Saints in the Maronite Tradition
By Dr Margaret Ghosn
The high esteem for asceticism and respect for hermits has always been part of the Maronite people’s faith. To them, hermits attest to the spiritual life and message of Christ. The spiritual life of the hermit according to Zayek involves ‘a profound liturgical life; meditation upon Holy Scriptures; adoration of the Blessed Sacrament; and devotion to the Mother of God.’ Their life of physical solitude is a life of love without consolation. St. Theodoret, the Bishop of Cyrus described these hermits as true ‘athletes of the spirit.’ Referred to as the Anchorites from the East, or ‘Fathers of the Desert’, these were people of great holiness. The Eastern Churches today still enumerate them, especially in Lebanon and Syria. Today in Lebanon there are numerous shrines dedicated to saints. However five particular saints hold special admiration by the Maronites. Mary the Mother of God is the Patroness of Lebanon and is highly esteemed. Saint Maroun is considered the Founder of the Maronites. Three modern day saints who are well loved include Saints Charbel, Hardini and Rafqa. There are also many earlier saints and there are recent religious figures who have been raised to the blessed status by the Holy See.
Mother of our God
The Maronite Church has from the beginning, claimed a special devotion to the Mother of God. In villages, homes, mountains and the streets of Lebanon, one finds shrines to Our Lady. On all Marian feasts, particularly the feast of the Assumption, Maronites throughout the world gather in prayer at Churches named in honour of her. Mary is often referred to as Our Lady of Lebanon. Hymns, feast days and the liturgical life of the Maronite Church also express this devotion.
In the Anaphora of the Announcement to Mary it is written, ‘O Mary, you are the pure one who has scented the world with the fragrance of Christ. You are the cloud which has scattered dew upon the universe.’ The Wednesday Divine Liturgy Anaphora also honours Mary. One of the prayers reads, ‘O Mary, Radiant Lily and Fragrant Rose, the aroma of your holiness fills the whole universe. Pray for us, that we may be the sweet perfume of Christ, reaching throughout the whole world.’
Mary has a prominent role in the Maronite Church and she plays a role in the theology of Salvation. Christ became human to make us divine. For Christ to become human Mary was chosen. Mary is called blessed among women, because it was her ‘yes’ in faith, which brought forth Jesus, the Saviour of the world.
Mary, being perfectly redeemed, has already attained perfection of soul and body and her assumption into heaven assures us of our own bodily resurrection, our own journey of divinisation. Mary is the Cedar of Lebanon, a strong and firm believer and follower of God’s loving transformation.
Figure 1 Maronite icon of Mary the Mother of God, with her Son Jesus.
Marian theology sustains a balance between the humanity and divinity of Jesus. The divine One fashions, nurtures and sustains the world, yet also as a human is fashioned, nurtured and sustained by Mary. The Maronite tradition has a deep devotion to Mary, and never removes the imagery of the child from her arms, as seen in the above icon of Our Lady of Iliege.
Saint Maroun is considered the Father of the spiritual and monastic movement now called the Maronite Church. Maroun, born in the middle of the 4th century was a priest who retired as a hermit, to a mountain in the region of Cyrrhus in Syria. It is believed that the place was called ‘Kefar-Nabo’ on the mountain of Ol-Yambos, making it the cradle of the Maronite movement. His holiness and miracles attracted many followers, and drew attention throughout the empire. Maroun was able to convert a pagan temple into a Christian Church. This was to be the beginning of the conversion of Paganism to Christianity in Syria which would then influence and spread to Lebanon.
Reference to Saint Maroun are found in writings by Saint John of Chrysostom in a letter dated 406 CE. Theodoret of Cyr also refers to Saint Maroun:
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.
Theodoret goes on to describe the physical and spiritual healing powers of Saint Maroun.
Saint Maroun was deeply monastic with emphasis on the spiritual and ascetic aspects of living. He embraced the quiet solitude of the mountain life where he freed himself from the physical world by his passion and fervour for prayer and entered into a mystical relationship of love with God. Accompanying his deeply spiritual and ascetic life, he was a zealous missionary. After his death in the year 410 CE, his spirit and teachings lived on through his disciples.
Figure 2 Saint Maroun
Saint Charbel (1828-1898)
‘...hermit of the Lebanese mountain is inscribed in the number of the blessed, a new eminent member of monastic sanctity is enriching, by his example and his intercession, the entire Christian people. May he make us understand, in a world largely fascinated by wealth and comfort, the paramount value of poverty, penance and asceticism,
to liberate the soul in its ascent’
– Pope Paul VI, October 9, 1977
Youssef Antoun Makhlouf was born in 1828, in Bekaa Kafra, North Lebanon. The youngest of five children, he became a shepherd. Since his father died early in life an uncle supported the family. As a child Youssef was inspired by the life of two maternal uncles, who were monks of the Maronite Lebanese Order, living in a hermitage only three miles away. In 1851, at the age of 23 years, he left his family village for the Our Lady of Maifouk monastery to spend his first monastic year. He then went to Saint Maron monastery in Annaya, where he entered the Maronite Order, carrying the name Charbel, a name of one of the Antioch church martyrs of the second century. The young monk was sent to prepare for the priesthood at Saint Cyprian of Kfifan, where he was ordained six years later at the age of 31. He returned to Annaya where for sixteen years he was a model of perfection. Charbel performed his priestly ministry and his monastic duties in an edifying way.
On February 15th, 1875, Saint Charbel was granted permission to enter the Saint Peter and Paul hermitage. His 23 years of solitary life were lived in a spirit of total abandonment to God. The Eucharist became the centre of his life. Rarely did he leave the hermitage, following the way of the saintly hermits in prayers, life and practice. He was offering Mass a week before Christmas, when paralysis struck him as he elevated the host. Saint Charbel died quietly on the 24th of December 1898, at the age of 70. He was buried in the St Maron monastery cemetery in Annaya.
A few months later, dazzling lights were seen around the grave. From there, his corpse, which had been secreting sweat and blood, was transferred into a special coffin. In 1950, the grave was opened in the presence of an official committee who verified the soundness of the body. After the grave had been opened and inspected, the variety of healing incidents multiplied. Charbel Mahklouf was canonized on October 9, 1977.
Although the events of Saint Charbel’s life are not extraordinary save by their heroic virtue, he appeals to many generations of believers. Acts such as enduring the extreme cold of the hermitage each winter, without adding additional garments to his very simple ones, indicate a person of endurance. This appeals to young Maronite adults who rarely witness people of solitude, internal prayer and contemplation. Furthermore, a great many miracles have occurred to people of all creeds and nationalities, who have been healed either when people touched his body or were anointed with the oily liquid that sweated miraculously from his remains, or when they touched his clothes. Again miracles appeal to people and combined with Saint Charbel’s silence, mortification, deprivation and total gift of self, he has become a universally accepted saint.
Here in Australia the Lebanese Maronite Order has a church and college which hold the name of Saint Charbel.
Figure 3 Saint Charbel
Saint Nemetallah Hardini (1810-1858)
Father Nemetallah Kassab, the mentor of Saint Charbel, was born in 1808 in Hardine, North of Lebanon. At the age of twenty, he joined the Lebanese Order of Monks in the monastery of Saint Anthony, Kozhaya in North Lebanon. As a novitiate, his life was one of virtue, praying and meditating. He adopted the name Nemetallah which means grace of God. After two years, he received the monastic habit in 1830 and was sent to the monastery of Kfifane to prepare for priesthood. In 1833, he was ordained.
Father Nemetallah became a member of the General Council of his Order for three terms, 1845-1848, 1850-1853 and 1856-1858. As a member of the Council he continued to bind books, a technique he learnt at the monastery. He also taught in the schools.
Fr Nemetallah was above all a person of prayer. He spent days and nights in meditation, his arms uplifted in prayer before the Eucharist. The Virgin Mary was his patron and he prayed the rosary daily. He prayed the Divine Liturgy with great reverence. During his life he was often called ‘The Saint.’
He died at the age of 48 on 14th December 1858, after struggling ten days with a high fever contracted from the cold winter wind. Sometime later, the monks opened his tomb and found his incorrupt body. It was examined and placed in a new coffin in 1996 in the Monastery of Kfifan. Pope John Paul II beatified Fr Nemetallah on 10 May 1998. He was canonised on 16 May 2004. The Maronite Church celebrates his feast-day on December 14.
In Australia the Lebanese Maronite Order have purchased land at Appin where they intend to build a retreat centre, nursing home and school, which will bear the name of Saint Hardini.
Figure 4 Saint Nematallah Hardini
Saint Rafqa (1832-1914)
Saint Rafqa was born in Himlaya, Lebanon on June 29th 1832. She was an only child. Her baptismal name was Boutroussieh. At the age of seven, her mother died. In 1843, her father experienced financial difficulties and sent her to work as a servant for four years in Damascus. In 1847, she came back home to find that her father had remarried.
Rafqa felt drawn to religious life and so she joined the Congregation of the Mariamettes (1859 - 1871). She became a novice in 1861. Upon taking her vows she was sent to the Ghazir Seminary, where in her free time she studied Arabic, calligraphy and arithmetic. In 1860, Rafqa was sent to Deir El Qamar to teach. There, she witnessed the bloody clashes that occurred in Lebanon and on one occasion risked her life by hiding a child under her robe. In 1863, she was sent to teach in a school in Byblos. One year later, she was transferred to Maad. There in the village, with another nun, she spent seven years establishing a new school for girls.
While living in Maad and following a crisis in her Congregation, Rafqa asked God to guide her decision making. This led her to the Lebanese Maronite Order, to the Monastery of Saint Simon El Qarn in Aito (1871-1897). There she wore the novice robe in 1871 and pronounced her vows the following year. She chose the name Rafqa, after her mother. She spent 26 years in the monastery. She was a role model to the other nuns. Her life was full of prayer, sacrifice and austerity. Throughout her life, Rafqa was the recipient of revelations by voices, dreams, and visions.
On the first Sunday of October 1885, she entered the monastery's church and asked Jesus to permit her to experience some of his sufferings during his Passion. Her prayer was immediately granted with unbearable pain in her head and eyes. Her Superior insisted that she undergo medical treatment. After all local attempts to cure her failed, a doctor ordered immediate surgery to her right eye. In the course of the surgery, the doctor uprooted her eye which fell on the floor. For the next 12 years Rafqa experienced intense pain in her head.
In 1899 Rafqa lost sight in her left eye and became paralysed. With this, a new stage of her suffering began. She suffered for 17 years as a blind paralytic and by 1907 was totally paralysed and in constant pain. According to some doctors, Rafqa suffered from osteo-articular tuberculosis. She spent the last seven years of her life lying in bed. However she has use of her hands and would spend time weaving socks.
On the 23rd of March 1914, Rafqa rested in peace. A splendid light appeared on her grave for three consecutive nights. On July 10th, 1927, her body was transferred to the monastery's church.
In Australia a Church to be built in the next few years in Leppington will be given the title of Saint Rafqa.
Figure 5 Saint Rafqa
 Francis M. Zayek, The Call of the Desert. USA: Diocese of St. Maron, 1977.
 Theodoret of Cyr on St Maroun (translations and summaries). Pierre Canivet and Alice Leroy-Molinghen, ‘Théodoret de Cyr: Histoire des moines de Syrie,’ Chrétiennes 234, 1977 and 1979.
. In chapter 16, paragraph 2 we read, ‘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 & dash; 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.’ Paragraph 3 then follows, ‘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 profers 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.’