the meal Mgr Battikha explained that because of his nationality, he is not allowed to go to the Holy Land. Nevertheless, by God’s grace, he was able to go there once, a few years ago. He made a few purchases of some beautiful medallions of the Church of the Nativity with the Holy Sepulchre with on the back. Because he wished to show his high regard for Vassula and Mgr Ferens he gave them each one of these medallions. Not content with this generous gesture, he gave a gilded plate showing an icon of the Virgin and Child or Christ the Pantocrator to each of the families who were there.