On a mountain overlooking the Mediterranean near Beirut, a hermit rises at three in the morning, reaching for a flashlight amid the lumpy familiarity of books that are both his life's work and his lifelong bedmates. The hermit, who's 73, long-bearded, and known by the name Father Yuhanna, works there until dawn, translating ancient Christian hymns from Aramaic, the language of Jesus, into modern Arabic, copying them into a giant, leatherbound volume the size of a seat cushion. Then he prays, eats a piece of fruit, pulls on his black habit and cloak, and merrily sets off to deliver 10,000 blessings to every place in the world.
His first stop, always, is Alaska, where he "stocks up on fresh air." Then he drifts down through North and South America, jumps to Africa, moves up through the Middle East, sweeps across Europe, then heads east into Russia and Asia before working his way south to Australia. Everywhere he goes, he distributes blessings, counting them off one by one on a string of woven rosary beads that fly through his fingers like doves. This daily trip takes three or four hours, and most days—if he doesn't linger too long over the trouble spots—he's back home by noon. To the untrained eye, he's just an old man walking around in a garden. To his friends and followers, who come by the hundreds to hear his teachings about Jesus, he's a saintly figure, a descendant of influential hermits like Simeon the Elder—a fifth-century ascetic who lived atop a stone pillar in the Syrian countryside for more than 30 years, attracting the pious devotion of locals.
Maronite Christians are not usually thought of as candidates for sainthood. Followers of a fourth-century hermit named Maron, the sect seemed destined from the beginning to battle its way through history. When St. Maron died in 410, a bitter feud broke out among his followers over custody of his body. Within a generation the Maronites were also battling rival Christian sects over theological issues, and after the arrival of Islam they opposed the Muslims too. Fleeing persecution, they pushed over the mountains from Syria into Lebanon, where they sought out the most inhospitable valleys, fortified their caves and craggy monasteries, and set about defending themselves from the caliph's army. In the late 11th century, when French crusaders marched through on their way to Jerusalem, Maronites poured out of the mountains to greet their fellow Christians. Some 800 years later, when France took charge of Syria (including Lebanon) at the end of World War I, it repaid the Maronites by shaping the future nation of Lebanon to their advantage. Speaking French and nurturing a cultural affinity for Europe, the Maronites, alone among Arab Christians, were the majority in a Middle Eastern country when Lebanon gained its independence in 1943.