Maronite Eastern Spirituality

By Dr Margaret Ghosn

 

Spirituality of the Eastern Churches

The Eastern Churches, notes Roccasalvo, reflect a spirituality that has four central ideas.[1] First, for the Eastern Christian, holiness is concerned with remaining attentive and ready to be interiorly transformed. Second, tradition and customs are observed with great reverence. Third is the ascetic tradition of rest, silence and mastery over one’s passions, in order to experience pure contemplation and prayerful union with God. Eastern Christians are fond of repeating the phrase, ‘Lord have mercy’ in their prayers and Eucharistic service. Fourth, the Eastern Churches celebrate the feast of the Resurrection as the main event of the liturgical year. The faithful greet one another with the refrain, ‘Christ is risen!’ This is preceded by an intense celebration of Great Lent beginning with a rigorous fast on Ash Monday (unlike the Ash Wednesday of the Roman Catholic Rite).

In the celebration of the Eucharistic liturgies, a sense of the sacred and transcendental is conveyed.[2] In the Maronite Church, the Eucharist is called the Divine Service of the Holy Mysteries. The service exhorts the faithful to celebrate the liturgy with heartfelt praise, gratitude, mercy and need. This is done joyfully yet with dignity, carefully preserving the sense of mystery and transcendence. The celebration of the Sunday Eucharist represents the high point of the week. In body praise, Eastern Churches perform the sign of the Cross not only to praise the Trinity and to revere the cross but also to symbolize the sacredness of their bodies as temples of God. Eastern Churches are resplendent with the visual beauty of icons and liturgical furnishings. Incense is used to reverence the interior of the church building, the offertory gifts, the icons and the faithful. The Eastern Churches call the faithful to honour Mary because she is the one who bore God and is appropriated a place with her Son in the celebration of the Eucharistic liturgies. Maronites hail Mary’s strength and fidelity under the term ‘Cedar of Lebanon.’ Maronites hear the words of consecration solemnly proclaimed in Syriac (Aramaic), the language used by Jesus. Retaining, in part, the mother tongue, reflects one of many ways in which the lifeline to the past is kept alive in Eastern Christian worship.

 

Maronite Spirituality

Maronite spirituality has distinguished itself from other Eastern Churches in elements acquired throughout history. These include attachment to the land, ecumenical openness, and emphasis on a spirituality of the suffering, crucified and risen Christ, while awaiting his second coming. It is a spirituality which has remained faithful to its monastic character.[3]

Maronite spirituality has an ecumenical character, stemming from its belonging to the universal Catholic Church, a fact which distinguishes it from other Syriac Churches. Its universalism has also been manifested through a dialogue with the Arab-Muslim world, a result of Lebanon’s situation as the only Middle Eastern country where Christians hold some degree of political power.[4] At the same time the Maronite Church in the predominantly Islamic Middle East, has also been burdened by its political role.

The cross is at the centre of Maronite spirituality. The crucified Christ allows Maronites to understand and internalize the persecutions they have endured. It gives meaning to their suffering, transforming their weakness into strength, persecution into victory and death into Resurrection.[5] The cross and emphasis on suffering has remained a powerful symbol as a result of the continual persecution of Maronites in the Middle East.

Lebanon has a long history, thousands of years, which has shaped the Maronite spirit. It was the centre of the Phoenician empire and in biblical tradition was chosen by King Solomon to supply materials for his temple:

 

King Solomon conscripted forced labour out of all Israel; the levy numbered thirty thousand men. He sent them to the Lebanon, ten thousand a month in shifts; they would be a month in the Lebanon and two months at home; Adoniram was in charge of the forced labour. (1 King 5:13-14).

 

Historically the Lebanese are ‘ethnically a mixture of Phoenician, Greek, Arab, Persian and Armenian elements.’[6] This is a result of a long history of independence interrupted by the occupation of Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian rule, followed by Alexander. By 64 BCE Lebanon was part of the Roman Empire. By the end of the 7th century Arabs and Persians settled there, though the Arabic language did not take over from Aramaic Syriac for over a thousand years. It is no surprise therefore that Maronites, who have resisted the influence of other cultures, religions and languages, still today maintain the will to hold onto their own identity and religion.[7] 

For centuries invading armies have come and gone. Christ walked the land and monasteries dot the landscape. The Lebanese state as constituted in the 1940s was for the Maronites a country set apart from the rest of the Arab world by religion and by its relationship with Europe.[8] So at the turn of the twentieth century, with the extended civil war, the posting of Syrian armies in Lebanon and eventual withdrawal, continued political interference by Arab nations, the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah conflict, and extended vacant presidential seat (November 2007-April 2008), the Church’s role became politically driven.

 

[1] Joan L Roccasalvo, The Eastern Catholic Churches: An introduction to their worship and spirituality (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1992), 13-19.

[2] Roccasalvo, The Eastern Catholic Churches: An introduction to their worship and spirituality, 24-31.

[3] Hourani and Habchi, ‘The Maronite eremitical tradition: a contemporary revival,’ 452.

[4] Hourani and Habchi, ‘The Maronite eremitical tradition: a contemporary revival,’ 453.

[5] Hourani and Habchi, ‘The Maronite eremitical tradition: a contemporary revival,’ 453.

[6] ‘The identity of Lebanon,’ http://www.mountlebanon.org/theidentityoflebanon.htm (accessed 11/4/2008).

[7] ‘The identity of Lebanon,’ April 2008.

[8] Janet Hancock, ‘Lebanon: A conflict of minorities,’ Asian Affairs 18 (2001): 2001:34.

 

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