Introducing St Maroun

Who was St Maroun (St Maron)?

Maronite history is controversial. This controversy is partly possible because there are so few sources for Maronite history for the period from its beginning up until the last two hundred years. For the very earliest periods, the few shreds of surviving evidence are often unclear, incomplete, and vigorously controverted. Although historians acknowledge that the sources are thin, they nonetheless try and fill them in as much as they can. In this course we shall try and be impartial, and not overstate the evidence in any direction or for any purpose. It is not possible to avoid all controversy, but I think we can avoid the practice of criticising others who offer conjectures, while doing the same ourselves. The most important book on early Maronite history is Peter El Khouri’s Aramaic Catholicism. Incidentally, so that there is no confusion, I have altered all spellings of “Marun” or “Maron” to “Maroun”, whatever my source may have written.

Theodoret’s Life of Maroun

Ancient Cyr, also known as Cyrrhus and Kurros, in Syria was founded in about 300BC, and was named after the city of Kurros in Macedonia. It was in northern Syria, not far from Aleppo and the modern Turkish border. Theodoret was bishop of Cyrrhus between about 423 and 458. We are almost totally reliant upon his History of the Monks of Syria. Theodoret is uneven in his treatment of the monks, and aimed to relate what he had seen of these monks for himself, or learned from those who had themselves met the relevant monk.[1] Unfortunately for us, it appears that Theodoret did not ever meet St Maroun,[2] and perhaps for this reason, commentators observe that Theodoret’s brief account is very thin for such an important monk.[3]

St Maroun is an enigma. He is important in Christian history: no other Catholic rite is, so far as I know, exclusively named after one person, yet little is known of what he said and did which made him so important – except for the essential points. We shall begin with the only biography of him, chapter 16 of Theodoret’s writings on the holy hermits and monks of Syria.[4] It reads:

1          After Akepsimas, I will call to mind Maroun, for he adorned the godly troop of the holy ones. Maroun embraced life under the sky, taking for himself a certain hill-top which had long ago been honoured by the impious. And having dedicated to God the sacred precincts of the demons in that place, he passed all of his time there, pitching a small tent, but making little use of it. Maroun did not only employ the customary labours, but he conceived others also, gathering together the wealth of wisdom.

2          The judge measured out grace for these labours: so richly did the munificent one grant to him the charism of healing, that Maroun’s fame ran about everywhere, and everyone from everywhere was attracted, so that experience taught them the truth of the report. It was seen that fevers were quenched by the dew of his blessing, shudderings ceased, and demons fled – many and varied sufferings were cured by the one remedy. For the race of physicians applies to each illness the corresponding medicine, but the prayer of the holy ones is the common antidote to all pathologies.

3          But Maroun healed more than bodily weaknesses alone: he also applied the bountiful cure for souls. He heals the greed of this man, and the anger of that man. For one man, Maroun proffers the teaching which leads to self-control, while for another man he bestows lessons in justice; he tempers the man of intemperance, and arouses the sluggish. Farming in this wise, Maroun cultivated many crops through his wisdom: it was he who planted the paradise which now blooms in the land of Kurros. The great Yakobos (James) was a product of this cultivation: of him and of all the others whom I shall recall individually with God’s help, one could rightly apply the famous prophetic saying: “The just man will flower like the palm tree, and will be multiplied like a cedar in the Lebanon.”

4          Caring in this way for the garden of God, doctoring to both souls and bodies alike, he patiently suffered but a short illness. Maroun, teaching us the frailty of our nature and strength in commitment, withdrew himself from this life.

Quarrelling broke out between the neighbours over his body, a violent quarrel. A populous bordering village came out in a body, scattered all of the others, and seized this most-desired treasure. They built a great sacred enclosure, and even to this very day they reap the profit, honouring Maroun the victory-bearer with a public feast. And even we, who are at a distance, reap his blessing, for it is not Maroun’s tomb which contents us, but his memory.

In addition, Theodoret mentions Maroun in some other places, translated by the author:

Chapter VI, Symeon (Not St Simon the Stylite)

(summary)       2          Some Jews were journeying to a citadel which lay outside of our “inhabited world” (oikoumene). They lost their way in a storm, and came upon Symeon in his cave. Symeon offered them guides to put them back on the right road, and summoned two lions, who at Symeon’s direction, led the Jewish travellers back onto their road.

3     “But no one is to think the narrative is fabulous, for I have as witnesses to its truth, those who are usually foes of the truth. Indeed, the very Jews who met with this good service continued to praise this act. And this was told to me by great Yakub himself, who stated that he had been present when the Jewish travellers related the miracle to the divinely-voiced Maroun.” [Theodoret then stresses that this was an instance where Jews witnessed a miracle wrought through a Christian.]

Chapter XXI, Yakub

(summary)       Yakub had been a companion of Maroun, who had lived in a place once holy to the pagans, and protected himself from the elements only by retiring to a tent made of “hairy skins” in rain or snow.

Chapter XXII, Limnaios

2     Limnaios had been a pupil of Thalassios, and then went to Maroun at the same time as Yakub, and after this, being eager for the “life under the sky”, took possession of another hilltop, lying above the village of Targalla.[5]

Ch. XXIV Zebinas

2     Zebinas was admired by Maroun, who advised all who visited him to obtain Zebinas’ blessing. Maroun wished to be buried in Zebinas’ grave.

Chapter 30 mentions Maroun only to say that Domnina emulated his life. Price states that St Maroun professed himself “the disciple of Zebinas”.[6] However, this is not what the text says. Incidentally, as we have seen, “Zebinas” was also the name of a bishop of Antioch. It shows only that the name was not unique among Christians.

 

It should not be forgotten that St Maroun lived before the great Christological battles which broke out. Disputes had begun, but not the great conflicts. The life of St Maroun was not the life of a controversialist: it was the life of a missionary of Christianity in a very disciplined form. Whether he was indeed the first hermit to live an open-air existence, as opposed to in a town, or in a desert cell, is not to my mind as important as the example of holiness. He was not so extreme as some others, as he had a small hut to which he could retire in extreme weather. That his way of life impressed contemporaries is not in doubt, and his exposure to the elements will have assisted in that. But that ascetic life was a means to an end: it is the end which is significant.

To be continued, Joseph Azize (Fr Yuhanna), 17 April 2019

 

[1] (Prologue, 11)

[2] Price (1985) 119, n.1.

[3] Price (1985) 119, n.1. Cavinet and Leroy-Molinghen (1979) 28-29, n.1.

[4] Théodoret de Cyr: Histoire des moines de Syrie, two volumes, Pierre Canivet and Alice Leroy-Molinghen, Sources Chrétiennes 234, Les éditions du cerf, Paris, 1977 and 1979.

[5] p. 153, n.2 Price: Targalla is not identified.

[6] Price (1985) 119.

[7] Gelston (1992) 21-22.

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