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Aspects of Maronite History (Part Two)

By Chorbishop Seely Beggiani

The Monastery of St. Maron

The spirit and teachings of St. Maron lived on after his death in his disciples. Not only was a church built in his memory which became a site for pilgrimage, but very soon after his death in the early part of the fifth century, a monastery was established nearby. Scholars place the monastery at Qalaaat al Modeeq near Apameus. The Monastery of St. Maron (Bet Maroun) grew in significance and in numbers as time went on. (The Arab historian, Abu al-Fida tells us that the Emperor Marcian sought to buttress the doctrinal position of the Council of Chalcedon by increasing the size of the Monastery of St. Maron and allowing a large number of Greek-speaking monks to be settled there.) In 445, Theodoret of Cyrrhus informs us that there were 400 monks in residence. Bishop Thomas of Kfartab in the 11th century speaks of as many as 800 monks. Mas'oudi, an Arab historian of the 10th century, describes the Monastery as a large edifice surrounded by 300 cells. The Monastery of St. Maron came to preside over a federation of monasteries in their province. Its representatives participated in synods of Constantinople in 536 and 553.

The monks of St. Maron came from among the people of the region, and the Monastery was the place where the lay people received their religious instruction and were educated and trained in various skills. Therefore, both the religious and lay followers of the spirit of St. Maron became known as the Maronites. As time went on, this community possessing it sown religious and cultural identity became known as the Maronite nation.

Defenders of the Faith

The region in which the Maronites lived was the crossroads of many cultures and beliefs. It was the arena for rich, but also controversial theological speculation. In the fifth century much debate took place regarding how the divine and human natures of Christ were to be taught. No good Christian doubted that Christ was both divine and human, but there was disagreement in explaining how the two realities related to each other. Some tried to say that the divine and human in Christ were two independent persons who worked together. This teaching, known as Nestorianism, was condemned by the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431, because the bishops reasoned if God had not truly united Himself to our humanity, then we have not been redeemed. The Christians of Persia persisted in the Nestorian teaching and separated themselves from the universal Church.

Others took the opposite approach, teaching that there was only one nature in Christ, that the divine completely absorbed the human. This teaching, known as Monophysitism, was condemned by the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon (a town near Constantinople) in 451. The Council taught that Christ was fully divine and fully human but one in person. Many Christians of Egypt (Copts) and Ethiopia persisted in the Monophysite teaching, as did many Christians of the church of Antioch, who were referred to as Jacobites (named after their founder, Jacob Baradai).

The Maronites (as well as the Melkites) were staunch defenders of the Council of Chalcedon. The monks of St. Maron took the lead in preaching the true doctrine and stopping the propagation of heresy. The monks describe their activity in a memorandum sent by the priest Alexander, who was head of the Monastery to the Bishops of the region. This memorandum was inserted in the acts of the Fifth Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in 553.

The 350 Maronite Martyrs

In a letter addressed to Pope Hormisdas in 517, monks of St. Maron address the Pope as the one occupying the Chair of St. Peter, and inform him that they are undergoing many sufferings and attacks patiently. They single out Antiochian Patriarchs Severus and Peter, who, they say, anathematize the Council of Chalcedon and Pope Leo, whose formula the Council had adopted. The Maronites are mocked for their support of the Council and are suffering afflictions. The Emperor Anastasius had sent an army that had marched through the district of Apamea closing monasteries and expelling the monks. Some had been beaten and others were thrown into prison. While on the way to St. Simon Stylite, the Maronites had been ambushed and 350 monks were killed, even though some of them had taken refuge at the altar. The monastery was burned. The Maronites appealed to the Emperor in Constantinople, but to no avail. Now, they appeal to the Pope for deliverance against the enemies of the Fathers and the Council. They exclaim: "Do not therefore look down upon us, Your Holiness, we who are daily attacked by ferocious beasts. . . . We anathematize Nestorius, Eutyches, Dioscorus, Peter of Alexandria and Peter the Fuller of Antioch, and all their followers and those who defend their heresies." The letter was signed first by Alexander, priest and archimandrite of St. Maron. Over 200 other signatures follow, of other archimandrites, priests and deacons. The importance of the Monastery of Bet Maroun is evidenced by Alexander's name leading the list of delegates.

Pope Hormisdas, in a letter dated February 10, 518, tells the archimandrites, priests, and deacons of the region of Apamea that he read their letter describing the persecutions of the heretics. He consoles them in their sufferings and tells them not to despair for they are gaining eternal life through this. The Emperor Justinian restored the walls of the principal monastery of St. Maron.

The Expansion of the Maronites

Having originated in the area of Apameus, the Maronites spread into the valley of the Orontes River, to Hama and Homs. They also spread to other regions: Mabboug, Qennesrin, Aleppo, Damascus, Edessa, Baghdad, Takrit, and al-Awasim (a line of fortifications stretching from Antioch to Mabboug, raised under the Abbasids against the Byzantine armies).

The Formation of the Maronite Patriarchate

The Moslem conquests of the seventh century had a profound effect on the church of Antioch and the region in which the Monastery of St. Maron was located. Maronite immigration to Lebanon, which had begun some time before, was intensified, especially since the enemies of the Maronites sided with the Moslem armies against the Maronites.

The Patriarchs of Antioch were also under siege. After the death of Patriarch Anastasius (around 609), only titular patriarchs of Antioch were named and they resided not at Antioch but at Constantinople. Having been physically vacant since 685, the Patriarchate became juridically vacant in 702, and no one was named as a successor. It was during this time that John Maron, Maronite Bishop of Batroun became Patriarch of Antioch and established himself in Kfarhai, Lebanon. Writing regarding an event that occurred in 746, the historian Denis of Tell Mahre declares: "The Maronites remain as they are today. They ordain a patriarch and bishops from their monastery."

In 694 the Emperor Justinian Rhinotmeteus sent troops against the Maronites. Soldiers attacked the monastery and killed 500 monks, and went toward Tripoli, Lebanon to capture John Maron. However, they were ambushed on the way and two of their leaders were killed. This was only one of several persecutions which forced John Maron to flee several times. St. John Maron died around 707 in the Monastery of St. Maron in Kfarhai.

Persecutions by heretics and the Arabs resulted in the destruction of the Monastery of St. Maron and the definitive establishment of the Patriarchate in Mount Lebanon. The historian, Patriarch Stephen Douaihi, tells us that this took place under John Maron II in 939. The historian Massoudi, who died in 956, informs us that the Monastery of St. Maron was destroyed by the sultan reigning at his time. In Lebanon the Patriarchate was successively located in the Monasteries of Ianouh, Maiphouq, Kfarhai, and Qannoubin (in the "Valley of the Saints"). Patriarch Douaihi tells us that due to persecution the patriarchal see was changed fourteen times from its beginning in 685 until it was finally settled in Qannoubin in 1440 by Patriarch John al-Jaji.

The institution of the Patriarchate was not followed immediately by a complete ecclesiastical organization. The Patriarch remained for a long time the only head of his people. Without doubt, heading certain towns, villages, and even monasteries were bishops; but they were, strictly speaking, only representatives of the Patriarch. The division of the Patriarchate into eparchies or dioceses was accomplished only following the Synod of 1736.

Since the Maronite community was founded on a religious core, it was natural that the Patriarchate would become the rallying point, in both political and ecclesiastical spheres. This status of the Patriarch was reinforced further by the temporal rights that the Arabs recognized for the spiritual heads of Christian communities, and that the Crusaders, Mamelouks, and Ottoman Turks continued.

The Maronite historian, Bishop Peter Dib, has observed that the geographic situation of the Maronites in Lebanon, and the religious and political battles that they were undergoing, had especially reinforced them in a spirit of nationality; they saw in their fidelity to the Patriarch an expression of patriotic sentiment. Retrenched in the precipices of the mountains of Lebanon, this people was able to create for itself its own way of life and to enjoy a certain autonomy under the direction of their spiritual leaders. The French writer R. Ristelhueber states: "Strongly grouped around their clergy and their Patriarch, the Maronites constituted a small people with their own particular identity. The holy valley of Kadisha, marked with cells of hermits, and the cedars in the heights were symbols of their vitality and independence. The patriarchal Monastery of Qannoubin, perched as an eagle's nest, summarized their whole history."

Immigration to Lebanon, which had increased after the Arab invasions, had intensified under the Abbasid Calif al-Mamoun (813-33). The choice of Lebanon was understandable since its mountains were almost impenetrable. The oldest known Maronite establishment in Lebanon is Mar Mammas in Ehden in 749. Maronite had immigrated also to Cyprus and Rhodes.

Thus we see that the Maronite Church rooted in the ascetic spirit of St. Maron, was molded into a community of faith with a monastic stamp. Its origin and early development help to explain why its liturgical life is characterized by simplicity and a hopeful anticipation of the future kingdom. From its birth it has been called upon to defend the faith in its preaching and teaching and to witness to the faith in persecution and martyrdom. Its vocation is to live the Gospel of Christ whatever the circumstances and whatever the place in which it finds itself.

(Reprinted with permission.)

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last updated: May 2005