Foundations of Faith: Maronites Part Two: Influences 4th Through 12th Centuries
There are four significant factors that influenced the Maronite Church from the 4th through 12th centuries. They include the early founding of the Church, the Political Background of the East/West, The Muslims, and the movement of people westward into Lebanon.
First, the Maronite Church was founded as a movement by a very holy monastic monk named Maron who lived in the 4th and 5th centuries. He was known for his missionary work, healing and miracles, and teachings of a monotheistic religious devotion. He was a priest of the Antioch Church. He believed, like many others in his day, that the best way to serve the Lord was to serve the Lord with a life totally dedicated to Him. The result of his beliefs proved this fact, he gave up monastic life to later become a hermit. After his death in 410 AD, many people got interested in the life and miracles of this spiritual human being.
According to Father Paul Sfeir, Dean of the Pontifical Faculty of Theology, Holy Spirit University, Lebanon, he states “that in this new way of asceticism, Maron mortified himself and his human nature: his blanket was the sky and his bed was the ground. He went into seclusion to pray, fast, and meditate despite the summer heat and the bitter winter. People flocked to him because of his holiness and virtue; and at his hands, they begged God for physical and spiritual healing.”
Theodoret, the author of Saint Maron's only available biography, was Bishop of Cyrrhus and a respected writer of his time. His book, the Historia Religiosa (History of the Monks of Syria), is a primary source for early Syrian monastic and ascetic life. In his book, Theodoret writes the following about Saint Maron:
"After him [Acepsimas] I shall recall Maron, for he too adorned the godly choir of the saints. Embracing the open-air life, he repaired to a hill-top formerly honored by the impious. Consecrating to God the precinct of demons on it, he lived there, pitching a small tent which he seldom used. He practiced not only the usual labors but devised others as well, heaping up the wealth of philosophy.
The Umpire measured out grace according to his labors: so the magnificent one gave in abundance the gift of healing, with the result that his fame circulated everywhere, attracted everyone from every side and taught by experience the truth of the report. One could see fevers quenched by the dew of his blessing, shivering quieted, demons put to flight, and varied diseases of every kind cured by a single remedy; the progeny of physicians apply to each disease the appropriate remedy, but the prayer of the saint is a common antidote for every distress.
He cured not only infirmities of the body, but applied the suitable treatment to souls 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. Applying this mode of cultivation, he produced many plants of philosophy, and it was he who planted for God the garden that now flourishes in the region of Cyrrhus. A product of his planting was the great James, to whom one could reasonably apply the prophetic utterance, 'the righteous man will flower as the palm tree, and be multiplied like the cedar of Lebanon', [Psalm 92:12] and also all the others whom, with God's help, I shall recall individually.
During his lifetime it is very interesting to note, Maron didn't start a Church nor was he Roman Catholic. To be Roman Catholic before 410 A.D., the time of his death would simply be revisionists history. The Roman Church at this point was alleged to be congress with the Catholic or Orthodox- the Universal Church. Henceforth, there was at this time only one Church. So with the first point of this essay, we establish several nonrefutable historical facts. St. Maron, a monk and later a hermit, did not start a religion; he simply preached a religion from the Orthodox School of Antioch. Following the death of Maron in 410 AD, his disciples built a monastery in his memory and formed the nucleus of the Maronite Church. Since St. Maron died around 410 A.D., he couldn't have been Roman Catholic, and Maronites who trace their historic roots to this man couldn't have always been Roman Catholic. The interesting thing about a movement is that there was no single leader, no single source to confirm or deny ideas. The first official Maronite Bishop would be St. John Maron who lived almost 300 years after St. Maron. This would mean that in the first three hundred years of their development the Maronites were a collection of monasteries, clerics, and laity who loosely believed in the teachings of St. Maron. It was a style of worship or dedication to living the teachings of Christ.
Second, we need to consider when exactly the Maronite Church was actually established. St. Maron's teachings led a movement. The Movement resulted in many believers, some of the believers after his death created a monastery. Around one hundred years after St. Maron's death, three hundred and fifty Maronite Monks – or Monks who followed the practices of fellow Monk St. Maron were killed by the Monophysites of Antioch. This happened because the monks held fast to the beliefs of the Council of Chalcedon (451) which concluded that Jesus was both an equal part man and God. Because of these murders, the Maronite Movement changed. Many of the priests and laity sought refuge in the Hills of Lebanon. It was also at this time that both the Patriarch of Constantinople and The Pope in Rome recognized the Maronite Church for the Monk's bravery and Holy Martyrdom. On Feb. 10, 518, Pope Hormisdas wrote the monks of the grand monastery of St. Maron to recognize them for their fellow monk’s bravery. Many in the Roman Catholic Church point to this as official recognition of the Maronite Church as being part of the Roman Catholic Church. However, at this point, much of the Maronite Movement were clustered in and around several monasteries. It was not an official Church and it was also recognized by the Patriarch in Constantinople. What this letter of Feb. 10, 518 really points to is the testimony that the Roman Catholic Church was already well on the way to splitting from the Eastern Church and was trying to use the recognition of the death of 350 martyrs as a political ploy to reunite two fighting branches of the Church so they could reunite on 28 March 519, when the reunion of the Roman Catholic with Orthodox Church was ratified in the cathedral of Constantinople before a large crowd. Therefore this reunification put an end to the Acacian Schism.
We see in this last point that Roman Catholic and Orthodox Church had split due to the Acacian Schism and they reunited after 28 March 519. This was before the official start of Maronite Church. The Maronite movement was still just a large group of priests and laity functioning now near monasteries and in the hills of Lebanon. So if the Church of Rome did indeed recognize the Maronite Church in the Pope's letter of 518 it would be independent proof that Roman Catholic Church had broken away from the Orthodox Church many years before they split in 1054. It is essential to note that there was reunification in 519- so the so-called Roman Catholic Church could not have existed officially and therefore, the Maronite movement could have always remained Catholic.
Third, Between 635 and 637, Damascus, Baalbek, Acre, Tyre, Sidon, Byblos, and many other cities fell to Arab invaders. Many Maronites living in the low lands joined their brothers in Mount Lebanon. The mountain offered no attraction to the desert Arabs who considered agriculture below their dignity and who knew little of industry and nothing of maritime trade. The Maronites high in the mountain resisted and the caliphs did not realize the strategic importance of Lebanon and left it to itself. Constantinople recruited mountaineers from the Taurus to infiltrate Lebanon and join the Maronites in harassing the Arabs. The resistance movement became known as Marada or Mardiates, meaning rebels. The Maronites became a problem for the Umayyad Dynasty (661-750), who faces a civil war with the followers of Ali, decided to pay a tribute to the Maronites so as to ensure good behavior. This arrangement lasted for over 40 years.
These influences of the seventh century played havoc on the Maronites, over the years, found themselves increasingly cut off, and any regular with Antioch and contact with the patriarchate of Constantinople became impossible, the Maronites, therefore, had to appoint in the year 687 their own Patriarch, Saint John-Maron who had been bishop of Batroun since 676. The Emperor of Byzantium, however, acted as if his royal authority extended over the Church. He appointed Patriarchs and interfered in ecclesiastical matters. The Christians for their part got into the habit of turning to him to solve their problems. When the Maronites chose a Patriarch for themselves, the authorities at Byzantium withheld their consent and the Emperor was very displeased. The Maronites were forced to hold off the Arabs with one hand and the Emperor of Constantinople with the other hand. This two-front warfare proved to be one of the main reasons why the Maronites would later seek help from the Roman Catholic Church.
In 694, while invading the region, the imperial army of Justinian II also attacked the Maronites. The monastery on the Orontes was destroyed and 500 monks executed. The Maronites now had to face the Imperial Army. The patriarch led his people in combat, and after a number of engagements, the Maronites won a decisive victory at Amioun, in Mount Lebanon. The Imperialist generals, Moreek and Mooreikan, were slain.
There and then, the Maronite nation conceived many years before, may be said to have been born.
'Maronite', says Edward Gibbon, the eighteenth-century English historian, 'was transferred from a hermit to a monastery, and from a monastery to a nation. This humble nation survived the empire of Constantinople, which persecuted it'.
The Maronites had to move high into the mountains to ensure their survival and independence. The Patriarch established himself at Kfarhay, in the mountains above Batroun, where he made the Episcopal palace his seat. A number of other Patriarchs also resided at Kfarhay, among who are Cyr, and Gabriel. Many of their followers flocked about them, trudging to Kfarhay, carrying their children and staggering under the burden of what simple belongings they had been able to bring as they were driven from their houses, their lands, and their property in surrounding areas. They now came to forge a living from a rocky, densely forested land, lacking in every amenity. The Anaphora of St John-Maron, in daily use, is a brilliant testimony to the faith of the Maronites in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Their belief could not be shaken, nor could the assaults of their enemies disperse them.
With the Arab invasion, the Maronites put behind them the years of plenty and prepared for the years of hunger. They transformed the rock into fertile soil in which they grew wheat and other grains, planted olive trees, grapevines, and mulberry trees, and added to their traditional prayers a beautiful one:
'By the intercession of your Mother, O Lord, turn your wrath from the land and its inhabitants. Put an end to trouble and sedition, banish from it from war, plunder, hunger, and plague. Have pity on us in our misfortunes. Console those of us who are sick. Help us in our weakness. Deliver us from oppression and exile. Grant eternal rest to our dead. Allow us to live in peace in this world that we may glorify you.' In an era that would try almost everyone, the Maronites prospered when attacked by their enemies. Instead of destroying them, it made them stronger.
Fourth, the advent of the Muslim invasion of previous Christian lands caused some like the Armenians to move west into the lands just north of Lebanon. Now you had three large groups of non-Maronite influences on the Church- the Muslims, the Byzantines, and the Armenians. This mixture of people was then joined by almost two hundred years of constant warfare with the west and east clashing trying to either take over or open up the Holy Land.
Overall the fourth through tenth century laid the groundwork to the development of the Maronite Church. It went from a movement inside of a monastery into the main religion of an entire country. Along the way, it was shaped by the Antioch Church, Roman Catholic Church, Byzantine Church, The Byzantine Emperor, Muslim Conquests, and through the humble faith of hundreds of thousands of people who believed in God and persevered in spite of the great odds that lay in their path.