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Awful disclosures

11 October 2013

Geoffrey Rowell finds this unsavoury story a difficult read

Fr Lawrence Lew OP

Sacred Heart: on an antique chasuble. From the book cover.

Sacred Heart: on an antique chasuble. From the book cover.

Hindiyya, Mystic and Criminal, 1720-1798: A political and religious crisis in Lebanon
Bernard Heyberger
James Clarke & Co. £25

THIS complex and convoluted story takes us into the strange and unfamiliar world of Maronite monasticism in the 18th century. It tells of the encounter between Eastern Christianity (in a Catholic Uniate form) and Roman efforts to judge, control, and discipline from a distance, in a context where the tribal loyalties and rivalries of the Lebanese mountains exercised a more immediate influence.

At its centre is a woman from Christian Aleppo, Hindiyya 'Ujaymi, her devotion to the Western cult of the Sacred Heart, her calling to found a new religious order, and her claimed supernatural revelations and messages from her "union with Christ". It is a bizarre story of religious enthusiasm, which led to a sadistic and dictatorial regime, in which physical torture, beatings, attempted poisonings, and suspected murders all played their part behind the convent walls of Bkerki to make Hindiyya's convent a veritable hell for many of the nuns of her community. There are powerful echoes of The Devils of Loudun, on the one hand, and The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, and similar accounts of nefarious goings-on in convents, on the other.

Professor Heyberger's original work in French (published some 12 years ago), of which this is the English translation, is clearly the product of wide-ranging and meticulous research in original material in archives in Rome, the Maronite patriarchate, and of religious orders who were involved in one way or another with this crisis.

Yet, sadly, it is not the compelling narrative that I had hoped it would be. The plethora of unfamiliar names, combined with a characteristically French approach reminiscent of Brémond's Histoire Littéraire du Sentiment Religieux en France, leaves the reader, time and again, mired in the complexities of too many unfamiliar names and places. I could have wished for some straightforward signposting at the beginning, to provide clearer direction through the twists and turns of this extraordinary story.

It is a book that will be valuable to those wishing to understand more of the Maronite religious heritage and Lebanese religious history, and to those concerned with the psychological aberrations of claimed spiritual experience. The elements of a detective story, which Heyberger's quest for the truth about Hindiyya implies, may lead some to expect that this is bedtime reading. It is not - even for a reviewer who happily explores both Eastern Christianity and the wilder reaches of religious enthusiasm.

Dr Geoffrey Rowell is the Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe.

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