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Maronites Between Two Worlds

By the Very Reverend Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, S.J.

The name Maronite points out a particular relationship with the saint monk whose name was Maroun in Syriac and Maron in Greek. He is mentioned in a letter written sometime before the year 407 by the powerful patriarch of Constantinople, John Chrysostom. He is also mentioned about thirty years later by Theodoret, Bishop of Cyr (d. 466), who described the profound devotion which the monks of the monastery Beth-Maron had to their departed spiritual father Maron. If it were not for these two references, the only indication of the saint’s existence would be the oral tradition of the Maronite community itself.

Maron was a contemporary of Saint Patrick. As with Patrick in Ireland, Saint Maron attracted people from far and near who were drawn by his godliness and wisdom and who desired to live under his spiritual guidance. Just as later in Europe the settlements that grew up around monasteries became cities and nations, the monastery Beth-Maron built near Saint Maron’s tomb became the nucleus of a community where men and women, under the guidance of the monks, could find material and spiritual happiness. This is the reason why the liturgy and the organization of the Maronite community even today has monastic characteristics. It is also the reason why for centuries the spiritual leaders of the Maronites have kept watch over the political and social rights of their flocks.

The history of the monastery Beth-Maron was agitated and eventful. Situated in the north of Syria on the banks of the Orantes, probably at Qal’at al-Madiq, the monastery belonged juridically to the venerable patriarch church of Antioch. The church of Antioch was founded by Saint Peter and was the church where the disciples of Jesus were first called Christians. Along with Alexandria in Egypt and Constantinople, Antioch was one of the most important spiritual centers of the east. It outranked the others in biblical scholarship. Two factors, however, led to the gradual decay of the church of Antioch: its political position as a buffer state between the Byzantine Empire and its antagonistic powers; and its ecclesiastical division by schisms and heresies. More and more the faithful set all their hopes on the Maronite community where, in spite of persecutions and devastating wars, the spiritual leaders guided and protected their faithful with moderation and wisdom.

In the beginning of the 8th century, the community of Beth-Maron had to proclaim one of its members, the monk John, already bishop of Botrys in Lebanon, as patriarch of Antioch. Since that day, the spiritual leader of the Maronite community has been patriarch of Antioch and “the Whole East,” that is, of the territory administered by the capital Antioch.

Unfortunately, what we know about the first Maronite patriarch John Maron can not be grounded in contemporary documents. What we have are pious stories about his life created by devoted people to honor him. There are documents written since the time of the Crusaders, but the legends they contain must be set aside as unreliable evidence.

It seems that it was during the reign of Saint John Maron that the Maronite community left the north of Syria to take refuge in the “Holy Valley”, the Qadish of the Lebanese mountains. There, probably in the year 749, they built their first church in Lebanon, Mar-Mama in Ehden. While the Maronites began a new life in Lebanon, the monastery of Beth-Maron continued its struggle to survive the damages caused by the armies of the Byzantine Empire and by the invasions of the Arabs. This holy site of the Maronites was completely devastated, probably in the 10th century. So far as we know, only one manuscript of its rich library escaped the pillage and is preserved now in the British Museum.

In the meantime, thanks to the prudence of their spiritual leaders, the Maronite community enjoyed the peace of the Cedars and the relative security of the Lebanese mountains. From that time, the history of the Maronites and the history of Lebanon have been intertwined. Without the Maronites there would not have been a Lebanon, and without Lebanon the destiny of Christianity in the Middle East would certainly have been more unstable.

In the beginning of their stay in Lebanon, isolated by the mountains and worried about the political unrest in the Near East, the Maronites faithfully adhered to the creed of the Catholic Church. But here is a paradox. Because the tradition of Antioch always preferred biblical expressions over dogmatic formulations the creed they professed did not contain the “new” formulations of the councils regarding the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. Hesitations to accept these formulations, belonged to the sphere of theological terminology; they did not lessen the unshakable attachment of the Maronites to the Catholic faith. They did, however, become harmful to the reputation of the Maronites. No council condemned them, but in many publications, for example the article “Maronites” in the first edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia (vol. 9, 683-688), the Maronites are accused of the heresy of monothelitism which taught that there is only one will in Christ. In our day, as we experience once again the difficulty of translating into human language the mystery of the Ineffable, we can better understand the complexity of the theological situation in which the Maronites had tofind their way.

In the Lebanon of the 11th and 12th centuries, the Maronites found themselves once more between two worlds; the Latin Church of the West and the churches of the East. The Latin missionaries found warm welcome in the Maronite community. They did not, however, understand or appreciate the profound value and the riches of the oriental traditions, and tried to impose, often with success, the juridical and liturgical structures of the Latin Church as the “only true Catholic”‘ structures. The Maronites, in turn, with their traditional spirit of moderation and openness, enjoyed enriching their oriental patrimony with the richness of Christian dogmas as it had developed in the West. They also introduced into the Oriental churches such expressions of Western devotional life as the rosary and the stations of the cross.

It would be easy to assume the Maronites of being responsible for the “Latinization” of the Eastern churches. but such would be an unfair accusation. The Maronites always kept and jealously guarded their Oriental traditions. They were convinced, however, and still are, that their own traditions can grow only in the always challenging contact with the universal church.

This contact with the Latin Church enriched the intellectual world of Europe in the Middle Ages. Maronites taught Oriental languages and literature at the universities of Italy and France. Thanks to their position between East and West, and to their knowledge of the occidental theological tradition, they successfully started the dialogue with the Orthodox churches of the Near East. The history of the Melkites and Chaldeans, of Catholic Armenians and Syrians, shows the important role of the Maronites in the foundation of these communities.

Today some one million fifty thousand Maronites in Lebanon courageously maintain, under the guidance of their patriarch, this tradition of hospitality and openness in the politically explosive and religiously nearly impossible situation of the Near East. This is the history of the Maronites, a people between two worlds, between East and West, between Latin Church and the Oriental churches, between Catholicism and Orthodoxy, between Islam and Christianity.

In the post-Vatican II Latin Church, the introduction of the vernacular language into the Roman liturgy has encouraged all nations to celebrate the unique sacrifice of the Lord in the language, music and symbolism proper to each people and culture. While the Latin Church is rediscovering, sometimes painfully, the riches of this liturgical renewal, the Maronites always celebrated a liturgy in which they can recognize their culture and history: their relation to Antioch, their monastic origins, their contact with the Latin Church. It is always with emotion that the Maronites listen to the words of consecration sung by the Maronite priest in Syriac, so close to the language in which our Lord, on the day before He suffered and died, pronounced these words for the first time.

The Maronite liturgy stresses these words with gestures which probably belong to a very old Christian symbolism. After the words, “He gave thanks and praise, and blessed the bread,” the priest blesses the bread with the sign of the cross; and after the words “He broke the bread,” he touches the four ends of the host. In the same way, the sign of the cross is drawn on the chalice, and after the words, “this blood is to be shed”, the priest inclines the chalice to the four sides as if to shed it in reality. With these gestures, the Maronite liturgy likes to stress the universal character of the Eucharist, and the faithful, by their “Amen”, participate in this universal gift and universal mission.

There is another important element in the consecration of the Maronite liturgy. While the Latin Mass brings the consecration to a close by the recitation of the words “Do this in memory of me,” the Maronite liturgy continues with the biblical reference “Do this in memory of me . . . until I come again,” a verse which always was a favorite text in the spirituality of Antioch.

In this addition, the eschatological character of the theology of Antioch, which the Maronite Church has inherited and enriched, clearly takes form. Once more this theology is situated between the theology of the East and that of the West, as the Maronite patriarch pointed out in one of his interventions at Vatican Council II. While the theology of the West has always stressed the actualization of the world, and while the theology of Byzantine Christianity continues to celebrate the divine liturgy which the Risen Lord accomplishes in His heavenly glory (compared to which all things of this world are vain and idle) the Maronite liturgy celebrates the Eucharist in expectation of the coming of the Lord.

The Maronites in their liturgy are painfully aware of the fact that we are actually not in the glory of the Lord and in the plenitude of His redemption. We are awaiting it. On the other hand, they realize in faith that this sacramental sign is really rahbouno, a pledge of glory to come, and zouodo, a viaticum which really transforms a simple terrestrial being into a pilgrim on the way to his or her home, the “house of the heavenly Father”.

The interventions of the Maronite bishops at the Vatican Council and the publications of Maronite scholars show clearly that the Maronites are aware of the precious contribution that the realistic and biblical theology of Antioch can make, not only in the dialogue between Rome and Byzantium, but especially in the delicate interfaith relations with Islam and Synagogue for which the death of God and the divinization of a man remain a scandal.

The long tradition of living between two worlds prepared more than 475,000 Maronites to live far from their country and holy sites, between the culture of their adopted country and their own tradition.

In the 19th century, the Maronites found their way to the United States. It is interesting to note that the first Maronite to come to Boston in 1854, Youssef Daher Beshaleini from Salima (Metn, Lebanon) did not come for financial reasons. By his contact with Americans in Lebanon, he became more and more eager simply to discover the United States. He died at the age of 19, two years after coming to Boston.

Years later, groups of Maronites found their way to Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and the Mid-West. They had hardly settled in Boston when, in 1893, they built their first church in the United States. Because their common personality as not so much based on a political or national foundation, but on long religious tradition, they became indisputably attached to the values of the American heritage which enlarged their vision and, at the same time, strengthened their religious fidelity to the Church of Saint Maron. The Maronite Church in the United States is neither a national church nor a territorial church. It is the implantation of a venerable old Christian tradition in the New World.

Maronite saints, like Maron himself and his recently canonized disciple Saint Sharbel, were always silent saints. We may wish that the Maronites speak loudly about their theological and liturgical treasures, not only to preserve the future of their own church in the United States, but also to encourage and enrich the whole Catholic church in America in its growth and fulfillment.

(Fr. Kolvenback is currently the Superior General of the Society of Jesus. His article is reprinted with permission.)