The Antonine Maronite Order
The Saint Charbel Monastery in Melbourne Australia is run by The Antonine Maronite Order. The Antonine Order (known also as Antonin, Antonins or Mar Chaya Monks) is a monastic order among the Levantine Catholic Maronite Church, which from the beginning has been specifically a monastic Church. The order was founded on August 15, 1700, in the Monastery of Mar Chaya, Lebanon by Maronite Patriarch Gabriel of Blaouza (1704-1705).
The Antonine Maronite Order celebrated its third centennial anniversary in the year 2000. This site intends to present the history of the Order during these three centuries, its activities and development within Lebanese society, through its vicissitudes.
Despite destruction and pillage, many documents of all types are still available, and many Antonine monks, archivists and historians are already at work establishing, with all the necessary scientific strictures, their work in these three hundred years of monastic and apostolic life, of sufferings, misfortunes and victories.
The intentions of this present work are much more modest, wanting simply to give to the western reader a glimpse of Lebanese monastic life today. Everyone knows that, of all the Near Eastern countries, the Lebanon is the only one in which Christianity has not been side-tracked.
If Christianity in Lebanon has been able to continue to play a role, at the same time social, political and cultural, in the midst of an islamised world, without doubt it owes this to the determination and courage of the Maronite community, at the heart of which the religious orders play a major part. One of these orders is that of the Antonine Maronite, which this present work wishes to present to the reader.
In an effort to avoid superfluous detail it counts on illustration to clarify the text, and who knows but maybe will tempt either one reader or another to come to see at first hand how the Maronite monks live in these last few years of the second millennium.
They do their best to be up-to-date when necessary, but they wish to preserve the freshness of the apostolic church and the flavor of the oriental monastic tradition.
St. Anthony the Great
The ideal of fervent Christians in the first centuries had been to give their lives for the Lord in the torture of Martyrdom, but since the peace of Constantin in 313 this hope had no further possibility. In the decadent and weakened roman empire of the 4th century, the Christians who now were no longer required to shed their blood, suddenly found themselves clothed with honor and a freedom which risked to bring both lukewarm half-heartedness and mediocrity.
It is in this context that at the extreme south of the empire, a few Egyptians, wishing to live a life conforming to the spirit and radical requirements of the Gospel, decided to quit both towns and villages to live in the desert.
In Greek the word monachos already existed to name these recluses, but tradition makes Saint Anthony the first, and in any case the most celebrated of these hermits of the beginning of the 4th century.
Anthony was the only inheritor of a wealthy family. His parents has just died leaving him vast wealth, when one day he entered a church at the precise moment when the priest, reading the Gospel of the day, spoke the words which the Lord said to the rich young man: “if you wish to be perfect, go sell all that you possess and give it to the poor, and you will have a treasure in heaven: then come and follow me”. He took this message as being addressed to him personally, and at once, he gave away all that he had and retired to the Egyptian desert, living in a tomb hewn from the rock.
He did not remain alone for long, as many other Christians, who felt the need to put the desert between themselves and the world rallied around Anthony, whose wisdom and kindliness they admired. He became the example of all those who retired from the world and consecrated themselves to God.
Anthony lived to be more than one hundred, and when he died around 356, hundreds and maybe thousands of hermits, who recognized him as their spiritual Father, from then on fed their inner life with the words of wisdom he had left them.
All the monks of Christendom, whether recluse or in community, recognize Saint Anthony as their Father, their example and their patron, particularly in the oriental church.
The TAU or “Saint Anthony Cross” is well known as a heraldic emblem. But what does it signify precisely? Several explanations have been proposed: it is said that in his old age, St. Anthony leaned on a stick in the form of a “T”. When he visited one of his disciples for a religious discussion, he propped his stick at the entrance to the grotto or hut of the hermit.
That signified “do not disturb, Anthony is speaking of God”.
The hospitaller Order of the Antonine of Dauphiné (regular canons of St.-Antoine-en-Viennois) founded in 1095, had the TAU as emblem. You can still see it today on the door of their church.
They considered it to be a crutch: the crutch which was used by the victims of bubonic plague whom the Antonine helped. This order was dissolved in 1776.
The Antonine Maronite of Lebanon, when their Constitutions were approved by Pope Clement XII, adopted the TAU as their distinctive emblem. At that period they could also find a resemblance in it to another form of crutch which they used daily: the stick in the form of the “T” on which they leaned during the long night services where they sang standing for many hours around a lectern, where the big book of song copied by hand and written in syriac occupied the place of honour. The TAU then represented perseverance in ordered and sung prayer.
In any case, the TAU remains today the Antonine emblem. It is worn in bright blue, over the heart, on their black monks habit, so differentiating them from the other two Lebanese Orders, the Baladites and the Mariamites, showing their attachment to both the personality and the spirituality of Saint Anthony.
The reputation of Saint Anthony spread during his own lifetime throughout all the Roman empire and even to Mesopotamia. It is there in Nisibin, that the poet and musician Saint Ephrem had in his “Carmina Nisibana” sung of the kindliness and the graciousness of the “Father of monks” explaining that “the closeness of his contact with God made him ever more condescending and correct with all men”.
The influence of Saint Ephrem had been large in syriac monastical life which, during the subsequent centuries, developed in an extraordinary way in northern Syria. All forms of consecrated life: Asceticism in the open air, hermits, monks in community, and stylites, all developed there, as you see from Theodorus of Cyrrhus and John Chrysostom.
In effect the monastical conceptions of St. Ephrem were very wide in scope, putting together or separating monastic communities and hermits, from monastic life and pastoral work. He himself as a deacon was surprisingly active in the Nisibin church and later in that of Edessus (Urfa), and yet he was a man of intense spiritual life.
In his “Carmina”, he invites “everyone everywhere to become one with God but pluralist in regard to all men, insulated from the world,, yet available to all”. It is a remarkable fact that in praising the virtues of a bishop-monk, Ephrem underlined as a rare virtue, his charisma of “Adaptation to his Time”.
These, among others, are the factors which the Antonine have adopted and which they endeavor to practice in their daily life. The Antonine ideals are inspired by the great monastic law makers of the past. St. Pacôme and St. Ephrem meet on the essential traits of poverty and celibacy in monastic life, but on the other hand Ephrem like St. Basil is a “preacher of the Gospel by practical virtue and actual work”. Like St. Benedict he has “a love of the consecrated place and the sense of ordered prayer”.
He created glorious texts which were kept in use after his time, and which are still in use in the Syriac missal.
But the monastic ideas of St. Ephrem seem more supple, more intertwined in the works of the Church, and better attached to daily life. St. Benedict taught that “the monk must always keep his silence”, whereas St. Ephrem considers that “to speak and to be silent are both as necessary as day and night”.
The Antonine monk, it is true, does not specifically follow the monastic ideas of St. Ephrem, yet each day he does receive the influence of his spirituality, as the liturgical syriac prayer of the Maronite monks owes much to the musician of Nisibin.
Antonins & Liturgy
Above all an Antonine convent is a place of choral liturgical prayer and daily celebration of a conventional Mass. The Antonine Order of St. Isaiah clings to the Maronite liturgy in syriac, even if to help the Christian populace participate, some readings and chants are done in Arabic.
Precisely what is the syriac language?
The Acts of the Apostles tell us “that on the day of Pentecost, the Holy Ghost came down to the disciples, who began to proclaim the Good News to the motley crowd gathered together in Jerusalem. Their listeners were stupefied, as each heard and understood in his own language : Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Cappadocians, Egyptians, Cretans, Arabs, Romans, and the others…” .
But they, the Apostles, what language did they speak ? In what language did they think? In what language did they receive the message of the Lord? In Aramean.
“In Palestine(says R.D. Barnett) Aramean was the daily language of the people, Hebrew being reserved for the clergy and functionaries. Jesus and the Apostles spoke Aramean”. This language, already a thousand years old at the time of Christ, is still not quite dead at the end of this 20th century. In effect, apart from the celebrated village of Maloulah, near to Damascus, where the inhabitants have never ceased to speak syriac, there are the Chaldean people in Iraq, and maybe still in Iran, who continue to speak this language and to teach it to their children. It is even true of those who emigrate to the USA and elsewhere.
So this very old language is still spoken, written, and printed; for what in the past we called by the rather vague name of Aramean, has become with time and its use by writers such as St. Ephrem, “Syriac”.
There are three different forms of writing in syriac: Chaldaïco, Serto, and Estrangelo.
On the other hand – and this is the point which interests us here- Syriac remains the liturgical language of the Maronite Church, just as indeed it is that of the Chaldean church.
In the time of St. Maroun, Antioch was a center of Hellenic culture, but the people of north Syria and the banks of the Orontes spoke only syriac.
Choral prayer of the monks of Mar Maroun, as well as the celebration of the Eucharist, was held exclusively in syriac.
St. Ephrem of Nisibin, the greatest poet and writer of the 4th century, who gave an immortal brilliance to the syriac language, also had a musical gift far from the ordinary. He thought that the best method of keeping the faithful away from heretical errors was to teach them the truths of their faith in the form of simple songs easy to remember.
At the cathedral of Nisibin he had founded a choir of children and young girls to which the faithful came to listen with rapture. Afterwards they repeated these chants from memory. These melodies have come down to us in an oral tradition from generation to generation. It was only around 1889 that it was decided to transcribe them into modem musical notation. It is however only an approximate transcription as the quarter-tones of the oriental scale are not translatable to western solfege, but to them the Lebanese people remain firmly attached.
These tunes are still sung in the monastic services.
In the celebration of the Maronite Mass certain phrases remain in Syriac. In this way the words of the Congregation remain as a faithful echo of the words that the Lord pronounced during the last supper.
Only a few tens of years ago, the Sunday Mass was celebrated in the Christian villages of Lebanon entirely in Syriac, and all the people responded without hesitation. Only the readings from the epistle and the Bible were made in Arabic, but these Arabic texts were printed in the Maronite prayer book in syriac characters. This transcription of Arabic in syriac letters is called Karshouni . All Antonine monks read Karshouni as easily as Arabic as they have learnt syriac in the postulate, and perfectioned it in the novitiate. Also many Antonine have made profound and scientific research into this language which was the first and so the most authentic medium of the evangelical message.
In his preface to Ecclesiastes, the greek translator of the Sirach, who was indeed the grandson of Ben Sirach the Wise, excuses himself to his readers for the inaccuracies of his translation: “We ask you to be indulgent, if despite all our efforts we have not succeeded in a precise rendering of certain expressions, because when things are said in Hebrew they do not have the same sense when they are translated into another language.” What is true for Hebrew is even more true for Aramean, which according to A. Caqnot, “was the language of an empire when Hebrew was that of a canton.”
The importance of Syriac as the medium of expression for the evangelical message is certainly one of the reasons which have led the Antonine Fathers to organize a Syriac Seminar each year, which gathers together a great number of eminent erudites both from the western and eastern worlds, who put together the sum of their discoveries and their works to assist the Christian world to rediscover the richness of this venerable patrimony. The conferences and the debates are subsequently published by the Center of Study and Pastoral Research of Antelias.
For the traditional monastic services in Syriac, the Antonine remain steadfast in following the chants inherited from St. Ephrem. At the beginning of the century, the General Superior, Father Emanuel Ubaid, brought a famous cantor, the F. Georges Aziz, from Jezzine. Under his direction the choir of novices and monks at Mar-Chaya rapidly became a model Schola, whose reputation spread as far as the neighboring countries.
One of the disciples of F. Georges became the teacher in his turn : it was F. Paul Achkar who was sent to Rome to follow the courses at the Papal Academy “Santa Cecilia”. On his return to Lebanon he composed and published several volumes of liturgical music, especially the psalms and tunes for the “Schime” syriac.
F. Achkar also had his followers: the F. Albert Cherfan composed polyphonic chants for parish liturgy and above all he created a choir which remains celebrated. Since the tragic disappearance of the Father, this choir has taken his name as witnessing admiration and in thanks. Another Antonine monk is a great composer, and to him we owe forms of the Mass, Motets, Psalms, Hymns, Oratorios, and instrumental music. It is he who founded the “School of Music” at Baabda, and he is well known is Lebanon for his great contribution to the revival of liturgical music.
The Antonine Spirituality
Religious life at Mar Chaya under the wise direction of F. Solomon de Mechmech was, from the beginning, a harmonious division between traditional monastic observance and the spread of pastoral and apostolic work in the surrounding district.Having lived side by side with Mgr. Gabriel de Blawza, listening to his council and following his example, F. Solomon was imbued with his spirituality.
Now Mgr. Gabriel, after his childhood, youth, and the years of formation in religion, all lived in the Holy Valley, had acquired an exceptional experience of liturgical prayer, of silent meditation, of life in community, of manual work, and of abstinence, following the secular tradition of the Kadisha.
When he was promoted to the dignity of the episcopate in the town of Alep, which was then a hive of pastoral activity, he came into contact with all the forms of apostolate and Christian teaching in use by the local clergy, and the eastern Congregations. This gave him a new wealth of experience. With an open and creative mind, he was able to make in himself a perfect equilibrium between the man of action and the man of introspection, treating efficiently with material things when they were for the Glory of God, anxious under all circumstances to preach the message of the Gospel, but at the same time greedy for meditation and feeding on liturgical prayer. At the time when the Alepan Rule had been so patiently conceived and tried out, it had become on the one hand sufficiently clear cut to establish a solid foundation, and on the other hand supple enough to permit adaptations according to the specific circumstances of a time and place. And it is with this as an ideal that the Antonine adopted it and have observed it for almost three centuries.
The 18th. century was above all Marked by the progressive development of the Congregation, the construction or rebuilding and arrangement of 17 monasteries in all the districts of Lebanon. An Antonine monk of Ghazir was enthroned as bishop of Marjayoun, and a monk from Mar Chaya, expressly as requested by the Patriarch, became curate at St. Jean-d’Arc. It must be said that he came from Jerusalem.
That century also saw the creation of the Congregation of Antonine Sisters. When the convent of Qattin was taken over by the Antonine it was a mixed convent. So it was necessary to find a solution for the nuns. The text of a document from then, follows : “We permit our dearly beloved sons in the Lord, F. Thomas, General Superior, And the assistant Antonine , to create a convent dedicated to St. Anthony of Padua, in Jezzine our parish, to be the house of our daughters, the nuns who have pronounced their vows according to the Constitutions of our sons the above mentioned clergy, and who previously had been established in the convent of St. Peter at Qattin. And this in a better obedience to directives of our Antiochan Seat. That this shall be a document in their hands, to be brought to the knowledge of all whom it may concern” Joseph Peter, Patriarch of Antioch.
The convent at Jezzine later reverted to the Antonine , but the convents St. Elie of Ghazir and Mar Doumit of Roumie were given to the Antonine Sisters. As was the convent of Ain Alaq also, where the Congregation has installed its novitiate.
The 19th. century was much more eventful. Many monks became victims during the different massacres, and the Order counted considerable material loss. Despite all this, at the end of the century, it totaled some 300 monks divided among 23 convents. An Antonine from Qattin became bishop of Tripoli.
During the 20th. century, the social and political upheavals brought about by the two world wars and by the war in Lebanon, as well as the rapid evolution in all domains during the last decades, have modified some exterior aspects of Antonine life without changing the basis of its spirituality.
In these last few years of the third century since its foundation, the Maronite Antonine Order has 23 convents in the Lebanon, one convent in Syria, two in Canada, one in France, a residence in Belgium, a study house in Rome, as well as the General Procure.
The congregation totals a hundred priest-monks, plus the students in theology, the novices, and the postulants.