Who Was St Maroun? Part III

Why did St Maroun succeed in his work of sanctification and evangelisation? I have already set out what Theodoret wrote about St Maroun in part I. http://www.fryuhanna.com/2019/04/17/introducing-st-maroun/

for part II, see http://www.fryuhanna.com/2019/04/17/introducing-st-maroun/

Let us now examine that like a little more. St Maroun appears in history as a hermit teaching in the mountains of what is now Syria until his death; a man with a reputation for holiness, and so was probably the first Christian teacher to be able to make a significant and enduring impact upon the people of the Syrian and Lebanese countryside and mountains. He was able to achieve this for three reasons (1) he possessed the richness of Greek Christianity (we can infer this from his friendship with St John Chrysostom, who wrote to him in Greek), but he naturally expressed it in the Aramaic language of these people; (2) his example was such that he inspired young people of the region to follow him into the religious life; and (3) his life, and the lives of his religious disciples, demonstrated to the lay people, the power of Christianity.

The critical fact about St Maroun is that he lived as a hermit, and he died, atop a hill in Syria, possibly at Kaluta, although Amar thinks that he lived in the Orontes valley. St Maroun was the first hermit known to spend his days in the open air. He chose a site which had been a place of pagan worship: it included a temple, although Theodoret’s text is suggestive that not only the temple but perhaps the entire hilltop, had been sacred. The polytheists are known to have had sacred groves, trees, fish ponds and stones. There was often, if not always, a temple nearby. St Maroun is said to have dedicated those precincts to God, which may mean that he performed an exorcism, turned the temple into a church, and blessed the rest of the area. For protection against rain and snow, St Maroun relied upon a tent made of animal hides. This way of life made a big impression on the people.

What did St Maroun occupy himself with? There seem to have been two sides to his life: a private life of prayer and spiritual exercise, and a public life with his many visitors, which included many diverse matters: conversation, advice, teaching, healing and exorcism. Our source, Theodoret, says that St Maroun tended to his spiritual life with “the customary labours” and other exercises which he himself conceived. Theodoret speaks of this as “gathering together the wealth of philosophia”. In the translation I rendered philosophia as “wisdom”, for our modern term “philosophy” is too narrow to encompass the arts and sciences of the soul which St Maroun pursued.

Theodoret’s account is short, but it highlights St Maroun’s magnetism in a few deft strokes. First, we have the references to the ascetic disciplines which he undertook. When Theodoret speaks of the “customary labours”, he appears to have in mind prayer, fasting, penance, and depriving the body of sleep. Theodoret paid particular attention to any measures which might check the passions and bring the faculties under the control of a Christian will (by “faculties” I mean senses, thoughts and emotions). However, Theodoret does not tell us very much about these inner disciplines, let alone which ones were added by St Maroun. But then, neither, indeed, do many writers describe such disciplines, as they require the assistance and supervision of a teacher, and to write of them could lead some people to attempt exercises which they should not. However, it is clear that St Maroun was a master of these disciplines, and also that he taught various pupils, such as Yakub, Limnaios and – perhaps – Domnina. Theodoret is emphatic on the point that St Maroun was a great teacher. As El Khouri notes, of the thirty ascetics in Theodoret’s book, only Maroun is named as having had many pupils (Peter El Khouri, Aramaic Catholicism, 2017, 56 ).

There is one other matter to mention about Theodoret’s account of St Maroun, and that is the extent to which it is similar to the account of the life of St Anthony, founder of monasticism, which was written by St Athanasius (c.295-373). He wrote this life during his third exile (355-362) but after Antony’s death in 356. It was considered a classic and known throughout the Christian world quite quickly, so it is quite possible that Theodoret had read it. Athanasius writes: 14 Through him the Lord healed many of those present who suffered from bodily ailments; others he purged of demons, and to Antony he gave grace in speech. Thus he consoled many who mourned, and others hostile to each other he reconciled in friendship, urging everyone to prefer nothing in the world about the love of Christ. And when he spoke and urged them to keep in mind the future goods and the affection in which we are held by God … he persuaded many to take up the solitary life. And from then on, there were monasteries in the mountains and the desert was made a city by monks, who left their own people and registered themselves for the citizenship of the heavens. 15  … before long, through the attraction of his speech, a great many monasteries came into being, and like a father he guided them all.

Although the similarities to the life of St Maroun are quite evident, there are differences: notably, the story of his death, quite unlike Maroun’s, and it is said that St Anthony’s two companions buried his body in secret, and no one knows where it is. So, Theodoret does not blindly copy this earlier life, but even where he does, that may not necessarily mean that he was making up what he wrote about St Maroun: it seems to me that it may have been because he believed St Maroun to have been a founder of monasticism in Syria that he used themes from the life of the founder of monasticism in Egypt to express them. I think we can treat this as decent evidence that St Maroun was in fact the founder of Christianity in North West Syria.

There is an error into which some pretentious people fall, showing that they need to think again: they say that because a theme or motif in one book fits a desire of the author (e.g. to link characters, or to advance their agenda) it necessarily means that the theme or motif is not historical. This is not in the least so. Rather, it may have been selected precisely because it was historical and supported the author’s point, or, as may have happened with Theodoret and St Maroun, he knew the sort of things these people did, and used that to briefly round out the picture. Indeed, this proves that the St Maroun was like St Anthony, because otherwise Theodoret would have had to look elsewhere for his model.

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