The West Syrian Christians Part I: History of the Maronites

As I continued my look into the West Syrian Rite, I realized that historical background is needed to understand the myriad ritual and ecclesiastical divergences.  One would be hard pressed to find an ancient apostolic church that has been divided as many times as that of Antioch and it can make for a fascinating – if somewhat confusing – history.

In this entry, I will discuss the early separations from the main church of Antioch that took place in the Patrisic and High Byzantine eras.

The Maronites

I had already known that the Maronites derive their name from a “St. Maron”.  What I did not know before looking into this was that there were two of them.  The first is considered the spiritual founder of the church, while the latter is its first Patriarch.

Maron/Marou/Maro was a Syrian monk, hermit, and ascetic who lived in the late 4th and early 5th centuries (dying in 410 AD according to some sources and 435 AD according to others).  Aside from a brief account by St. Theodoret of Cyrrhus, little is known about his actual life – besides the fact that he was a friend of St. John Chrysostom – as the spiritual movement he started was considered far more worthy of note.

Maron’s outlook was one that can be seen as quite similar to the one Francis of Assisi would adopt about eight hundred years later.  The chief tenet can be summed up as “All is connected to God and God is connected to all”.

Consequently, Maron adopted a spiritual and ascetic life that focused on both the spiritual and the physical world to direct man towards God, for to him reflection on the physical world was just as necessary as reflection on the spiritual.  Wishing to know God’s presence in all things, he removed himself from the noise of society and went into the quiet seclusion of prayer.  By doing so, he freed himself from his attachment to the world while acquiring a more profound love for it.

Driven by zeal, he went on to preach Christ to all he met.  He took special care in attempting to heal both the physical ailments men suffered and the nurturing of the “lost souls” among both Christians and non-Christians (as was consistent with his holistic view of the physical and the spiritual).

It should be no surprise that such a man would attract followers in his lifetime.  Maron’s missionary work began in the mountains of Syria when he converted a pagan temple into a Christian church.  His first disciple, Abraham of Cyrrhus, successfully converted much of Lebanon by introducing them to the spiritual outlook of Maron.  Many new converts to Christianity adopted Maron’s ascetic lifestyle and took up residence in the mountains of Syria and Lebanon.  Their communities would continue on and were the beginning of Lebanese Christianity.

The Maronite communities unanimously supported the decrees of Chalcedon.  When the Syrian Monophysites slew 350 monks the Maronites fled deeper into the mountains of Lebanon (they would unfortunately find themselves doing this quite a bit as the centuries continued).  Their defense of orthodoxy under such circumstances received recognition from Pope Hormisdas.

In the 7th century, the Byzantine Emperor Heralius attempted to forge a union with the Christians who had rejected Chalcedon and those who had accepted it.  This endeavor was endorsed by the Patriarch of Constantinople and the infamous Pope Honorius (who is still anathemized in Greek Orthodoxy) before being shut down by the Sixth Ecumenical Council (Constantinople III).

“To Theodore of Pharan, the heretic, anathema! To Sergius, the heretic, anathema! To Cyrus, the heretic, anathema! To Honorius, the heretic, anathema! To Pyrrhus, the heretic, anathema!” – Council of Constantinople III, Sixteenth Session

This is where the narrative gets a bit messy.

Byzantine narrative corroborated by contemporary Greek and Arab sources:

Despite the Sixth Ecumenical Council, the Maronites held fast to the heterodox compromise of Monothelitism.  They remained the sole believers of the discredited idea until they moved away from it at the approach of the crusaders.

Maronite narrative:

John Maron (628-707 AD) was a Maronite monk who spent much of his life studying theology, debating with the Monophysites, upholding the decrees of Chalcedon, and writing letters against Monothelitism.  He was made bishop of the Maronites in 676 to help the community withstand assaults of the Arabs.  In 686, the Maradite forces (the “Brass Wall”) in the Byzantine Army chose John Maron as the next Patriarch of Antioch and all the East, even receiving the approval of Pope Sergius I.  Emperor Justinian II, fearing the growing political influence the Maradites wielded, sent troops into Syria to crush them and depose John Maron.  They overran Antioch and slaughtered 500 monks before Ibrahim – John’s nephew and leader of the Maradites – crushed them decisively in battle.  The community retreated deeper into the mountains again, repelling attacks from the Islamic armies until the arrival of the Crusaders.

 

Whatever the case, the Maronites – along with the Jacobites – had effectively been separated from the main Church of Antioch and would remain on their own until Crusaders in the 11th Century made contact with them and forged an ecclesiastical and military alliance that remains unbroken to this day.  Despite centuries of attacks from the Monophysites, Byzantines, Arabs, Turks, Ottomans, and Islamists, the Maronite community withstood and remains to this day.

Their ancient liturgy, however, would not enjoy the same protection.

 

Next: The history of the Jacobites

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