Monday, February 27, 2023

The Origins of the Maronite Catholic Church

 This week is interesting in the Maronite calendar of saints, because it includes a number of specifically Maronite saints: 

February 27: St. Thalaleus, Disciple of St. Maron

February 28: Ss. Koura and Marana, Discipes of St. Maron

March 1: St. Domnina, Disciple of St. Maron & St. Eudokia of Baalbek

March 2: St. John Maron

So I thought I would say something about the origins of the Antiochene Syriac Maronite Church, a sui juris Eastern Catholic church in communion with Rome. 'Origins' because in a sense it has more than one.

Christianity, of course, has extensive roots in Syria and Lebanon; Antioch was where the Christians were first called 'Christian' and the bishops of Antioch in all of the apostolic churches have traditionally traced their see to St. Peter himself. The area is filled with the memory of ancient saints and martyrs. For instance, the Eudokia of Baalbek who is commemorated by the Maronites on March 1, and who is also known as Eudokia of Heliopolis, was a wealthy young woman who converted, gave away all of her wealth to the poor, and joined a convent; according to tradition, she was beheaded around 107. Many more could be added to the list. But one who particularly interests us is St. Maron, whose feast day is February 9.

St. Maron, or Maroun, or Maro, was born in Syria in the 4th century. According to some stories he had been a fellow student with St. John Chrysostom at one point, but what we definitely know is that he became an open-air hermit in Cyrrhus, near Antioch. Open-air eremitism is a particularly rigorous form of ascetic life; it means exactly what it sounds like it means: he lived in the open air, with only a small tent, which he used only for the worst weather conditions, on a hill where a pagan temple had once stood. Syria is a region that has fairly significant temperature extremes over the year  -- it gets fairly cold in the winter and very hot in the summer. It also occasionally has severe sandstorms in spring and autumn. It's not really camping country. People would occasional visit hermits in those days to ask for prayers and the like, and over time, St. Maron developed a reputation as an effective healer, and people began to come in droves. According to Theodoret of Cyr, who wrote a book about ascetics living in the area around Antioch at this time, his reputation was not merely for physical healing, but for spiritual healing -- he could heal physical illness, but also things like anger and greed. A result was that people also began imitating him, and trying the open-air ascetic life themselves. The most important of these was a man we call St. James the Solitary, whose feast day is November 26, who also gained a widespread reputation. A spontaneous ascetic movement grew up around St. Maron and St. James, and this is the first origin of the Maronites, as a religious movement. St. Maron eventually came down with an illness and died, but the movement he unintentionally started continued to flourish.

Many saints arose in the context of this movement. St. Abraham the Hermit, whose feast is February 14, took the Maronite life to Lebanon, where he preached in the area around Mount Lebanon and was later made bishop of Harran. St. Limnaeus was a student of another hermit (possibly also inspired by St. Maron), St. Thalassius, and afterward became a student of St. Maron himself; St. Thalassius and St. Limnaeus share a feast day on February 22. St. Thelalaeus the Weeper, whose feast is February 27, lived in a cage made out of a barrel. He had the gift of tears, so he wept for his sins very often. He happened to set up his barrel not far from a pagan temple, and so ended up preaching to pagans who came by, curious about the man living in a barrel, and converted many of them. St. Marana and St. Koura (or Cyra), whose feast is February 28, lived at Beroea in a crevice in the rocks with no roof, and St. Koura also kept a vow of silence. They did not leave the crevice at all; they built a house nearby where lived volunteers who passed them food through a narrow opening. St. Domnina the Younger, whose feast day is March 1, was a woman from a very wealthy family in Antioch; she started living in a hut in her mother's garden, veiling her face, and eating nothing but lentils. Like St. Thelalaeus, she also had the gift of tears. An entire religious community of women grew up around her, maintaining themselves by doing basic manual labor and carding wool. Many more could be added, and the kinds of asceticism they practiced were of all kinds. Monasteries and convents as well as hermitages began sprouting up.

So things went for a while, and the Maronite movement did not slow down, and it played a major role in the spiritual life of the patriarchate of Antioch. But crisis would hit in the early seventh century, when a civil war broke out, including a revolt in Antioch. The exact details are murky; the entire social situation seems to have deteriorated; but it is likely that Patriarch St. Anastasius II of Antioch (whose feast day is December 21) was assassinated by Monophysites in the course of a riot. The situation continued to be bad, so the Emperor and Patriarch of Constantinople got together and decided to appoint a titular patriarch of Antioch, who would reside in Constantinople. Exactly how this plan came into effect, we don't know; the entire period is a period of tumult, and so it may have been intended as a temporary measure until things quieted down, but in any case it ended up not being temporary, and lasted about a century. Needless to say, this was not popular among the monasteries around Antioch. What's more, things grew worse, as Muslim armies invaded Syria in a major campaign in the 630s. The monks seem to have seen that they were cut off and would likely not have a resident patriarch in any near future at this rate, so led by the major monastery in the area, the Monastery of St. Maroun on the Orontes, a major stronghold of Chalcedonian Christianity in the area, the bishops of Syria elected their own patriarch in 685 without any regard for either the Emperor or the Patriarch of Constantinople. We know remarkably little about this patriarch, St. John Maron, before his ascension, but he is said to have studied for a time in Constantinople and to have been the Monastery of St. Maroun's best teacher. Obviously they needed some recognition for the move, and Constantinople would obviously not have given it; so they went to Rome, where St. Sergius I was Pope. And while St. Sergius seems himself to have been born in Sicily, his family was Syrian from the area around Antioch. According to Maronite tradition, St. Sergius recognized St. John Maron as Patriarch of Antioch and All the East. Constantinople's line of titular patriarchs continued, and in the eighth century came back to Antioch; the Greek Orthodox and the Melkite Catholic patriarchal lineages for Antioch both descend from that return.

With St. John Maron, the Maronite movement, while continuing to be a movement, also became a Church, and this fusion of ascetic movement and hierarchy gives the Maronites many of their distinctive features even to this day. And at some point, St. John Maron made a further choice that would contribute to the identity of the Maronites: he moved the patriarchate from Syria to Lebanon, establishing himself in a place that became known as the Holy Valley, Ouadi Qadisha. He seems to have chosen the area because the Maronite religious movement had been well established there. It's unclear exactly why the move happened, but it would prove to be important, because it made the Maronites a major feature of the mountains of Lebanon, and that turned out strategically to be a very effective place to be as first the Byzantines and then the Muslims tried to uproot the Maronites but found themselves repeatedly foiled by the difficulty of the terrain. It was a hard life, and the Maronites often had to hunker down, hide, shift their location. But it meant that they survived. They came to know the hills and forests much better than their enemies, and the natural protections of the area were formidable. 

This was not obvious at the time. The Maronites almost completely vanish from history, as if they had been destroyed. But then the First Crusade happened, and Raymond of Toulouse, on his way to besiege Tripoli, discovered little communities of Christians in the Lebanese hills who greeted him enthusiastically when it became clear that he, too, was Christian. The Maronites actively assisted the Crusaders and, through them, re-established active communication with Rome, whose recognition of St. John Maron as patriarch they still remembered with gratitude. And ever since, they have been in close communion with Rome.