O God where is your mercy? A Jesuit reflects on the blast that damaged Beirut.
It was my first day back to work after a short summer break which I spent at home in Regina observing non-essential travel, reading and listening to music. Regardless of the initial seeming mundaneness of the day, August 4th is a day I will not forget for a very long time: it was the day that Beirut, the city of my birth, my childhood, and my entire teen years became as good as pile of rubble and ashes.
Although I no longer have legal status in Lebanon since the year I immigrated to Canada in 1981, the blast of August 4 became a catalyst, a major shift in how I regard the people of Lebanon. I am not going to describe the political side of Lebanon; I will leave that to the experts and historians of the region.
Nevertheless, I want to reflect how, in the past year, something in me was shifting towards the needs of the Lebanese: especially given recent events,I am taking time to reflect on the human suffering in a country known for the majesty of its cedars, its mountains, its exquisite cuisine (among many other things), as well as a nation hosting many refugees.
Since August 4th, the news coverage provided extensive exposition of the political sectarian system in Lebanon (along with the elite social class that benefitted them); what the media also (and bravely exposed) were the sufferings of the Lebanese from the blast.
The videos that I watched, while most were taken by mobile phones, captured the majority of the blast in a mushroom shape of smoke seconds before the blast extensively damaged almost an entire capital. After seeing such videos, I immediately called some friends and relatives there to check on their safety, only to find out how devastated they were with the entire situation.
One of them told me “Beirut is damaged.” Those phone connections were real, powerful, extremely authentic, yet enormously confusing and emotionally exhausting. Luckily, I was far from the explosion; yet, I was not far from it. This realization, alone, awakened within me how one remains connected to one’s place of childhood and early youth.
Last year, for two weeks in July 2019, I visited Lebanon for the first time since 1981. The reason for my visit was a conference which was attended by other Jesuits who minister to and work with Muslims around the globe.
International Jesuits met in the Beqaa Valley situated between two series of mountains, the western one which borders Syria. After the conference was over, I took an extra few days to visit the country, to rekindle some memories, to re-connect with relatives, and to meet with my godfather.
Needless to say, it was a trip in which I had a sense of travelling back in time: I visited two of my former schools, checked on my old neighbourhood and met one of my old neighbours. One can only imagine that there was a lot of personal news to catch up on after 38 years.
Fast forward from a year ago, to what I experienced a few weeks ago: Lebanon is now truly suffering from poverty, low purchasing power of their currency, high youth unemployment, high inflation, dysfunctional distribution of utilities, and a society divided by the ideologies of religion and political privileges.
Today, I cherish the conversations I had with taxi drivers in Lebanon a year ago who had (and I suspect have) the habit of sharing their family news and their daily frustrations with their clients. On a good day, many of these drivers make a daily profit equivalent to US $5 or 6 dollars.
Their stories moved me a year ago; their stories highlighted what the common Lebanese people were going through.
August 4, 2020, was different: these stories, now a year ago, feel very distant. This year was certainly a different year for Lebanon which has had so many decades of strife and instability.
Within hours of the blast, the story of many volunteers started to emerge. Those volunteers were cleaning the streets of their capital from the broken window glass, removing their dead from under the rubble, transporting the injured to places of safety, and moving patients from damaged hospitals (even the injured helped carry the more seriously injured citizens to safer places).
Facebook messages were downloaded informing the whereabouts of many people, (some people are still missing today!). Through these volunteers who embodied the resilient hope needed for their country, the human Lebanon became crystal clear to me.
When the injured helped other injured persons, it was apparent that the blast did not break the soul of a people, even though it destroyed their capital causing enormous suffering and anger.
A city, after all, is not just a compound of buildings, highways, electricity and so on, but it is a people who want to build families, engage with meaningful work, and who know their thirst for justice as they struggle to bring about a kinder world. This is the essential role of many cities of the world (and further reason I have always admired Ignatius of Loyola’s love for cities).
In the video clips, I saw rather clearly the Two Standards described in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. The first standard destroys, dehumanizes, and promotes enormous suffering with causes far from praising God and serving God’s people; the second standard reaches out, via limited resources, to bring healing to a bleeding nation.
Yes, Lebanon embodies today the Two Standards: the downloaded video clips reveal the suffering incarnation of the Cross from a humanity which cries out to the international community not only for merciful aid, but also to heaven for divine justice. Nothing is more authentic than the human suffering close to the Cross of our Lord. This is today’s Lebanon.
Like St. Ignatius of Loyola, I take prayer time as part of creative imagination of what is possible; in this case, what is possible for Lebanon. As France and Germany were rebuilt after the Second World War by the help of the Allies, I see a similar situation for Lebanon from the international community.
But I also pray and contemplate the words of the psalmist, “Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain. In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat– for he grants sleep to those he loves. Sons are a heritage from the Lord, children a reward from him.”
Yes, we have a city capital with buildings of broken doors and shattered windows, and many sons and daughters are now gone but not all. Let these images not discourage us; instead, let our solidarity of grief with the Lebanese take the lead that they are not alone in their fate.
There are nations praying for them and extending their aid with a generosity known to God (God who is interested in rebuilding broken cities). My prayers for Lebanon transformed me into a new reality which I was not even close to before August 4.
Today, I realize that a suffering nation, no matter how foreign to my ethnic background, becomes my country in prayer. My hope relies on God and in what I know potentially of the Lebanese.
The Lebanese are smart, well educated in matters of the world, religious in devotion, multi-lingual, humorous and resilient from years of experience of instability.
They are lovers of life, and they have the will to transform their fate from a rubble state to a serving nation – in the recent weeks, their volunteers in the streets of Beirut have not only shown this, but have also taught the world.