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A Lebanese Augustinian nun who has experienced war and is still doing so today

Abir, growing up in Beirut

 Abir, crescere a Beirut  DCM-011
02 December 2023

From Lebanon to Italy. In between, there are wars and inner conflicts; there are sorrows and hopes, wounds and landings of faith. This all runs along a line from Beirut to Pennabilli, in the province of Rimini. Here, in the Augustinian monastery named after St. Anthony of Padua, Abir Hanna began her vocational journey in 2003, and who took her solemn vows in 2009. Throughout the world, there are about 80 monasteries of Augustinian contemplative nuns; in Italy, there are 21. The history of the Pennabilli community, which today consists of 14 sisters, ages 27 to 93, goes back to 1816. Abir’s journey began in Beirut in 1975, in a Christian family. The year she was born, Lebanon entered a civil war that lasted until 1990. The conflict claimed her brother, who died at age 21.

Abir, who is an archaeology graduate, met the Augustinian nuns of Pennabilli in 1997, during a pilgrimage that led her from Beirut to Italy, at the World Youth Day (WYD) event.

What kind of spiritual formation did you receive?

My childhood was marked by the continuum of the war of the years 1975-1990 and the foreign occupation of 1977-2005. At one point, armed groups of the PLO, the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Syrian army and the Israeli army, occupied Lebanon. I lived near the green line that separated East Beirut from West Beirut. We often missed school for months and it was impossible to lead a normal life. We would spend days among the sandbags looking for a safe place. Nevertheless, that did not stop my parents from passing on the gospel to us, from reading to us as a family, with neighbors who were also Muslim.

How did you discover your vocation?

As a child, I was occupied by big questions related to the meaning of suffering. I dreamed of becoming a doctor to save sick children. I suffered seeing Christians in Lebanon armed to the teeth, deceived by the ideology of having to assert their identity by defending it with weapons. From the Acts of the Apostles I had learned how the early Christians lived. I had learned that the way forward was love toward the enemy. This fascinated me, and at the same time hurt me because it was contradicted by reality. I used to question my father, “Dad, why don't we Christians live more like the first community in Jerusalem?” The encounter with Augustinian monastic life, which is an experience of communion with sisters on the model of the early Christians, is the space where the amazing possibility of becoming who I desire and am called to be is embodied for me. That ‘model’ is a woman of peace and communion. Before landing here, however, I myself experienced what it is like to be without Christ, without God. I went through a time of confusion, of darkness, of overturning values. I saw the bottomless abyss of hatred and then welcomed the transformation that only the Gospel embodied in fraternal relationships can bring.

At what point is your vocational journey?

True disarmament and profound reconciliation with the “enemy”, which I carried within me, occurred and is occurring in the daily bonding with my sisters, in the desired path toward choosing peace. In this network of bonds, reconciliation with the Palestinians, Syrians and Israelis who occupied my land has taken shape in me.

Two years ago, you undertook licentiate studies at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, and last year you spent a semester in Jerusalem, in a country that is historically an enemy of Lebanon: How do you remember that experience?

My life was waiting for the gift. Above all, a challenge. I had left with a question: can I be a Lebanese in the land of Israel without being seen as an enemy? By going to pray at the Western Wall, I began to have an experience that I still struggle to describe because of how simple and mysterious it seemed at once. Finding myself physically next to Israeli women praying, I felt overwhelmed by a deep emotion. I felt within me the heartbreaking pain that war and hatred have caused my people and those around me. Moreover, at the same time I felt caught up in the desire for peacemaking, to become a “place” where violence is extinguished because it is inhabited by meekness. I understood that peace is the origin that precedes the wounds of history.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict that re-exploded last Oct. 7 has brought back violence, death, terror in Israel and Gaza, and neighboring Countries. What path can be followed to bring about peace?

The realization that I am a survivor of a war that has bloodied Lebanon for many years has resurfaced strongly in this latest terrible war scenario. In war, one cannot side with one side over another, arm one side over another. This only leads to increasing the hell of war and creating more outbreaks. In war, one can take sides only for people who belong to both sides; one can take sides only for life.

By Giuseppina Buonanno
A journalist with the magazine ‘Today’