Being Orthodox Christian in a Muslim Lebanon
by Nadezda Livanova
Nadezda was born in Moscow in 1976. Her first education is a primary school teacher, and she graduated from the Moscow University of Psychology and Education. Currently she works as a pre-school psychologist. She is married, has a son and a daughter, takes interest in family psychology, tourism, and likes Arabic culture.
I was born in Moscow where my mother always lived, and my father had a Lebanese origin. When I was about three years old my brother and I were sent to Lebanon because our parents were students, and taking care of us — who tended to be constantly sick — was hard for them, while there were fruits and sun in Lebanon.
We lived with our grandparents. Grandmother Asmat was a deeply devoted Muslim and a very obedient wife. She married grandfather not by love, but by the wish of her parents and gave birth to 4 daughters and 1 son. She used to get up very early, give breakfast to her husband before he went to work and then she cleaned the entire apartment, all 100 square meters, centimeter by centimeter. At the same time she managed to cook unbelievable dishes and nothing ever was overcooked! Grandmother was praying 5 times a day, having washed feet, face and — in a special way — hands before that. I knew she wasn’t to be bothered during this time and I just watched her.
When grandfather went home at lunchtime he had to be fed well and put to sleep. We ran to him and kissed the hand that was giving bread to us, the hand of the oldest man in the family. I liked this ceremony a lot and I always, even nowadays, kiss the hand of my father and touch it with my forehead as a sign of respect. Honoring wise parents is wonderful! Because thus we provide respect for our old age and wisdom in the future. Kids from such families will never send their old parents to a retirement home, will not yell at them or, worse, beat them or make them live in the street. Well, when my husband gives me money or does anything good I also kiss his hand. At first he used to pull it away, but I explained to him that it was me who needed it more than him. Now, when I want to kiss his hand he kisses mine at the same time.
My mother took me to be baptized at the age of 6. I remember a small church in the center of Moscow. It was very crowded, the priest was reading a prayer and I felt peace in my soul. My mother asked us not to tell our father where we went and we were silent. And then, when I was about 12 years old mother secretly took me to the Novodevichiy monastery.
There was a service when I entered the church. Everything around was so solemn, bright and cozy and I realized that I felt very good there and didn’t want to leave the place. Then Mother met father Mikhail and he started teaching us the way of truth. We began reading the prayers, observing fasts and going to services. The most difficult part was to hide from father our crosses and our thoughts.
When father finally found everything out he was very angry with our mother and was saying that he didn’t tell us anything about Islam so that we could make our own choice when we grow up. We stopped hiding our faith, openly prayed and went to church.
Then he started to read the Koran loudly and preached Islam. But later he gave up and even went to church with us from time to time.
At the age of 17 I entered Bogoslovsky (Theological) institute. Father was asking me questions about the Orthodox faith, teachings and dogmatics, and I was trying to tell him everything I learned and understood myself. The more I learned the more I could see that everything in the Orthodox faith was logical and had a deep meaning. Every rite, every common rule in the Orthodox tradition didn’t just appear by itself but is directly connected with the main content of the faith. A reasoned answer can be given to any question of the type “why do you do that?”.
And father was led to the Lord as Thomas! At first there was a miracle in the Diveevsky monastery. My sister Dasha and I returned to the pilgrimage hotel after the evening service, where our father, whom mother made go with us, was waiting for us. He started making fun of us and said that if all of this were true, he would have a dream about it! In the morning we woke up from his shouts:
“Why didn’t you hear me when I called you?”
We told him that we heard nobody. And he replied that he saw the Mother of God in his dream, who sent an icon from the sky, which slowly sailed to him in the air. Dad yelled, but no one heard. He opened his eyes only when this icon touched his forehead. I immediately realized that this was a favorite icon of St. Seraphim of Sarov “Umilenie”, but told him to look for it in the church. After the Liturgy I heard that father cried: “Here it is! Mother of God, have mercy!” He was on his knees before the icon “Umilenie”, was crossing himself and bowing! Soon after this my father was baptized!
I really liked how he answered the people who condemned him:
“Tell me who is cleaner? The Lord, who prayed and preached, or Muhammad, who had 14 wives, and the youngest was 9 years old?”
Relatives — faithful Muslims — were silent!
One more miracle happened in Jerusalem. During the summer of 1995 we went on pilgrimage through Turkey, Greece, Egypt, and then to Jerusalem. It was an unforgettable trip! I remember how we went with Dad and a nun from the Odessa Monastery to the pillar where they beat Christ. If you put your ear to that column you can distinctly hear the sounds of whips and the groans of pain. My father and I heard this and were amazed, while the nuns could not hear anything and were looking at us with big eyes. He asked them ”Don’t you hear?” They shook their heads, tried to listen in many places, but they couldn’t hear it! That’s how the Lord can send a miracle!
I have my beloved aunts, uncles and cousins in Lebanon. They all are Muslims.
When I became Orthodox and learned the basics of faith, I didn’t hide it. At first they were terrified. A Muslim father should always have Muslim children and a Muslim wife, but my mother managed to baptize her kids and even her husband! They say it was the first case in the whole history of Lebanon.
Later my relatives gave up and tried to find out the sense and strength of my faith. I talked to them in Arabic-French-English and explained my point of view. And the main thing was that being Russian and looking at our history, I could clearly see that without the help of the Mother of God, the blessings of Sergey of Radonezh and other saints, we couldn’t be saved from invasions of enemies who always want to destroy and wipe out our motherland. That seemed to have persuaded them and they left me alone, and just used to quietly put my cross inside should it happen to be over my clothes. I know that we pray about each other in different ways but with a great love.
Three years ago I went to Lebanon and saw my sisters. We couldn’t stop talking and were crying. One of my younger sisters, Rania, made me happy by telling that now Christians and Muslims can study together in Lebanon and she even went to her Christian friend’s house and read the Bible there.
Once during Bright week we went with my father to the monastery Saidet Al Nuria which is on Mount Hamet. My father talked to a priest there and I was astonished by his simple explanation of the Trinity.
“Look at a lamp. It has shape, it gives light and warmth. Three in one!”
But most of all I was astonished when the invited us to go to a little chapel on the property of the monastery where Simeon the Stylite built his pillar and prayed.
We opened the chapel, sang the tropari to Pascha, and he asked me to sing them again in Russian. My voice echoed all around the chapel, and I understood that it was a miracle!
This mountain is also famous by the fact that there is a cave, where the Lebanese Metropolitan Elia Karam prayed for Russia during World War II. He had been praying for 3 days when he suddenly fell asleep. In a dream he saw the Mother of God who told him that he was to contact Stalin and to tell him to set the priests free, to open churches, to serve a Liturgy and to go with the icon of the Mother of God of Kazan around Moscow – then the enemy will retreat. A documentary “I heard a voice from heaven!”, was made about this, and my parents were actively involved in it.
I can tell many interesting things, but in this case I can only say
“That’s how the uncombinable combines in my life!”
Sarah Hodgins says
Thank you for this lovely article! What a great dream your father had!