Lebanon: Solidarity and Maronite Sprituality

As steadfast friends of the Lebanese people, we believe that Lebanon, as the late Pope John Paul II said, should be “a model” for people of different faiths living together in peace. The current conflict puts at risk the progress that has been made to free Lebanon from outside domination and from being used as a pawn in a larger struggle. Our Conference is deeply disturbed by the provocative acts of Hezbollah against Israel that precipitated the current crisis and provoked the disproportionate Israeli military responses. Both the initial act and the resulting reactions endanger the Lebanese people and their vulnerable democracy. As our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, recently said: “Neither terrorist acts nor reprisals, especially when they entail tragic consequences for the civilian population, can be justified.”

Our Conference calls upon the United States to exert greater leadership with all parties to the conflicts and to work more intensively and multilaterally to end the provocations and violence, to secure a ceasefire, to restrain Israel, to move toward negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians to bring about security for Israel and a viable state for the Palestinians, and to ensure the independence of Lebanon.

Break the Cycle of Violence in the Holy Land: A Statement of Bishop Thomas G. Wenski — Bishop of Orlando, chairman, USCCB Committee on International Policy

Politically speaking, I would simply like to agree with the previous statement. I cannot add more insight. I was struck, however, by the report of a midday Mass celebrated on June 18 by the Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah P. Sfeir, who likewise pronounced (in the words of the reporter) that “Israel has a right to defend itself, but its reaction to Hezbollah’s actions is not proportionate,” especially since the Lebanese government is far too weak to control Hezbollah. At the liturgy, Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington told the congregants, “prayer is one thing we can do. There is power in our supplication. When we pray, we show solidarity with the church and the people of Lebanon.” What does this solidarity mean?

The Catechism first articulates solidarity in terms of “friendship.” In 1996, the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales helpfully wrote, “Solidarity means the willingness to see others as another ‘self’, and so to regard injustice committed against another as no less serious than an injustice against oneself.” We should quickly note that an expression of solidarity with “the people of Lebanon” should never be antagonistic to the people of Israel, who are suffering from the war crimes of Hezbollah, with whom we should also show solidarity. The bishops of England and Wales say that solidarity “has an inescapable universal dimension” and seeks the common good of all. “Quite a large number” in Haifa, we can also note, might actually desire diplomatic negotiations, not violent escalation.

Where to begin? The Catechism also tells us that solidarity “practices the sharing of spiritual goods even more than material ones.” Perhaps a very – exceedingly – small thing that I can do on this blog is to try to learn from the spirituality of our Lebanese brothers and sisters. My ignorance is astounding. But I will start by sharing from an article from the 2004 Heythrop Journal on the Maronite eremitical tradition, written by Guita G. Hourani and Antoine B. Habchi. Our authors begin by describing the origins of the Maronite Church in the life of St Maron, who, in the 4th and 5th centuries, lived a life of penitence and prayer in the region of Apamea (northern Syria). Maron attracted a group of disciples who would themselves form the Maronite Church, “their life centered on the monastery dedicated to the memory of their master, namely the monastery of Saint Maron situated in the vicinity of Apamea.” Already, we see something rather remarkable to us – a Church from which no less than a Patriarchate would arise is itself born from a monastic community.

Within the Syriac Churches, the Maronites would be distinguished by the monastic character of the entire church. They would also come to grow attached to the land of their Patriarchate in North Lebanon. In his article, “Maronite (Eglise),” in the Dictionnaire de Spiritualité, Michel Hayek writes of this relationship, “the Maronite worked, constructed, planted as we celebrate a liturgy: all this had a sacramental taste, a liturgical flavor: the vine and the wheat for the bread and the wine of the Eucharist, the olive tree for refining the holy oils, the mulberry tree for weaving altar cloth and wedding gowns. Everything is a sign of the great beyond.” The Maronites would also cultivate an ecumenical spirituality – they are part of Eastern Christianity but in union with Rome, and they have themselves never directly experienced the wounds of Catholic/Orthodox division. They have also participated in dialogue with Islam. Finally, the crucified Christ is significant in Maronite spirituality as a source of consolation in times of suffering – doubtless even as I write, and of hope in a victory stronger than death. We can learn from all of these.

We will more immediately focus on the monastic emphasis here. The monastic character of the Maronite people can be seen in the monastic hood worn by Maronite bishops. All Maronite bishops before 1736 lived lives of austerity, abstaining from meat and wearing monastic habits. Three hermits were even elevated to the patriarchate from the hermitage in the sixteenth century. And, as Michel Hayek writes, the people themselves constituted a “third order”:

Until the reorganization of the religious life in 1700, being a monk meant nothing more than a stronger radical commitment to the institution which is the community itself. The people lived according to the liturgical calendar and shared austerity with the monks. They fasted a lot, abstained from many things and recited daily hymns and prayers even at midnight when there is always a huge through of people.

More specifically, Maronite spirituality has continuously included hermits – St Maron himself lived in solitude. The ecumenical character of Maronite spirituality could be seen in the presence in the valley of Qadisha of foreign hermits from Egypt, Jerusalem, Ethiopia, and even Europe. The term for hermit – hbîsê – did not connote escapism and isolation, but rather mission for the people. The early Maronites would eventually find themselves at odds with the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic Caliphate, and, in this time of terrible anxiety, the hermit would defend the faith of the community. Hourani and Habchi write about the hermit:

He helps to maintain two kinds of relationships in his spiritual life; a vertical relationship, which, as a white [bloodless] martyr, makes him lead his community to God through his prayer, and a horizontal relationship, because he is sacrificing himself for the sake of his community. In this sense, the Maronite hermit imitates Christ and transforms the Eucharist to a daily living: He is sacrificing himself on the Cross to save his community, and to redeem it by taking its sins upon himself. He constitutes himself a meeting point between God and his people.

Today, there are still hermits: one of them, for instance, is Antonios Chayna, a monk who taught moral theology and ran Caritas in Lebanon for a time, who became a hermit at Saint Boula, at the altitude of 3600 feet, during the feast of Pentecost in 1982. Beyond these few men and women, however, the eremitical life continues to influence the church through the so-called “Eremitical Days.” The Antonine Sisters invited young men and women in 2000 to live a day in the eremitical life in the Qadisha Valley – they would spend twenty-four hours in prayer and contemplation, sleeping on the floor and eating monastic provisions. Four times a day would be consecrated to prayer, the offering of incense, intercession, and supplication. Afterwards, the participants would complete a questionnaire. The “Eremitical Day” in 2003 would last forty-eight hours and include one hundred and twelve candidates. Additionally, two monasteries in the West –Most Holy Trinity in Petersham, Massachusetts, and Our Lady of Grace in Nova Scotia – are presently associated with the Maronite tradition and seek to combine cenobitical and eremitical life. We can certainly learn from this.

Once more, the Catholic bishops of England and Wales write, “Solidarity means the willingness to see others as another ‘self’, and so to regard injustice committed against another as no less serious than an injustice against oneself.” When we read about the destruction in Lebanon – yesterday a Christian columnist of Palestinian descent even wrote (I do not know if he exaggerates), “As Lebanon dies, the largest Christian minority presence in the Middle East is also dying with it” – do we ourselves feel wounded? If we honestly do not feel this solidarity, we might begin by realizing the beauty of the spiritual gifts that we could receive from Lebanon – gifts that are now in at least some danger of being lost to us. And that, if nothing else, should move us to pray.

(I should note that I don’t know what the headlines will be when you read this post. It is possible that it might seem outdated, uninformed, or even irrelevant …)

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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