Lebanon - Beirut

A Saint with the perfume of cedars.

An Italian who visits the churches of Beirut and the Christian areas of Lebanon can experience the joyful welcome of a “fellow citizen” who is known and highly venerated. It is St. Rita who for some Lebanese is not only a Saint of Lebanon but also from Lebanon! Popular piety feels she is so close that it can only imagine her as a fellow citizen. And they are not entirely wrong. Rita’s nuptial monastic sensitivity, the radicality of her love for Jesus, the entrenchment of the cross in her existence, and the chiaroscuro of impossible-possible that distinguishes her life are all aspects that make her smell of cedars, a saint made to fit for Lebanon.

I could not be more concrete in the description because the parish where I spent my childhood until the day I moved to Italy at 18 years of age is the parish of St. Rita. My mother confided to me more than once: “Blessed be God! I adore the Lord and I love Our Lady, but when I want to chat with ‘on high’, I feel so close to St. Rita.

I know that she was a mother and did not have an easy life, and I feel that she understands me”. This devotion has nothing to do with hagiolatry (“paganical” adoration of the saints, Ed.). Instead, it is an authentic expression of a communion of saints that is not made of theories and dogmatic definitions but the simplicity with which the bonds with the glorious Church are interwoven, with a faith awareness that heavenly glory is not synonymous with amnesia about earthly life.

My mother is one of the many mothers and so many Lebanese who see a sure and faithful help in Rita in a country where life has so many “impossibles”. This explains the spread of the name Rita (it is more common than the name “Maria” for girls in Lebanon!). It also explains the great feasts held on May 22nd with great preparations on many levels.

In our parish we get prepared spiritually by making a novena of Masses and prayers. A Triduum of evening lectures introduce to Rita’s spirituality, and the young people get prepared with a kermesse for the parish youth groups. Finally, the Bishop of Beirut celebrates the main Mass on the feast day.

If we ask ourselves the reason for this devotion, there are many. One in particular is surely Rita’s both extraordinary and everyday holiness, a holiness lived in the shadow of the cross, just like the Lebanese Christians’ life. To avoid the cross is an illusion: it is like wanting the day without the night and the light without the shadow. Lebanon, like Iraq and the rest of the Middle East, looks at the parable of Saint Rita’s life with the hope of seeing the path of its resurrection in it, an image that is very deeply rooted in the minds of the “fellow citizens of the Phoenix”. (By Robert Cheaib)


Testimony also published in No. 1-2011 of From the Bees to the Roses.