St. Abraham of Cyrrhus, Apostle of Lebanon
“The righteous will flourish like a palm tree and will spring up like the Cedars of Lebanon.” - Psalm 92:12 (1)
The Foundations of Eastern Monasticism
Christian Monasticism began in the East, in particular its origins were to be found in the so-called Near East; of Egypt, Greater Syria, and Greater Persia. St. Anthony of Egypt (251-356) began a spiritual movement that later became known collectively as that of the Desert Fathers, although women were also part of this vast movement. Anthony lived during the transition of Christianity’s acceptance in the Roman Empire, beginning his monastic life (around 270) during the reign of the last great Imperial persecutor of Christians, the Emperor Diocletian, and the rise of Constantine I, who legalized and preferred the Christian faith. Athanasius of Alexandria who wrote of the life of Anthony, tells us that so many men and women followed him into the monastic life that, “the desert became a city.”(2)
St. Anthony began what could be called the first of the Three Pillars of Monasticism, that of being a hermit or solitary (eremitic). Eventually the three types of monastic life in the East would comprise that of the eremitic, the cenobitic(3), and the skete. If the eremitic life is that of the solitary hermit, the cenobitic life (begun by St. Pachomius in 346 in Egypt) is that of the community of monks, living under a rule of life, and guided by an Abbot (from the Syriac, Abba, meaning Father). This will become the preferred form of monastic life in Western Christianity. St. Theodore of Egypt, disciple of Pachomius later began the skete or idiorythmic form of monasticism, where monks or nuns living in hermitages of close approximation to one another, would gather as a community for certain liturgical feast days, times of prayer, or common meals.
From Bet Maroun to Mount Lebanon
The Christian movement begun by St. Maron in the 4th century, became greater than just a monastic community, truly Bet Maroun came to embrace laity, clergy, and monastics, in a way of living out the Christian faith in a Syriac speaking culture. Due to its defense of the teachings of the Council of Chalcedon, which lead to the massacre of 350 monks, and the subsequent continued persecutions at the hands of Monophysite Christians, the spiritual descendants of St. Maron formed a Patriarchate of Antioch with Papal and Imperial approval under St. John Maron. Moving to Mount Lebanon they found the terrain of Lebanon afforded them protection and a strong defensive position against the Monophysites, and the Arab Muslims who would eventually conquer the region, but not conquer the Christian faith of the people. However, was this the beginning of the “Maronite” presence in Lebanon? No, for that answer we must look back to the time of St. Maron himself.(4)
Abraham of Cyrrhus (died, 422)(5)
During the life of St. Maron and directly after his death, some of his monks went into the area of Lebanon to preach the Gospel. While there does not exist much information from that period to give us an exact picture, we do know that one of these monks, and possibly the one who had the greatest impact upon the people there was Abraham of Cyrrhus, the first disciple of St. Maron, sometimes called the Apostle of Lebanon.
There is no certain date for his birth, which was in modern day Harran, in Syria, he died in 422, while consulting the Byzantine Emperor, Theodosius I, in Constantinople. Theresa Urbainczyk in her book, Theodore of Cyrrhus: The Bishop and the Holy Man, writes this of St. Abraham based on the reflections of Theodoret:
He was also born and brought up in Cyrrhus, although he goes to Lebanon and saves some of its inhabitants from impiety by lending some
villagers money for their taxes. The money was not his personally; he washelped by some of his friends. He is therefore not without influence, although
Theodoret does not explain how he won it. Abraham is later made bishop of Carrie and continues to live ascetically while carrying out his duties such
as judging lawsuits. Theodoret comments that even the emperor wanted to see him and sent for him. “A choir” of empresses clasped his hands and
knees and made supplication to a man who did not even understand Greek.(6)
St. Abraham of Cyrrhus, disciple of St. Maron, pre-figures what will eventually become the presence of Bet Maroun on Mount Lebanon and the surrounding Lebanese region. He is an example of how monasticism has continually influenced and shaped Eastern Christianity; in the Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodoxy, and the Ancient Oriental Orthodox (non-Chalcedonian) Churches. Unlike in the Christian West, where the monastic cloister eventually creates literal, and spiritual walls, between monks and laity; in the Christian East the spirituality, theology, and prayers of monastics becomes like a river, that continuously flows into the life of all the faithful.
(Rev.) David A. Fisher
1. Aramaic Bible in Plain English
2. Chryssavgis, John; Ware, Kallistos; Ward, Benedicta (2008). In the Heart of the Desert: Revised Edition: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers (Treasures of the World's Religions). Bloomington, Ind.: World Wisdom. p. 18
3. Cenobitic Monasticism become the most popular form of Monasticism in the West. It was brought to Western Christianity by St. John Cassian (ca.360-ca.435) from Palestine. The great North African, St. Augustine (354-430), and the Roman, St. Benedict of Nursia (ca.480-547) are also founders of Western Monasticism.
4. The mission of St. Abraham of Cyrrhus can be compared to that of St. Augustine of Canterbury in the 6th century. Just as St. Augustine, a Roman monk (not to be confused with St. Augustine of Hippo of the 4th and 5th century) was sent by Pope St. Gregory the Great to organize the Church in England and hopefully convert the pagan spouses of some Christians. St. Abraham left the side of St. Maron to address certain needs of the Christians of Lebanon, who were still a minority among the pagans there.
5. Abraham of Cyrrhus is also known as Abraham of Charres, and Abraham of Harran.
6. Urbainczyk, Theresa, Theodoret of Cyrrhus: The Bishop and the Holy Man, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 2002. p.74.