Saint John Maron
Betrayed by the Emperor
Join me today to meet a saint who was betrayed by an emperor and survived.
Name: John Maron, Yohanna Maroun, sometimes John Maron of Sarum
Life: 628 - 707 AD
Feast: March 2
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It was the 7th century AD, and the Byzantine Roman Empire was losing its hold on the Middle East.
The mighty Sassanid Persians had captured Syria and Palestine. But then with a tremendous effort, the Byzantines roused themselves. By 628, the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius had reconquered Syria and Palestine and driven the Persians back. But Byzantine Rome and Persia were the great powers of their age, and their conflict had left them both exhausted. Still, with the Middle East recaptured, Heraclius prepared for peace and recuperation.
But a new threat was emerging in Arabia. The religion of Islam had been founded by Mohammed, and after his death in 632, Muslim armies marched North, headed for the freshly restored Roman provinces. The exhausted Romans and Persians mustered their forces, but it would not be enough.
In the wars to come, Persia would cease to exist. In an effort to save the Roman Middle East, Heraclius would meet the armies of the Rashidun Caliphate at the Battle of the Yarmuk in the summer of 636. The Romans lost, badly. The armies of Islam moved North.
The hardest hit area was the Middle East itself. It had been ravaged, depopulated by war. Many families fled. Then, as often happened, war led to an outbreak of disease. The Church was supposed to provide leadership, but things looked so unstable that the Patriarch of Antioch, when there was one, stayed far away from the fighting.
But there was one man who was not afraid to take a leadership position. His name was John Maron, a priest. His gifts of healing were much needed during the disease that followed the war. But as he moved through the land, John Maron realized that his people needed more than health. They needed to be restored. John Maron led them as they prayed for that restoration.
And then, quite unexpectedly, help arrived.
They were called the Mardaites. These Christian warriors burst onto the scene, recapturing large areas of the Middle East and forming a buffer between Byzantine Rome and the Rashidun Caliphate. It seems that John Maron was a leader or ally of the Mardaite forces. Who were the Mardaites, exactly? Historians still argue over the answer. Some think the Mardaites were the people of the region, stirred up to defend themselves by John Maron and other leaders. Some think they were soldiers from a Christian Hittite kingdom in the mountains. Others have suggested that the Mardaites were an outside force, sent by the emperor of Byzantium.
In a way, the more interesting question is not where the Mardaites came from but what they became after they swept into history. Their conquest was so ferocious that the caliph asked the Byzantine emperor to make them stop, offering payment: 3000 dinars yearly, 50 fine Arabian horses, and 8,000 Byzantine prisoners released as a show of good will. The emperor agreed.
And so the land stabilized. The Mardaites settled into the territory they had regained. Probably many of them started families there and integrated into the community, if they were not already part of it. John Maron, already a spiritual leader, became a bishop. It seemed that John Maron and his allies had finally achieved security and peace.
But the next threat to the people of Bishop John Maron, when it arrived, would come from within: betrayal.
To understand the world that Bishop John Maron was trying to build, you have to know about another man - another saint - who shared his name. Almost three hundred years earlier, the first John Maron had come to a fallen pagan temple on the top of a hill in the North of modern Syria. He set himself up as a hermit, alone in the wilderness. He lived in the open, sleeping on the ground under the stars. And like a star, the hermit John Maron had a kind of gravitation that drew others to him.
Soon he had a few students, also trying to live as holy hermits on the hilltops. Maron taught them his simple, austere way of life. And he had another lesson too. John Maron and those who came after him were totally obedient to the Church. When as a young cleric the future Bishop Theoderet came to visit them, he was a little embarrassed when the much older hermits deferred to him. But that was John Maron’s idea: they were not going to spawn heresies. The Church would set the doctrine, the hermits were there to live it out.
The hermit John Maron had the gift of healing. But, as Theoderet remembered, John Maron’s healing was said to touch not just the body but also the soul. Those who visited Maron could become better men. If you struggled with anger or greed, if you had a hard time being self-motivated or achieving self-control, a visit to John Maron could change your character. No wonder that a community began to form around the hermit. Eventually, John Maron was so well-loved in that community that when he died things got a little out of hand. As Theodoret puts it, “A bitter war over his body arose between his neighbors.” (R. M. Price translation)
The community of hermits that had grown up around Saint John Maron was now so large and well-known that the emperor at the time, Marcian, decided to give it a gift. He had a massive monastery built. It could accommodate hundreds of monks. Hundreds of monks came, both from the hermits and from young men inspired by their example. The monastery was dedicated to the hermit who had started it all: Saint John Maron.
The monastery of Saint John Maron became the heart of one Christian community in the Roman Middle East. They didn’t always have an easy time of it. It was a time of theological questions, and theological questions often took on political significance. These were just the sorts of disputes that John Maron had tried to avoid. Even so, John Maron’s teaching regarding orthodoxy and being in step with Rome sometimes put the community at odds with other Christian groups - even at odds with the imperial party in Constantinople. But the community grew around the monastery.
All that changed in the horror of the 7th century. Suddenly the followers of Saint John Maron no longer lived in a Christian country, as Zoroastrian Persians, then Muslim Arabs invaded. It was at that moment that God sent a second John Maron, today’s manly saint, to continue the work of his namesake, the holy hermit.
Now, John Maron had worked with the Mardaites to save his people militarily. As a bishop, he was leading them spiritually as well, shepherding them through the hard times of the 7th century. Now that the Mardaites had reconquered the Christian lands, and the Christians finally had local leadership, it seemed that things were getting better.
But in Byzantium, there was a new emperor. And a new caliph arose in Damascus. The new emperor, Justinian II, would become known for his brutality and lack of tact. Unfortunately for the Christian world, the new caliph was a much more subtle man.
Where previous caliphs had seen the Mardaites as an unsolvable military obstacle, the new caliph realized that the Mardaites had one obvious weakness: their loyalty to Justinian II. The new caliph offered the Justinian II a deal: move the bulk of the Mardaite forces to Armenia, and the caliph would pay the emperor 1000 dinars per week, and every week send a brand new horse and a slave to sweeten the bargain. The new emperor agreed. And just like that, the Middle East had lost its protection.
Perhaps from the point of view of the emperor this made sense. It was his job to look at the big picture. And yet future historians saw this as a massive blunder. The historian Theophanes sadly wrote that the emperor’s decision meant that the brazen wall - the wall of armoured men who stood against the armies of Islam - had fallen.
From the point of view John Maron and his people, it was a devastating betrayal. They had shed their own sweat and blood to recapture their land under the emperor’s banner. Now he had as good as given it away.
John and his Maronites, as they began to see themselves, no longer trusted Byzantium. They began to look out for themselves. The see of Antioch was still vacant, so bishop John Maron was put forward to become patriarch. The pope was enthusiastic - no one else dared to take the job. Patriarch Maron didn’t even bother consulting the emperor. And at that, Justinian II flew into a rage. The way he saw it, John Maron and his Maronites were still under imperial authority, whether they liked it or not. They were too powerful, too comfortable. Something needed to be done.
And so the emperor dispatched an army to remind the unruly Maronites of whom they served. The army struck at the heart of the Maronites: the monastery of Saint John Maron. It was a bloodbath.
As it happened, however, Patriarch John Maron was not at the monastery. He heard about the massacre and took refuge in a fortress high in the mountains of Lebanon.
As the reports of devastation rolled in, the Patriarch took stock. It seemed that Justinian II wasn’t content to just betray John Maron and the Maronites. The emperor intended to destroy them completely. But who would stand against him? Most of the Mardaites were gone, transferred to Armenia. To the North was Byzantium. To the South was the Caliphate. John Maron gradually realized that no one else was going to help his people. If he did nothing, this would be the end, and the Maronites would go into the night.
And so, from the mountains, Patriarch John Maron put out the call for men. I have to imagine that he wondered whether anyone would heed it, or whether the story of his people had already come to an end. But as time passed, soldiers began to come. First a just a few. Then the remnants of the Mardaites arrived. Then soldiers began to flow in from Syria. They all understood that this was their last chance for a future. When John Maron led them down from the mountains, there were tens of thousands.
The army of John Maron met the Byzantine forces in 694. The Maronites were fighting for their home and their future. The Byzantines were crushed, defeated so completely that both of their commanders were killed during the rout. There would be no more armies from Byzantium. Justinian II, the betrayer, only had one more year on the throne before he was toppled and mutilated by an angry mob.
The exhausted, war torn area of modern Lebanon, now belonged to John Maron and his Maronites. It was time to rebuild. One of John Maron’s first actions was to rebuild the monastery of Saint John Maron. He brought the skull of his namesake, the great hermit, to a new monastery in Kfar Hay, in the Northwest of modern Lebanon. And he began to lead his people, the Maronites, into a new relationship with the Muslim world.
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For the war and bloodshed had one unexpected consequence. As far as the caliphs of the now dominant Umayyad Dynasty were concerned, John Maron’s betrayal and then battle with the emperor proved beyond a doubt that the Maronites were not in league with Byzantium. This meant that a separate peace was possible.
This was the peace that John Maron began to forge. And it is the peace the Maronites have carried on, deep inside the Islamic world, up to the present day. How? The Lebanese historian Kamal Salibi puts it this way: “Among the Christians of the Islamic world, the Maronites have been politically the most successful.” There were frictions and persecutions, but for the most part the Maronites were left alone. “To understand the Maronites historically,” says Salibi, “it would be best to think of them as being basically a tribe.” They were alone, with no one but God to rely on. They acted accordingly, making pragmatic arrangements with power, but always defending their own interests. The Maronites did not cause trouble, but they did not try to assimilate either.
Soon, the Maronites had established good relations with the ruling Ummayad Dynasty. Ummayad caliphs often vacationed in their monasteries, or had their children’s weddings there.
Long after the Ummayads were just a memory, the Maronites went on, deep inside Islamic territory, often almost invisible to the wider Christian world. Only scraps of news got out - including some that mistakenly accused the Maronites of embracing heresy. But when the crusaders arrived in the Holy Land, they found the Maronites orthodox. (The crusader historian William of Tyre was confused to find the Maronites were not the heretics he had been led to believe. He reconciled his sources with his personal experience of the Maronites by positing that when the crusaders arrived, the Maronites had miraculously returned to orthodoxy en masse.)
When the crusaders arrived, the Maronites supported them. Afterwards, as the crusader kingdoms fell, the Maronites continued to maintain their independence. It’s a tribute to Maronite realpolitik that there were no repercussions for their participation in the crusader kingdoms.
The Maronites had become worthy of the legacy of Saint John Maron, a manly saint who showed his people how they could remain faithful Catholics in the face of disaster, war, disease, betrayal, and finally life as a minority in an enemy land. Saint John Maron showed his Christian people that none of these things, no not even the gates of Hell, would prevail against them.
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