The Maronites in History II: A Reply

Part Two: A Discussion of the texts concerning St Maroun 

There is no figure in history quite like the elusive figure which is Mar Maroun. Apart from the less well-known apostles, few figures are both so important in the history of Christianity, and yet so invisible. No other purely Catholic rite is exclusively named after one person: the other rites are named after a language (e.g. the Latin rite), a people (the Armenians), or an institution (the Melkites, named after the king). But our entire rite is named after our god-father, this great, yet shadowy, figure.

We shall try and present Mar Maroun as he appears in history: a hermit teaching in the mountains of what is now Syria until his death (probably sometime before 425A.D.); a man surrounded by a holiness which was absolutely magnetic, a priest who was able to make the great breakthrough nobody before him had.

I will suggest that Mar Maroun’s breakthrough was this: he was the first Christian teacher to be able to make a significant and enduring impact upon the people of the Syrian and Lebanese countryside and mountains. He did this because (1) he possessed the richness of Greek Christianity, but naturally expressed it in the Syriac language of these people; (2) his example was such that he inspired young people of the region to follow him into the religious life; and (3) his life, and the lives of his religious disciples, demonstrated to the lay people, that in Christianity there had come a religion greater than the polytheism they had known.

The critical fact about Mar Maroun is that he lived as a hermit, and he died, atop a hill in Syria, probably at Kaluta. This is where Bishop Abi Ad conducted his research. Mar Maroun was if not the first hermit to have spent his days in the open air, one of the first. He chose a site which had been a place of pagan worship: it included a temple, although the text we translate below is suggestive that not only the temple but perhaps the entire hilltop, had been sacred. The polytheists are known to have had sacred groves, trees, fish ponds and stones. There was often, if not always, a temple nearby. Mar Maroun is said to have dedicated those precincts to God, which may mean that he performed an exorcism, turned the temple into a church, and blessed the rest of the area. For protection against rain and snow, Mar Maroun relied upon a tent made of animal hides. This way of life was striking.

What did Mar Maroun occupy himself with? There seem to have been two sides to his life at Kaluta: a private life of prayer and spiritual exercise, and a public life with his many visitors, which included many diverse matters: conversation, advice, teaching, healing and exorcism. Theodoret, says that Mar Maroun tended to his spiritual life with “the customary labours” and other exercises which he himself conceived. Theodoret speaks of this as “gathering together the wealth of philosophia”. In the translation, I rendered philosophia as “wisdom”, for our modern term “philosophy” is too narrow to encompass the arts and sciences of the soul which Mar Maroun pursued. But literally, philosophia means “love of wisdom”.

Theodoret’s account highlights in a few deft strokes the heart of Mar Maroun’s magnetism. First, we have the references to the ascetic disciplines which he undertook. When Theodoret speaks of the “customary labours”, he appears to have in mind prayer, fasting, penance, and depriving the body of sleep. Theodoret paid particular attention to any measures which might check the passions and bring the faculties under the control of a Christian will (by “faculties” we mean senses, thoughts and emotions). However, Theodoret does not tell us very much about these inner disciplines, let alone which ones were added by Mar Maroun. But then, neither, indeed, do any responsible writers tell us very at all about such disciplines, as they require the assistance and supervision of a teacher. However, it is clear that Mar Maroun carried out such exercises by himself, and also that he taught various pupils, such as Yakub and Limnaios. Theodoret is emphatic on this point: he states that Mar Maroun “planted the paradise which now blooms in the land of Kurros (Cyr)”. A “paradise” was a well-watered orchard with fruit trees, owned by the king. This paradise was God’s work being performed by hermits, monks and nuns. The reference to the prophecy that the just man shall flourish like the cedar of Lebanon may mean that Theodoret knew that St Maroun’s disciples had spread the faith to Lebanon.

Is it possible to relate the work of Mar Maroun to the preaching Christianity in the ancient Near East in general, and in Syria and Lebanon in particular? We must start at the beginning. In his lifetime, Our Lord taught in southern Lebanon (in particular, he visited Tyre and perhaps Sidon). Our Lord taught these people in Aramaic and perhaps Greek. It is known that some of his teaching was not recorded in the gospels. Further, some of the sayings which other sources have reliably recorded, show that not only the name of monasticism, but even the spiritual practices of the monks themselves, can be traced back to Jesus as their head. This evidence bears out a tradition maintained by the monks that Jesus taught them their ways.

Some of these sayings attributed to Our Lord bear this out. For example, several sources have preserved his saying “Be good money changers”, referring to the need to watch our thoughts and – like a good money changer – not to accept whatever we are offered, but to test it. That is, Jesus taught people to test the quality and value of their own thoughts, and to accept only those which bore the mark of the king. Coins, after all, bore the mark of the sovereign, and our thoughts also betray their origin. Despite popular but ill-informed comments to the effect that the Gospel of Thomas was entirely Gnostic, scholars accept that the Gospel of Thomas, is probably accurate in having Our Lord speak of the “monachos’, the monk. This Gospel is thought to have been popular in Syria, and is noteworthy for its emphasis upon ascetic disciplines. And here there is a significant element of continuity between the most ancient church and our own Maronite traditions.

Christianity spread northwards along the coast to Antioch. Although the Apostles themselves spoke Aramaic (Peter’s name was in fact Kefa – the Aramaic word for “rock”), they could also communicate in Greek, indeed, this is part of the message of the Pentecost story. Perhaps because they could reach more people by teaching in the cities, the inland was not so Christianised as the chiefly Greek-speaking cities. It is known that in Antioch, there were many ordinary men and women who lived lives of celibacy. At this point there is no evidence for hermits and monks, although it is also known that monasticism was a native development in Syria: it was not imported from Egypt. The most likely hypothesis is that eremitism (the life of the hermit) and monasticism developed directly from Jesus’ example.

Traditionally, St Peter himself was the first bishop of Antioch. Even when he went to Rome, where he headed the Church, he founded a Greek-speaking congregation. It is not a well-known fact, but even in Rome, the language of the church was Greek. The early Church texts are all in Greek. For example, the letter of Clement of Rome to the Corinthians (perhaps the same Clement who was later Pope) was written in Greek. For hundreds of years, the Roman graves of the popes were inscribed in Greek, not Latin. Indeed, the gospels have survived only in Greek.

Christianity is not believed to have made much headway in the Syrian and Lebanese countryside. After all, the peasants had little or no Greek. His name, “Maroun” (the Syriac for “little lord”), strongly suggests that the founder of the rite came from a Syriac background. This is significant, the names of most of the other monks and hermits, and even Theodoret’s own name, were Greek. But Maroun’s chief disciple was named “Jakoubos”. This was  Hebrew name, and was taken by Greeks, but equally, it was taken by Syriac speakers.

It is not unreasonable to think that Mar Maroun represented an authentic Syrian Christianity, which can be traced directly back to Our Lord himself. That the tradition is not steadily attested is not much of a problem.

The line of thought above is a hypothesis. The evidence for it is sometimes indirect, But given the traditions of the Maronites, and the fact that a Catholic rite bears his name, it makes sense of all of the evidence, and respects the integrity of the tradition.

In short, in Mar Maroun there was finally found someone who was a master of the Christian teaching, and could act as a bridge between the Greek-speaking cities and the Syriac countryside.

As I point out in the forthcoming book, An Introduction to the Maronite Faith (to be published by Connor Court). Theodoret seems to say that St Maroun consciously gave his soul up into the hands of God at his death. May his prayers be with us.

Joseph Azize, 7 April 2017 (Friday of the Temptation)

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