The venerable Joseph was in his thirties when he retired from the world and came to live alone, as a recluse, in an abandoned hermitage on a shoulder of the Kadisha Valley in the northern part of Lebanon. There was much disagreement among the villagers as to why Joseph had come to dwell in the derelict building. Some said he was the son of a noble family who had been betrayed by a woman and had come here to find a retreat where there would be solace in solitude. Others maintained that he was a poet of the imagination who had fled from the clamour of the city to a place where he can gather his thoughts, study his passions, and write down his reflections without disturbance. There were those who said he was a mystic who wished to worship outside the strictures of orthodox religion. The more brutal villagers said simply that Joseph was a madman. It may well be that he combined all these attributes in his unsettled psyche.
Nevertheless, as I watched these reactions to the outsider, I realised that no one could know what secrets could dwell deep inside another’s soul and that suspicions could not reveal another’s mysteries; not that they could be revealed by guessing. But that did not mean that this stranger’s conversation should be treated with wintry coldness. Twice I attempted to approach Joseph to discover his intentions and aspirations that brought him to our village, to befriend him after he withdrew having endured piercing, dagger stares and sharp words, alienated by coldness and disdain.
The first time I resolved to speak to him was when I found him near the grove of cedar trees close to his humble sanctuary, where I approached him with goodwill and friendship, the feelings that spontaneously came to mind. But he only responded by shaking his head and turning to move away quickly. The second time, I found him standing in the middle of a small vineyard near the hermitage and went towards him saying, “Yesterday I heard that this hermitage had been built by a Syrian hermit who lived in the fourteenth century. Did you know that, Sir?”
He replied to me in a rough, churlish tone, “I do not know who built the Hermitage; nor do I want to know who built it.” As he strode off he added mockingly, over his shoulder, “Do you really think that the young of this place will be interested in the history of this valley as they get older?” I felt myself covered in shame for my intrusion. Yet over the next two years the secret of this man’s life before he had come to this country fired my imagination and haunted my dreams, so that my thoughts were not my own.
The silver days of autumn had begun one September when I found myself wandering along the slopes not far from the property Joseph had taken over for his private use. I was taken by surprise when a storm of heavy rain began to fall. It was being driven by a wind from the raging sees that was driving ships towards the shore, as the typhoon ripped their sails. I turned towards the hermitage in the hope of that its occupant would condone a visit in such circumstances, and allow me a refuge from the foul weather. I stood at the threshold of the hermitage, drenched, windswept and bedraggled; but I did not have time to knock at the door before I saw a man coming out from among the cedars, carrying in his hand a bird whose head was wounded and bloody, that looked to be in its death throes, beating out the last breath of its life with its agitated wings.
I greeted him as solicitously as I could, saying, “Excuse my intrusion, Sir, for encroaching on your courtesy, but this tempest is severe and does not look likely to abate for some time.”
He gazed at me sullenly before answering in a surly tone that revealed he did not feel under any obligation to uninvited guests, “There are many caves in this neighbourhood where you can find a place to wait out the storm if you can be bothered looking.”
His words appeared to affect the bird in his hand which turned its head as if he were resurrecting from the dead. I was astonished and confused by the conflicting mixture of clemency and harshness in the hermit’s behaviour, coming to the surface of his character at the same moment. As if he read my thoughts from the expression in my face, he seemed to feel he must explain himself. “The storm hovering is not acid that will devour you; there is no need to fear it; why do you flee it?”
I replied, “The storm is not like acid; but neither is it honey sweet. It is cold and wet and likely to leave me with a nasty chill if I go back into it.”
An impish delight lit up his countenance as he jeered, “If the storm does not eat away at you as you struggle for the summit, you may not gain honours that you may deserve.”
Unfazed, I answered his chaffing remark: “Yes, Sir, I have come to you, fleeing from the storm, without regretting any honours I may no longer deserve as a consequence.”
He turned his face, trying to hide a small smile. As if relenting, he pointed to a wooden bench near the hearth with raging fire burning in it and said, “Sit down and dry your clothes.” I thanked him as I sat down by the comforting blaze. He sat opposite me on a seat carved into the rock of the hermitage walls, where he dipped a cloth into a clay bowl and daubed the bird with an ointment: “This blackbird had the courage to fight against the wind which pelted him against the rocks so that now he hovers between the land of the living and the country of the dead”.
I told him, “The wind may have also carried me to your door, dear Sir; otherwise, I could not be certain whether the storm was more intent on raking me up from the ground towards the sky or smashing my head against the rocks on the ground.”
He looked into my face accusingly before scolding me, “It would be better if humans had the temperaments of birds which are not willing to change the course of their flight until their wings are broken and the heads are split open. But the human heart is marred by cowardice and fear. Men do not salute the storm but tremble before it, and seek to hide in the cracks of the earth, to cringe in caves.” Given this criticism of humanity, it was perhaps unfair of him to tell me to hide in a cave.
I followed up his observations with some of my own: “Yes, the bird is not a reflection of man, who lives in the sheltering shadows of the laws and traditions that serve as masks for his passions and shameful desires. The bird lives according to the law of nature, its wings outspread as it flies around the sun.”
My host’s eyes gleamed, his dilated pupils seemed to fill his lean features with the quickness of deep understanding, so that he spoke cordially, if with a degree of marvellous condescension: “Well done, well done. So you think the traditions of men are corrupt and evil, as well as trivial; but the bird’s instinctive migration towards some distant land where its mother gave birth in her nest to her chicks is a heavenly truth that proves its nobility of spirit.”
I replied, “I think in some respects, yes.”
He raised his hand and said, in a voice that sounded stern with conviction in condemnation of human failings: “Many of us will claim to believe one thing yet act in a way contrary to these claims. There are many who praise the cleanness of the sea but stay close to the stinking swamps and the boggy marshes. Many men raise their heads above the tops of mountains but their souls remain dormant in the darkness of the caves.” There he was, back to his caves again, though he was quite willing to find shelter for himself and his bird in his stone cabin.
Having voiced his misanthropic opinion, he did not give me the opportunity for reply, but rose from his place and stretched the wings of the blackbird by the open window where he had left a meal of sesame seeds for him close to where he could view his natural environment. He then took some more faggots from a wood pile by the hearth and placed them in the fire, telling me, “Take off your shoes dry your feet dry; the damp is harmful to humans, just as is everything else. Dry you clothes as well; don’t be shy.”
Placed near the fire the wet garments dried in the heat of the flames steam rising from them to form little clouds around my head; but the fire also seemed to fill my host with a quiet rage as he stood by the hermitage door staring into the space beyond it. After a while I dared to ask him, “Did you come to this hermitage long ago, before the villagers knew of your presence here?”
He answered me, without turning around towards me, “I came to this the Hermitage with Him when the earth was a wilderness, pure and uncorrupted, when the face of God peered into the deep darkness of the earth, and the spirit of God moved upon the surface of the waters.”
I remained silent, concerned that I was in the presence of a lunatic suffering from a Jesus complex; I spoke to myself secretively, “This fellow is pretty much an odd fellow; or he demands of those who would know him to traverse a very difficult path to find the truth that will reveal him. But I must endure his capricious, cryptic conversation if I am to penetrate his hidden nature. I will endure his harsh façade until it softens towards me and he feels more comfortable with him.” Listening to myself think, I wondered if Joseph’s lunacy was contagious.
In the night the rain fell incessantly, immersing the acacia trees that stood around the hermitage in the darkness; yet the pattering sound of the downpour on the leaves and branches of the trees had a soothing rhythm. Yet I became anxious when the storm continued through the following day with endless torrents of rain; I wondered if the second flood had come to destroy mankind and cleanse the earth of sin. But in the evening, there were signs of a shift in the feeling of aversion towards me in the behaviour of my learned host; his certain animus softened as he stood up and lit the stove. He then put a jar full to the brim with wine before me, together with plates of bread, cheese, dried fruit and olives, and a pot of honey. Having set the table, he sat before me and invited me to join him in his meal, saying gently, “Please share my sustenance, my brother.”
We took our humble meal in silence while outside the noise of the wind howled and the patter of the rain turned to into a mournful weeping. But I was drawn to the haunted expression on the recluse’s countenance which I looked at between each morsel, studying his features in the shifting light of the flickering flames, flames that revealed how the night played havoc with his conscience.
Once we had done justice to the meal he took the pot of fragrant coffee in his hand, pouring the delicious beverage into our cups; he then opened a box of dried tobacco leaves and quietly asked me, “Would you care to smoke, my brother?”
I took a leaf and rolled it into a cheroot; then as I raised the cup of coffee in my hand I marvelled at the comfort of the hermitage, an easy way of life I would not have believed if I had not witnessed it with my own eyes. He looked at me as if he had read my thoughts. He shook his head as he smiled, took a moment to light his cigar, sipped his coffee, and asked me, “Are you surprised that I have wine with my meal, followed by coffee and that I smoke of tobacco in this retreat.” He was irksomely smug, but I was still curious about him, so I willingly listened to him. “I do not blame you for being surprised by the presence of good if simple food and a comfortable bed. Indeed, you are like many others who suspect that an anchorite who puts a distance between himself and the world and his fellow man still yearns for the ordinary human pleasures though he must delight in them secretly.”
I replied, “Yes, my kind host, I take the customary view that those who retire from the world in order to worship God leave behind everything in the world, all the pleasures and secrets, to be able to live alone in the austerity of asceticism, on a diet of bread and herbs.”
He said: “It would be better if I could worship God as a manifestation of His creation, without having to worship Him as the only God, unilaterally, while He worshiped the God within me. I did not leave the world to find God, for one can find Him everywhere, not only in his consecrated house. But I fled from humankind because my brothers no longer follow the moral law. My dreams do not conform to their dreams. It was as if I were caught between two spinning wheels suspended in air without making progress. I gave up religious worship because it was like an old tree that was corrupted by its own enormous, ancestral power, with its roots sunk deep into the earth while its upper boughs cracked and echoed in the heavens, beyond the very clouds. The flowers of the fields were corrupted by the evil crimes that triggered woe, misery and anguish. I have sought protection from the vile nature of humanity and consolation in the unpolluted nature. Others have sought a similar remedy but they did not succeed; they died helpless against the oppression and deeply despondent.”
Reclining beside the stove I found myself thrilled by the effect of his words; he had raised his voice as if he were addressing an assembly to inveigle them to join some new religion: “No, I did not seek divine guidance to this hermitage, asking for a place where I could give myself to prayer, to sing from my heart, for the ears of God, to mix my hymns with those of thousands of voices, thousands and thousands shrieking for redemption. I did not come to this sanctuary to conquer the weakness of the flesh, nor the eagerness for mortal sin. The place where we seek salvation does not matter so long as we treat our bodies as temples of the soul and strive to keep them clean, strong temples for the divinity that resides within them.
“No, my brother I did not ask for a refuge where I could pray in austere solitude. Instead I sought a place where I could flee from liturgies and the sanctimonious rituals so dear to the people who worship the Almighty according to their sacred traditions through which calm contemplation is lost in the noisy howls of public worship. I sought solitude in order that my insight into the soul would not be obstructed by any man who embellished humanity, who taught that the soul was innately virtuous despite the stain of Original Sin. I asked for an escape from women one meets walking the world’s roads and by-ways infecting men with desire for their coyly turned necks, their dimpled smiles, their fetching eyes, the thousand smiles that shape their mouths; their charming witchcraft that pierces deep into the hearts of men with a single, lewd purpose.”
He hadn’t finished yet but went on with all the more vehemence: “We seek individuality; we don’t want to sit grouped with others who only have half knowledge, who insist that their imaginings provide certainty; they who would come into one’s house without purpose fixed into an orbit of circumlocution, vigilant for ghosts that are the illusions of essence in their vacuous utterances. I looked for this retreat because I am weary of the coarse bravado of those who think that kindness comes from weakness and the fear of blows; who believe that indulgence is a form of cowardice, and take pride in punishing those they despise for their meekness.”
“I sought solitude for myself because I was weary of sharing the labours of living with those who think that the sun, the moon and the planets shine in the heavens for any reason except to be their treasures, baubles to keep in their pockets. I fled from the politicians who manipulate the nations they govern for their own ambitions; they who refrain my from nothing for the sake of the gold that glitters in their minds’ eyes. The ears of congregations echo with the sermons of priests whose lessons are filled with demands for tithes on the collection plates, to give their churches sole control over them, extorting their livelihood from the faithful with threats of damnation and hellfire…But I would not accept anything from the hands of my fellow man that I felt I had not earned through my heart. Unity of belief under monolithic control generates the worst form of civilisation, a state that blows away the national and religious structures it claims to shield, but which prove to be its shaping tools. It becomes manifest that the construction has a foundation of mounds of human skulls.”
He hardly paused for breath before continuing with his after dinner speech: “I asked for solitude because in the singular life a man may learn the uniqueness and sufficiency of the individual soul and of its complements: the intellect and the heart and the flesh. I sought an empty piece of land because there the sunlight and the smell of flowers and rhythms of nature are clearer and its songs are the more readily perceived. I sought out a place in the mountains where vigilance would be rewarded as I longed for the transitions signalled by the songs of each season, of spring and summer and autumn and winter songs. I came to this solitary hermitage because I want to learn the secrets of the land that evidence even the subjectivity of the throne of God, as well as the singular majesty of all creation.”
As he spoke his face reflected superior will and strength, not that lunatics cannot have such characteristics. I passed a few minutes drinking in the revelations of his purpose and his beliefs, happy that he had shared his confidences with me. Now that he now seemed less inclined to block my curious inquiries, I ventured to protest: “You are right in everything,” I agreed, “but you see, my teacher, but you are able to offer a diagnosis of the diseases that trouble the world. But imagine if you had a daughter afflicted with a disease that you did not understand and the doctors refused to visit her to give a diagnosis. If no doctor would diagnose her symptoms, you would not be able to apply a remedy. The world is in dire need of men like you; it is unjust that you should withdraw from the people whom you are able to help.”
He stared at me for a moment as if collecting a sound reply to my implicit accusations, though when he replied his voice was accented with despair as he strove to justify his life as a hermit: “From the beginning of time, doctors have struggled to succour the sick, to cure their illnesses. Some of them used invasive surgery and some of them came with medicines and powders; but in time their patients all died without hope because there is no hope. If they had a lifetime to save their patients from death it would not be long enough to save them from the infections made worse by bed sores where the ignorant sick wallow in grimy, unwashed bed linen, wrapped like mummies up to their necks. Their agues choke the lives out of them even as they lie abed hoping for recovery.”
He seemed to think doctors should provide some elixir of immortality; but I didn’t say so. Anyway, he was warming to his subject so he continued without deigning to pay me any attention: “The futility of healing exasperates me so that the blood in my veins becomes a fire, the fire that burns in the heart of any doctor who tries to defeat disease and filth that turn him into a burnt offering. When the doctor falls to the diseases he fought against, the one who closes his eyes in death may say of him, ‘He was truly a great doctor,’ … but he was not, my brother. There is no one among the people who can benefit the people. He who attempts to benefit them is not even as wise or skilful as the foolish cultivator who tills the soil in his fields during the cold days of winter.”
I answered him, saying: “Winter defines world, my teacher, just as much as the gorgeous flowers that blossom in spring adorning the fields, the mountains and the valleys.”
It was clear he thought I was a simpleton, for he put his hand over his nose, between his eyes, and sighed, his voice choked by gloomy despair, though he hissed, “It would be poetic justice if God the Creator were condemned to an eternity of changing seasons living the lives of men. Do rewards follow the seasons from year to year, and from age to age? Is it true that the spirits of the human dead will come to the surface in thousands upon thousands to claim their rights from a loving God? Will there come a time when men sit in glory, on some appointed day, to bask in the light of eternal life, in joy and tranquility once the darkness of the grave has been left behind? Do you wonder if this covenant will be kept once the earth has been inundated with human flesh and blood?”
He straightened himself, and then launched into his beliefs regarding dreams, arguing that they were links between the empirical world up and the preternatural world that was a mystery to man. He began: “Those dreams that seem to be of distant places, not the ones that unravel in this hermitage or in a familiar house guide us on our future paths; it was a dream that led me here. Dreams are not the things I know with certainty or clarity, or the places that I frequent, the valleys and the mountains in this place; but dreams can lead dreamers to a new reality that becomes familiar. There are things I am sure exist, objects and sensations that exist in their own right-the pangs of hunger in the pit of my belly; the irresistible impulse to sneeze. I do not question my right to eat the bread of life and or to drink the goblet of wine that I hold in my hand. I left the tables of the wealthy and powerful who provide sumptuous banquets and came here where I could be free of debt, including the debt claimed by religion, and I will stay there until the end.”
As he walked back and forth in the centre of that room of his home I thought over his words and compared them with the character drawn of him by the local villagers who had portrayed him in dark colours and harsh lines. I stopped his toing and froing to say, “I admire your thoughts and feel honoured that you have shared them with me, my teacher, and I respect your decision to live the life of an anchorite, to define your individual path. But as one who knows he lacks learning, I regret your flight from the world, that our unfortunate nation has lost a talented man, able to serve it and to awake its collective intelligence.”
He raised his head to make a reply, “This is not a nation but merely a tribe of gentiles all, people whose minds are no more than unevolved protoplasms; they are all mindless conformists who do not differ from each other except in outward appearances, and even these differences are negligible, a nation choking on self-pity.”
I was getting a more certain impression that he was a very bitter misanthrope, but he didn’t seem concerned about giving that impression as he continued in much the same vein: “I suspect that the entire earth is just a strange copy of something else, the ghost of another ghost, where all humanity is driven by empty vanity. Men take delight in their hypocrisy, in taking a pen between their fingers to defraud their fellow men even as they wash out superficial filth. Everything they touch is polluted, even though they wear silks and live in palatial houses. But lies and deceit are not changed into honesty by usage. If a charlatan rode at the front of a train by becoming a nation’s leader, or even if he ascended in a balloon towards Heaven, his greed does not become any lighter, and his crimes do not become virtues; he remains bound by the commitments for which he has contracted. Obversely, the victims of vicious men continue to suffer. The slave who lives a life in bondage, those who endured slavery in the past, remain in slavery in death. Though the fashion may change, though those in bondage may receive benefits denied those who went before them, they are still shackled by servitude.”
He hardly paused before going on; I suspect he was starved of an audience living for two years in his hermitage. He continued, “Oh my brother do not think there is a particular Western view of evil as distinct from an Eastern view, or that the basest evil is Western. If there is any difference it is no more than that between the wolf and the hyena. When I have studied the salient distinctions between bodies of laws in various nations, on the surface they appear just in their provisions for protecting the unfortunate, the workers and the ignorant; and assurances that they will not differentiate the law according to religious denomination or race or gender.”
My heart had reached a point where it was alarmed and confounded so that I said, “That which is close to us is just as false as everything else, from what you say.”
He answered irritably, saying, “Yes, there is nothing but vanity and everything is void of reality. It doesn’t matter what choices we make, because there is no enlightenment; we are all mere playthings, plagued with doubts when we try to see through the darkness; or lost in an unbearable tedium when we surrender to ignorance. We struggle to shorten the distances we must traverse the mountains and valleys or to overcome the vagaries of the sea. But empty space is a dishonest teacher that blows smoke in our eyes; that does not sustain the heart or elevate the self. Riddles that ask to be solved, are artful illusions in the form of golden chains that ensnare men in futile quests.
“Men are cheered by the bright colour and the merry tinkling of their chains; they are ignorant that they are imprisoned by the exquisite columns of vain thought and prejudices that obstruct the free movement of their feet into the world beyond his cage. Men do not realise they are in prisons of their own making, that they are enchained by quackery. … Yes, vain are the acts of men, and in their vanity they are intent on throwing away truth, and sweeping away their natural desire for truth; everything upon the earth becomes futile. As humanity is beguiled by one untruth after another, it creates only self-love and longing for what cannot be. Nor does mankind distinguish between the commands of a dictator and the fellowship of the nation, though they are not the one thing.”
I said: “What is the remedy then, mentor?”
He stood silent for a moment, though I knew it wouldn’t be long before he would have something else to say. But first, he closed his eyes, and put his hands on his chest, no doubt where he felt his heartbeat. I could empathise with him: I often feel my own heartbeat when I doubt that I am alive. His face shone and his skin became smooth, as if the lines of worry had disappeared after his outpouring of anguish. Yet he was still vigilant from the depths of his deep soul as he renewed his lesson: “It is difficult to understand how an idea can penetrate the human conscience unawares, as if spontaneously and open it to insights that imbue it with life-sustaining rhythms, so that human beings can stand upright like towers of light that join the earth with infinity. Such insights are torches that flare in the conscience reminding us of our existence, inflaming our spirits with a wildfire that frees us from our strictures, so that our souls are freed to fly away into the broad expanses of space. The passion in the heart of the individual urges him to stand, astounding those who oppress him, who condemn those who rebel against the established order, the rebels who they believe cannot understand their secrets.
“It was as if a hidden hand had removed a film from my eyes and I could see myself in the centre of a gathering of friends and neighbours in the town where I was born. In amazement I said to myself: ‘What are these faces, and do I owe any loyalty to them? How did I come to know them and where have I met them? Should I sit with them and enjoy their conversation? Is it strange that all t own hose in the homes where I passed my life my own mother and her daughter have converted to Islam to find the keys to salvation?’ Images of ghosts that did not want to show themselves haunted my own mind, when I saw him extend his arms as if trying to embrace the whole world.
“It is now four years since I left my village and came to live in this wilderness where I am free to keep my mind alert, to enjoy the passion and the serenity to be found in my own thoughts.”
He walked toward the door of the hermitage, where he stood looking into the depths of the night, and then exclaimed, as if addressing the storm, “You waken the depths of the soul but you cannot show the passions there how to speak; those who are ignorant of the storm cannot know its secrets nor find the key to liberate the rages and longings that trouble his soul.”
Long hours passed by without a whispered thought passing between us as the proud Joseph listened to the call of the storm, walking back and forth in the middle of the stone cabin, only stopping his nervous pacing to stand in the doorway, staring into gloomy space. Before I had met this taciturn poet, his spirit churned without him having another to touch with his words; he thought he could live his life in solitude.
At the expiration of the second watch of the night, when I continued to keep company with him, he came close to me and looked long into my face as if he wanted to carve it in his memory, to draw the image permanently into his heart, so that he would not forget the first disciple he had permitted into the mystery of oneness with nature; he then prepared to hurry away, though he spoke with slow deliberation: “I am now going to wander around in the storm. It is usually a delight to run through the rain as it falls in the winter … there’s coffee in the pot and if you like to help yourself there is wine in the jar. If you want to sleep you will find blankets and pillows in the closet.”
Having fulfilled the duties of hospitality, he wrapped himself in a thick, black cloak, his face broadening into a smile. He exhorted me, “Please shut the door to the hermitage when you leave in the morning because I will spend all day tomorrow among the cedars.”
He walked toward the door, picking up a long walking stick by the handle as he went. Before going out into the storm, he said, “If ever you are caught by surprise in a storm again when you are in this neighbourhood, please do not hesitate to take refuge in this hermitage. But I hope that you come to know yourself so that you will be able to love storms, not fear them … there is love in the darkness, my brother.”
He hurried out into the night. I stood in the doorway of the hermitage to watch him go his part, but he was hidden by the darkness. However, in a few minutes I could hear his footsteps on the scree that covered the part of the valley where he walked.”
By the time morning had come the storm had passed and the clouds had floated away; the rocks in the forest now emerged dressed in the light of the sun. I left the hermitage, being careful to shut the door on my way out, just as Joseph had asked, mindful of his pride in vigilance that made him so forceful.
But I have not ventured into other people’s homes urging them to abandon their fellows, to roam free in the wilderness; such musings invoke voices in my mind which accuse me, saying, “Surely the secret of spiritual awakening is the creation of something for mankind. That is the real purpose of existence.”
For is the true purpose of vigilance to watch over those who are close to us, to arrest them as they are on the verge of folly, and to teach them how to act according to reason? Is the purpose of vigilance not to reconcile denials of existence with evidence of existence? It may be that the things close to us are fleeting; or they may be eternal. Through observation we can gain knowledge that enables the formulation of laws that lead to peace of mind so that we need not fear the forces that storm beyond the door.”
I did not meet Joseph again because of his pride in his solitude; I stayed away from northern Lebanon the following that autumn when we met in the country where he lived in self-imposed exile, in the hermitage where he fought with madness.