[Translation from “Les Ermites dans l’Eligse Maronite” By Paul Sfeir]
SPIRITUALITY OF THE MARONITE HERMITS
1) School of spirituality or lived spirituality?
In order to be complete it is absolutely necessary to try to deduce, at the end of this study, the characteristic traits of the spirituality of the Maronite hermits. It would be regrettable indeed, after having confronted so many sources, to present biographical sketches of the hermits and to speak of their natural surroundings without trying to form a synthesis of their spirituality.
At first glance it seems that one cannot speak of a “school of spirituality” of the Maronite hermits, but rather of a “lived spirituality”. The historical study that we have dedicated to their biographical sketches in the preceding chapters does not furnish us with sufficient information for discerning the elements of a new “type” of spirituality. One of the essential elements that constitute a “school of spirituality” properly so called is missing in the history of Maronite eremitism: in effect, while we have historical testimony worthy of credence about the person of St. Maron, the monks and solitaries that depended on his monastery and the multitude of hermits that lived through the centuries within the Maronite Church, we notice a complete absence of a rule, of constitutions, and above all, of spiritual writings of which they are the authors. Thus the important factor: the personal writings which would permit an understanding of the beginnings of a new school of spirituality, and the following of the stages by which it leads the soul to God, does not exist in the history of the Maronite hermit life. However, the absence of a “school of spirituality” should not lead us to deny the existence of a spirituality that is lived and transmitted from one generation to the next. It is not absolutely necessary to belong to a “school of spirituality” in order to live an authentic spiritual life. Far from challenging the existence of a spirituality by which the Maronite hermits found their way to a union with God, we acknowledge, on the contrary, that this spirituality has always existed and that it was to their advantage not to be pledged to a particular school of spirituality. In effect, thespirituality lived by the Maronite hermits has had, through the centuries, a prolific vitality, while its only nutrient was Sacred Scripture, the sayings of the Fathers of the Desert, and the eastern monastic tradition. The Maronite hermits were humbly inserted into this tradition, without pretending to enrich it through their personal writings. If their spiritualityis not exposed through written texts, rules and particular constitutions, and thus lacks a differentiation and distinction with regard to other spiritual currents, it remains, nevertheless, an Evangelical and Christian spirituality. Its characteristic traits are common to many school of spirituality within the Church.
In place of statutes, rules, and spiritual writings, the example of the “ancients” and spiritual direction serve as a living rule. Their teachings on the principals of the spiritual life were transmitted orally. In this way, the postulant’s enlightenment and his formation in the characteristic traits of the ancients was more fully assured than if done through exposing him to precepts or statutes, with the frequent risk of their remaining for certain ones a dead letter.
All this leaves us to reiterate that the Maronite hermits lived and did not write. It is necessary to try to determine the constants of their spiritualitypartly from the historical facts of biographical notes. Let us try to bring out the dominant traits.
(2) Characteristic traits of the spirituality of the Maronite hermits:
No author, Maronite or not, nor any theologian specialized in spirituality, has attempted until right now to bring to light these characteristic traits. The monks and hermits themselves never seem to have been occupied in defining them. Thus we will present this synthesis only as a trial thesis.
We think that we, for our part, can characterize the spirituality of the Maronite hermits thanks to a two- fold procedure. First, it is necessary to attentively read the biographical notes that we have presented, translated and commented upon in the preceding chapters in this book. We take into account after doing this reading, of the similarity of certain historical facts in these biographical notes. Then we ask the facts themselves to reveal to us the hidden life of the Maronite hermits, and with that revelation, the characteristic traits of their spirituality.
First characteristic trait:
Desire for union with God in a solitary life.
The first characteristic trait of the spirituality which emanates from the biographical notes on the Maronite hermits is this common ideal which drove them into the desert in order to reach perfection. Solitude, silence and separation from the world form an integral part of eremitical spirituality in the general tradition of the East. The supernatural motive of the solitary life is the desire to follow unreservedly the call of the Gospel. To attain a special degree of perfection, this call demands a separation from the world. To separate oneself from the world means to flee from men, and this flight achieves victory over the passions and facilitates “hesychia,” or peace for the body and the soul. Every monk must abandon the world, but the hermit goes still further and abandons the society of monks. And so we see the radical and absolute point of the solitary search that is carried on in the eremitic life. This search in perfect solitude has for its goal a most intimate union with God.
The passing from the cenobitic life to the eremitic life is a very ancient custom in the Maronite Church. We have seen (ch. III) that in the vicinity of the monastery of St. Maron to the east of Amapee, three hundred hermitages sheltered the hermits. Possessed with an attraction for a more perfect solitude, they left the cenobitic community in order to give themselves to God alone. We have also reproduced the death notice of a recluse nun (the “daughter of David”) who fell asleep in the Lord after having a life of reclusion toward the end of the twelfth century at the monastery of St. Sergius of Hardin.
The calling to the eremitical life had to be discerned with prudence, and admittance to the difficult and heroic life was never advised in the Maronite tradition until after a period of probation in a cenobitical community. Here we are at the heart of the eastern tradition, one which holds that the cenobitic life is the best preparation for the eremitical life. The hermit, who must be armed with patience and penetrated with humility, is prepared for the acquisition of these two virtues at first entirely in the monastery.
The preparation for the eremitical life in a monastery, or under the direction of an experienced monk, was the practice carried out in conformity with the eastern tradition in the “ Holy Valley”. If one wants to be more specific about the form of solitary life of the Maronite hermits in this Valley, the best definition that can be given to that form of life is semi- eremitic. In effect, in the “ Holy Valley”, the Maronite hermits were not anchorites who lived alone in the desert, separated from all monastic companionship. Their way of life did not require a complete separation from their disciples, nor an absolute isolation with regard to certain lay persons who would come to seek spiritual counsel. We have seen in the preceding chapters that Girgis al- Hednani, Yunan al- Matriti, Gibra’il ibn Statti, Mha’il ar- Rizzi, Elias al- Hednani and others, led an eremitical life with their disciples and occasionally in contact with the common people. Thus the disciples gathered around an “Ancient” [“Quasiso” in Syriac; “Quass” in Arabic] or spiritual father, who taught them more by his example than by a rule or regulations. Such was the influence of the solitary Elias over Francois de Galaup de Chasteuil. He was attracted by the example of the life of one of the solitaries, and resolved to place himself under his direction after having observed for a number of days the outstanding virtues and uncommon qualities of his future spiritual director.
In this form of semi-eremitical life, spiritual direction was practiced very effectively. By watching the spiritual father live the eremitical ascetism, and by striving to imitate him in good works, the young candidate to the eremitical life was “being born” from him in each of his works; and likewise, in each of them, the spiritual father was “engendering” the young disciple to this life. [The theme of engenderment and spiritual birth is taken from St. Paul (Gal. 4: 19) and also from Origen’s “Homily on Jeremiah”, IX, 4 (PG XIII, 356C).] Spiritual paternity has had in the East a connotation of advancement toward God, of a birth according to the spirit, and of a bringing forth of God in the soul by means of the practice of virtue. It is, of course, obvious that in order to attain this spiritual birth it is not enough to consult from a distance or to see occasionally. It is necessary to remain in close proximity and to persevere in observing and understanding the spiritual father. One had to be grounded in submission toward him. Yunan al- Matriri had under his direction several solitaries at Quzhayya. They lived around him as disciples around their teacher. Always intent on reminding them of their renouncement of the world, he extorted them strongly “to forbid women from entering the interior of the hermitage and the monastery of Quzhayya”.
This is the kind of life-style the Maronite hermits tried to put into practice. It was not a life in common, but a tempered eremitical life, for the sole advantage of the submission and spiritual profit of the young candidate. The role of the spiritual father in the “ Holy Valley” consisted chiefly in providing an initial formation, the duration of which was left to his discretion. The disciple subjected himself to the spiritual father and sometimes rendered him services of a material nature. Gibra’il ibn Staiti and Hanna al-Lehfdi were of assistance to their teacher Yunan in his later years. Bedridden and ill for fourteen years, Yunan was surrounded by their attentions with devotion and care.
The spiritual father and his disciples generally lived close to each other, in a monastery or cenobium. In chapter XII we described the natural environment of four of these monasteries: Qannubin, Quzhayya, Hauqa, and Mar Lisha. The disciples were prepared for the eremitical life initially under the guidance of the spiritual father in one of these monasteries. Under his direction they practiced the monastic virtues par excellence: humility, the renouncing of their own will, charity and obedience. After a sufficient preparation in the eremitical ascesis, they passed from the cenobium to the caves and hermitages that were scattered around the “ Holy Valley” at certain distances. The authority of the “Ancient”, more pronounced in the spiritual domain, continued after the separation from the disciple, although with less rigor.
Having attained a rather high degree of discipline and monastic asceticism, the disciple who was separated from his teacher could, in his turn, become a spiritual father.
The Maronite hermits both desired and accepted a separation from the world in order to tend always toward a more perfect union with God. The “ Holy Valley” presented a marvelous environment for facilitating this separation.
It increased in the soul in these hermits a thirst for complete renunciation. Whatever may have been the appearances or the motivations, the Sprit of God alone drove these solitaries to the desert. It was God who called them apart from the company of men to search for Him and to remain in His presence. In the preceding chapters we presented many biographical notices on the hermits who passed their entire life in total abnegation and the practice of great austerities.
It would be well here to recall the most outstanding among them. From 1495 to 1617, the hermitage of Mar Mha’il, just above the Quzhayya, sheltered eight successful hermits, who wrote their name, one after the other, in the hermitage’s Gospel book. Yunan al-Matriti led the solitary life and served the Lord with complete purity of heart and exceptional devotion for fifty years. He spent all these years practicing ascetical works under the gaze of God. Hanna al-Lehfdi, initiated by his teacher Yunan, equaled him in piety and purity of life. The hermit and bishop, Gibra’il ibn Staiti, himself led the eremitical life for forty years in the monastery of Quzhayya. The hermit Malka al- Bqufani practiced the austerities of the eremitical life for sixty years. This man of God was a living example for those who saw him or came close to him.
The soul of the hermit Mha’il ar- Rizzi always aspired to the most perfect solitude so as to enjoy an intimate union with God. For this reason he resigned from the monastery of Quzhayya in 1565 and retired to the hermitage of Mar Bishai. Elected Patriarch in 1567, he hid for ten days in the “ Holy Valley”. When finally found, he was forced to accept the patriarchal office.
After having attained an old age, all imbued with candor, purity and love of God, from living the solitary life, the hermit Yussef al- Basluquiti was promoted to the Episcopal dignity.
Graced with a remarkable holiness during his life, the body of the hermit, Yaqub as-Samrani has remained incorrupt after his death. Paying a visit to the hermit and Bishop Sarkis ar- Rizzi, the Apostolic Delegate, Gianfrancesco Morgante, saw with his own eyes and affirmed. “I found in him those rare qualities that can be found only in a very holy person. I conversed with him and remained with him for some time, and it seemed to me that I was with one of the holy fathers of the early Church.”
Having been appointed superior of the Mar Bishai hermitage in 1581, the hermit Yussef ar- Rizzi remained there until 1595, leading a very austere life. Attracted by the reputation of the Maronite hermits and by the natural set-up, Francios de Galaup de Chasteuil left France and lived near them in the “ Holy Valley”, in imitation of their life-style. Other westerners followed after him.
All of these hermits are mentioned very briefly in the Duwaihi “Annales”. The historical facts contained in their death notices are insufficient to permit us to make long commentaries on their spirituality. The literary style of Duwaihi in the “Annals” resembles that of a historical annalist. It is always in relation to very important events that the biographical notices are modestly inserted. Duwaihi never intended to write the whole eremitical history in his “Annals”. Far from being led by the historical facts in such a way that the interpretation does not go beyond the historical. As a typical example of Duwaihi’s concise style, we gave the biographical notice on Francios de Galaup de Chasteuil. This notice does not take up more than seven or eight lines in the “Annales”, while the two biographies written by his contemporaries from the testimonies of the Recollect Fathers and the Carmelite Fathers each surpass two hundred pages.
It would be a gross absurdity to spend twenty, forty or sixty years in a hermitage without an exceptional motivating force. As a foundation for such perseverance it is necessary to posses a strength of soul more powerful and more vigorous than the most rigorous austerities and mortifications. But God calls the hermit to the desert, and he shows the designs of his tenderness and His love to him. And he seeks to speak to his heart: “So I am going to take her into the desert; there I will win her back with words of love.” [Ho. 2:14]. The true motivating force of the mortified life of the Maronite hermits, driving them with resolute constancy is the response to God’s love. The heart-to-heart relationship with God has always been the fundamental attraction of every eremitical vocation; for, when God speaks to the soul’s heart in solitude, He seizes its secret center. He takes possession of the heart and the life that is different from Himself. He enflames it with His love and prompts it to come close to Himself. There is the hidden mystery of the greater part of the Maronite hermits. Seized by the force of divine love, they buried themselves in the “ Holy Valley”. They shut themselves up in caves and sought to unite themselves to God and to cling to Him with no concern for themselves or the world. Maronite eremitism had for its goal solitude, contemplation and union with God. In order to attain it, its initiates practiced an absolute detachment from everything that is self- love, covetousness, a worldly spirit, self- sufficiency and attachment to their own will.
When we read in the biographical notices that Malka al-Bqufani invoked God unceasingly during his life, and that he was obsessed night and day with the remembrance of the Lord; that Yunan al- Matriti, Hanna al- Lehfdi and Girgis ibn Staiti made unceasing metanies and prostrations before the divine majesty; that Mha’il ar- Rizzi gave up being superior in order to devote himself to God alone, we become aware of the effect of divine love.
It explains everything; and one is not surprised by the excessive austerities when one understands the spirit that urged these men to embrace a very austere eremitical life.
From the beginning of the fifth century, the time of the appearance of St. Maron, until the end of the seventeenth century, this aspiration toward union with God through an intense love and a life of solitude has been the soul and the “raison d’etre” of the Maronite eremitical movement. All the austerities of St. Maron would have had no worth had they not had the love of God as their foundation. Theodoret remarked that it was out of love that St. Maron resolved to spend his entire life in the open air and endure it all: “And He rewards him for whose love he endures so many hardships with an abundance of grace…”
Love for God was the foundation of each eremitical vocation. For its sake, Francios de Galaup abandons his country, his family, and all his earthly goods, in order to enjoy intimacy with God: “the divine fire with which he was inflamed drew him from his home to make him live on a little bit of stone more than two thousand miles from Paris, abandon his family, his country and all his riches, to run, despoiled of everything, after this God that he loved…”
Love for God gave them the strength to persevere in their austere solitude until the end of their earthly life. Such was the case of the hermit Brahim Sahiono, who, having been called back to the monastery of Qannubin on account of his feebleness, preferred to end his days in his hermitage, and begged him (the Patriarch) to let him finish his days in that cave where he enjoyed the sweetness of eternal happiness. The Patriarch granted him this.”
Such were the Maronite hermits, such passionate solitaries. They aspired to possess God in their solitude, to unite themselves with Him, and to enjoy Him. Characterized by this ever-intense aspiration, they accumulated from age to age, and century after century, a very precious spiritual patrimony for future generations.
(Reprinted with permission.)