By Chorbishop Seely Beggiani
The founding of the Maronite Church is due to three historical events: the life and deeds of St. Maron, the establishment of the Monastery of Bet Maroun (“the House of Maron”), and the organization of the Maronite Partriarchate. The hermit and ascetic St. Maron gave the Maronite Church not only its name, but also its soul and inspiration. The monks of the Monastery of Bet Maroun and the laity who gathered around them constituted the community of faith which was to develop its own Christian and Syriac identity. Constituting itself as a Patriarchate defined the Maronite church’s juridical structure as a viable and particular church among the other churches of the universal Catholic church. By studying the history of the birth and growth of the Maronite church we can come to an understanding of the persons, places, cultures and events that define her character and shape her identity and mission.
The Period before St. Maron
The roots of Christianity in Lebanon go back to Jesus Christ. The Gospels tell us of His travels to Tyre and Sidon, and His dialogue with the Phoenician woman. There is even the legend that the Transfiguration of Christ took place in the region of the Cedars. After the ascension of Christ, the Apostles went out to preach the Gospel to the whole world. We presume that St. Peter and the Apostles used the Lebanese coastal road to go to Antioch.
The Acts of the Apostles (cf. Acts 11:19) tell us that due to the persecution that ensued after the martyrdom of St. Stephen, the Christian community was dispersed and some carried the message to Phoenicia. Describing the journey of St. Paul, chapter 21 of Acts informs us that when Paul came to Tyre he “looked for the disciples there and stayed with them for a week”. It goes on to describe that at the time of Paul’s departure from Tyre, the whole community including the women and children came to bid him farewell and knelt and prayed on the beach.
Chapter 27 of Acts, in narrating St. Paul’s departure for Rome, mentioned that the entourage stopped at Sidon where Paul was allowed to visit “friends who cared for his needs”.
These references indicate to us that Christianity was established in Lebanon from its earliest days. Very soon, Tyre, Sidon, and Beirut became dioceses with their own bishops.
In their prayer and worship these early Christians of Lebanon and Syria would have been influenced by the liturgical practice of Jerusalem and Antioch. Further to the east and in the small towns and villages of the countryside, the Syriac culture developed by the early Christian communities of Nisibis and Edessa and crystallized in the writings of St. Ephrem and James of Saroug had the greater impact. Thus, the theological and liturgical matrix out of which the Maronite Church would arise was already in development.
From the earliest days of Christianity, men and women were attracted by the call to follow Christ in total discipleship and complete renunciation. In the beginning, there was no established way on how this was to be achieved. In another article, we have described the uniquely Syriac institution of the “sons and daughters of the covenant”, where men and women sought to fulfill their baptismal commitment by living lives of celibacy within the Christian community at large. Other Christian ascetics sought to live as solitaries in deserted places. They usually spent their days in long periods of prayer with severe fasting and other rigorous forms of asceticism. Some chose to mortify themselves by becoming ‘stylites,’ living on the top of columns for long periods of time. Others chose to live out in the open without benefit of shelter, exposing themselves to the elements. Their goal was total detachment so that by disciplining their bodies, they might focus only on things spiritual.
While these holy men and women more often lived alone, they did attract disciples who came to them for spiritual direction. In a sense these small groups of ascetics were the precursors of the development of cloistered monastic communities.
It was in this milieu of hermits and ascetics that we learn of St. Maron. Maron decided to leave the world and to seek solitude on top of a mountain, probably somewhere south of Cyrrhus and northwest of Aleppo. He had been a disciple of the hermit Zebinas who was known for his assiduousness in prayer, spending all day and night at it. Our principal historical source on the life of Maron is Theodoret, Bishop of Cyrrhus (393-466), who wrote the Religious History of Syriac Asceticism. Theodoret tells us that the mountain Maron chose had been sacred to pagans. He converted a pagan temple that he found there into a church which he dedicated to the “true God”.
Maron lived an austere life. While he erected a small tent for shelter, he rarely used it and spent most of his time in the open air as a form of mortification. We are told that Maron was not satisfied with the ordinary exercises of piety but added to them. He would often spend the whole night standing in prayer. He practiced numerous other penances and fasted for weeks on end.
Maron became known for the gift of miracles and attracted many people, even from great distances. He accomplished many cures and exorcisms. Theodoret goes on to say: “He cured not only infirmities of the body, but applied suitable treatment to soul as well, healing this man’s greed and that man’s anger, to this man supplying teaching in self-control and to that providing lessons in justice, correcting this man’s intemperance and shaking up another man’s sloth.”
Maron attracted a number of disciples for whom he became a spiritual father. Theodoret summarizes the work of Maron in poetic fashion: “By cultivating that spiritual field, he raised in it many wonderful plants in the realm of virtues, cultivating and offering to God this marvelous garden that now flourishes in the region of Cyrrhus.”
We are told that after the death of Maron, the people of the various neighboring villages fought over his body. It was the belief that having a holy person buried close by would bring blessings and cures on the inhabitants. Theodoret informs us that the inhabitants of the nearest and largest village came in great numbers, took possession of the body, and built over it a magnificent church. While we do not know the exact location, it was probably between Aleppo and Cyrrhus. Theodoret tells us that the relics of Maron are venerated with great public solemnity in his day and are the occasion of many miracles.
The other historical source we have about St. Maron is a letter addressed to him by St. John Chrysostom. Chrysostom had been exiled from the Patriarchate of Constantinople to Cucusus in Armenia. From there he wrote to “Maron, priest and solitary”, telling him that he is “joined to [him] in the bonds of charity and affection” and is comforted by the news he hears about Maron’s holy life. He is concerned about his health and asks for his prayers. We believe that the letter was written around 406.
Based on the writings of Theodoret and Chrysostom, we usually date St. Maron’s life from 350-410 (although some have placed his death as late as 423).
The Disciples of St. Maron
Theodoret also describes for us the lives of some of the disciples Maron left behind. There were among others James of Cyrrhus, Limnaeus, Domnina, Cyra and Marana. Theodoret singles out especially James of Cyrrhus who had been taught by Maron and later went off to live by himself. He lived a life of austerity, exposing himself to the open air and the elements without respite, saying that the skies were his roof. After living in a small cell, he went to a mountain near Cyrrhus. Due to his renown for holiness, pilgrims would come and take its soil for a blessing. He also possessed the gift of miracles, and is said to have raised a child from the dead.
St. Limnaeus, after being taught by Maron, also lived in the open air. He possessed the gift of healing, and also gathered blind beggers around him and sought to take care of their needs. Sts. Cyra and Marana were two noble women of Beroea, who founded a small convent on the outskirts of the city. They themselves lived in the open air and carried heavy iron and chains on their bodies as a form of mortification. They also practiced long periods of fasting.
Emulating the life of Maron, St. Domnina set up a small hut made up of grain stalks in the garden of her mother’s house. She lived her life in prayer and fasting, giving alms to those in need. Mention should also be made of the austere hermit, and later bishop, Abraham, who Theodoret tells us converted a large village in Lebanon from impiety to the true faith.
R. M. Price, who has translated Theodoret’s Religious History into English observes: “St. Maron emerges from the Religious History as the first influential hermit of the region of Cyrrhus. His pattern of life in the open air, exposed to the extremes of the climate, was imitated by many . . . and gave the asceticism of Cyrrhestica a distinctive character, for elsewhere hermits normally lived in cells or caves.
What is remarkable about St. Maron is that his main goal in life was not to become famous, but to serve his God in total detachment from the world. Yet while being separated from the world, he served the people of this world, who came to him in search of spiritual and physical healing. His eye and his heart were set on God and union with Him in the future kingdom. Yet by being totally faithful to God’s will, this humble hermit has also achieved worldly immortality through the Church which ears his name. In face, the Maronite Church is the only church in Catholicism which bears the name of a person.
(Reprinted with permission.)