Mother Agnes Mariam has a Palestinian father and a Lebanese mother. During her adolescence, seeking truth and God, she was disappointed in society and joined the hippie-movement. She traveled around the world with them. During her quest she received the calling from God to join the Carmel monastery in Beirut, she was 19 at the time. Today she is the Superior of the monastery of St James the Persian in Syria, mother house of the Order that she founded, the Order of the Unity of Antioch.
Mother Agnes Mariam: I come from Lebanon. Lebanon is a place of refuge for all people and especially for those who face persecution in the Middle-East. My father is among those who sought refuge in Lebanon. Himself and my grandmother's family fled from Nazareth to Beirut in 1948, during the nekhba (the great Palestinian exile).
As a teenager I used to prefer other cultures to mine thinking that the Oriental culture was old-fashioned. Afterwards I learned to appreciate my identity and the precious heritage of the Oriental Churches. I lived a normal childhood in a bourgeois family in Beirut.
When I grew up I lived a lot of negative experiences like the rest of my generation that suffered from a lack of self-confidence. When I was 13-14 years old I rebelled and broke with society. It was 1967: hippies were coming to Beirut from all over the world. I loved them, they had a message of freedom, they were original, and wore special clothes. One year later I joined them and travelled the world with them. I crossed all of Europe, spending a long time in Amsterdam and Denmark. Two times I made a pilgrimage to Nepal and India with them, crossing mysterious countries like Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. During my journey I had several conversion experiences.
During my travels I always had my Bible with me. My journey progressively became a pilgrimage to meet the Lord. This happened first of all in the Himalayas, when I saw the beauty and the might of nature: "for his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made" (Rm 1:20) . In India I felt the providence of God in the overcrowded trains and cities; there I understood the Lord's Salvation purposes for mankind. He touched my heart with His love. But the event that changed my life forever happened in Amsterdam. During a rave party I clearly understood in the deepest of my being that I was created in the image of God. I perceived in all clarity how much our Creator loves us.
One year later providence guided me to the Carmelite monastery in Lebanon where I entered in 1971.
The Carmelites of Harissa in Lebanon
I thank the Lord for having called me to the Carmel: there I underwent a very intensive and durable ‘training’.
In 1983 a Lebanese monk visited our monastery. He brought a large icon of the Virgin Mary that had been severely damaged during the war. He asked us to restore it. When working on the icon I noticed that it had five underlying layers. These layers (the oldest one dating back to the 10th century) were like a resume of the entire history of the Syriac Church. When I studied the different layers I made a discovery that changed my life: I discovered the Church of Antioch, my own church which I ignored! I was perplexed. I had left everything for Christ entering the Carmel and didn’t even know my own Church!
It dawned on me that the Christians of this region – Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Iraq and Jordan – have a great mission but that they have forgotten about it. The persecutions and the hostile attitude towards them have made them tired. Today, most of them, see their lives in the country of their ancestors merely as a material survival.
For a Christian everything begins with his cultural identity. During Pentecost the Holy Spirit confirmed this. The Apostles, on whom the tongues of fire had descended proclaimed the miracles of God (Acts chapter 2). Everyone present heard the message of Salvation in his own tongue! This shows the importance that the Holy Spirit gives to the identity of every people. Deut. 32:8-9: “When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God".
Through this miracle of tongues the Lord wanted to reveal to us the true vocation of the Church: the Church needs to go out, to proclaim the Good News to others and not to draw others to her. Traditional theology teaches us that there is a mission of the Son, of the Holy Spirit and of the Church. All of those missions go out. The local churches are the fruits of these missions. They constitute the resume of the plan of Salvation of the Lord. The local Church is us, here and now, with Christ. “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them (Mt 18, 20). From that time on I started an in-depth study of my local church, the Church of Antioch.
In 1992, after years of discernment, I received the blessing in the Holy Spirit from my superior and my community to serve the Church of Antioch in my monastic vocation in the way the Lord would show me. They sent me to France to study the old monastic traditions, Hebrew and Syriac. At that time I established contacts with the Vatican for financial and moral help to accomplish all my projects.
It was my intention to found a monastery in northern Lebanon, in the Holy valley, but providence guided me to the ruin of an old monastery dating from the sixth century in the Syrian Desert. I asked the blessing of the local bishop (Greek Catholic) to restore it. In 1994 we began the works of restoration. Today we are a small but flourishing community with members from 8 different nationalities.
To know the story of the foundation of the community, click here.