By Guita G. Hourani
In this section of the Journal of Maronite Studies (JMS), we share with you documents or manuscripts that reflect the history of the Maronite people and Church. Whenever possible, we will feature a copy of the original record with an English translation. Should we not be able to do so, we shall rely on the integrity of the author(s) who first brought this record to our attention. The document or manuscript will appear in Italics (unedited). Whenever needed, the Editor's interpolations will appear in square brackets.
Theodoret (393-466 A.D.) was the Bishop of Cyrrhus. He wrote the Historia Religiosa (c. 440) (1), a religious history of ascetic life of thirty notable hermits of northern ancient Syria. Among these ascetics we find the life of Saint Maron and that of a few of his male and female disciples.
Domnina, known also as Domnina the Younger, was a female hermit who lived in Kyra near Antioch in the southern part of the region of Cyrrhus (2). She was inspired by Saint Maron's life and therefore chose to emulate it. Like Maron, she lived in the open air. Her shelter was a hut that she built in the garden of her family's house (3). She, a virgin (4), belonged to the tradition of holy virgins who devoted their lives to Christ.
The earliest reference to virgins living such a life was featured in Pseudo-Clementine Epistles on Virginity written in Syriac in the early third century. In these two epistles, Clement, a disciple of Saint Peter, recorded that there were male and female virgins who dedicated their lives to God. Clement defined virgins as those who withdrew and severed themselves from the world, to live a divine and heavenly life like that of the angels... They severed themselves from all the appetites of the body (5)...
Syriac spirituality is one which perpetuates an imitation on earth of the heavenly life. Men and women who followed this spirituality "sought to live according to the model of the life of Christ and to live in total devotion to God, giving one's whole body as well as one's whole mind and heart. Such a life was, necessarily, a life of renunciation from the luxuries of the secular world; it was necessarily ascetic." (6)
Domnina sought this spirituality. Her life was one of devotion and renunciation. According to Theodoret, she was born to a wealthy family; however, she not only renounced her wealth, but also convinced her family to spend their fortune on the poor and in the service of God (7). She devoted her time, her mind, heart and hands to Christ and spent her time in prayer, labor, and chanting (8) which made her a member of the choir of ascetics.
Women's ascetism was flourishing in Palestine, Egypt, and Asia (9) among other places when Theodoret chose to write about Domnina's life and that of two other female ascetics Marana and Cyra. By recording these lives, Theodoret captured the contribution of these virgins to the spiritual life of their communities. Theodoret believed in the equality of men and women in virtue. In his Cure of Hellenic Maladies, Theodoret states that "God applies the same laws to men and women, since the difference lies in the shape of the body and not in the soul. The woman like the man is rational..., and knows like him what to shun and what to pursue; sometimes she discovers what will be of benefit better than the man does... Moreover, the prizes of virtue are offered to women as to men, since the contests of virtue are shared." (10)
Like her male peers Domnina's devotion attracted many people who emulated her life. About two hundred and fifty women formed her community of disciples (11). These followers occupied themselves with manual work (12) "assigning their hands to card wool, and consecrating their tongues with hymns." (13)
Here is Domina's account as it is translated in A History of the Monks of Syria from Theodoret's original Greek Historia Religiosa:
"Emulating the life of the inspired Maron, whom we recalled above, the wonderful Domnina set up a small hut in the garden of her mother's house; her hut is made of millet stalks. Passing the whole day there, she wets with incessant tears not only her cheeks but also her garments of hair, for such is the clothing with which she covers her body. Going at cockcrow to the divine shrine nearby, she offers hymnody to the Master of the universe, together with the rest, both men and women. This she does not only at the beginning of the day but also at its close, thinking the place consecrated to God to be more venerable than every other spot and teaching others so. Judging it, for this reason, worthy of every attention, she has persuaded her mother and brothers to spend their fortune on it.
As food she has lentils soaked in water; and she endures all this labor with a body reduced to a skeleton and half-dead for her skin is very thin, and covers her thin bones as if with a film, while her fat and flesh have been worn away by [her] labors. Though exposed to all who wish to see her, both men and women, she neither sees a face nor shows her face to another, but is literally covered up by her cloak and bent down onto her knees, while she speaks extremely softly and indistinctly, always making her remarks with tears [(14)]. She has often taken my hand, and after placing it on her eyes, released it so soaked that my very hand dripped tears. What discourse could give due praise to a woman who with such wealth of philosophy weeps and wails and sighs like those living in extreme poverty? For it is fervent love for God that begets these tears, firing the mind of divine contemplation, stinging it with pricks and urging it on to migrate from here.
Through spending in this way both the day and the night, nor does she neglect the other forms of virtue, but ministers, as far as she can, to the heroic contestants, both those we have mentioned and those we have omitted. She also ministers to those who come to see her, bidding them stay with the shepherd of the village and sending them all they need herself, for the property of her mother and brothers is available for her to spend, since it reaps a blessing through her. To myself too when I arrived at this place - it is to the south of our region - she sent rolls, fruit, and soaked lentils.
But how long can I expatiate in my eagerness to relate all her virtue, when I ought to bring into the open the life of the other women who have imitated both her and those we recalled above? For there are many others, of whom some have embraced the solitary life and others have preferred life with many companions - in such a way that communities of two hundred and fifty, more or less, share the same life, putting up with the same food, choosing to sleep on rush-mats alone, assigning their hands to card wool and consecrating their tongues with hymns.
Myriad and defeating enumeration are the philosophic retreats of this kind not only in our region but throughout the East; full of them are Palestine, Egypt, Asia, Pontus, and all Europe. From the time when Christ the Master honored virginity by being born of a virgin, nature has sprouted meadows of virginity and offered their fragrant and unfading flowers to the Creator, not separating virtue into male and female nor dividing philosophy into two categories. For the difference is one of bodies not of souls: "in Christ Jesus", according to the Divine Apostle, 'there is neither male nor female'. And a single faith has been given to men and women: 'there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and is in us all'. And it is one kingdom of heaven which the umpire has set before the victors, fixing this common prize for the contests.
As I have said, numerous are the pious wrestling-schools of men and women not only among us but also in all Syria, Palestine, Cilicia and Mesopotamia. In Egypt, it is said, some retreats have five thousand men each, who work and in-between sing hymns to the Master, not only providing themselves with the necessary food out of their labor, but also supplying guests who come and are needy.
But to recount everything is impossible not only for me but for all writers. Even if it were possible, I consider it superfluous and an ambition without gain; for those who wish to cull some profit, what has been said is sufficient to provide what they desire. We have recalled different lives and added accounts of women to those of men for this reason: that men, old and young, and women too, may have models of philosophy, and that each person, as he receives the impress of his favorite life, may have as a rule and regulator of his own life the one presented in our account. Just as painters look at their model when imitating eyes, nose, mouth, cheeks, ears, forehead, the very hairs of the head and beard, and in addition the sitting and standing postures, and the very expression of the eyes, whether genial or forbidding, so it is fitting that each of the readers of this work choose to imitate a particular life and order their own life in accordance with the one they choose. Just as joiners straighten their planks with a measuring-cord and remove what is excessive to the point where, applying the rule, they see the plank is equal, so too one who wishes to emulate a particular life must apply it to himself in place of a rule, and cut off the excesses of vice, while supplying what is lacking in virtue. It is for this reason that we have undertaken the labor of composition, offering to those who wish it a means of benefit. I ask my future readers, as they luxuriate effortlessly in the labors of others, to repay my labors with prayer.
I also beg those whose life I have written down not to leave me tarrying at a distance from their spiritual choir, but to draw me up, who am lying below, lead me up to the summit of virtue and join me to their own choir, so that I may not only praise the wealth of others, but also myself have some cause to give praise - by deed, work, and thought glorifying the Savior of the universe, with whom to the Father be the glory together with the Holy Spirit, now and always and for ever and ever. Amen." (15)
(1) Theodoret of Cyrrhus. Historia Religiosa: A History of the Monks of Syria, Translated by R. M. Price, (Michigan, 1985), pp. 186-189. | Back to text |
(2) Holweck, F. G. A Biographical Dictionary of the Saints, (London, 1924), p. 289. | Back to text |
(3) Ibid., p. 289. | Back to text |
(4) Bibliotcheca Sanctorum, Instituto Giovanni XXII Della Pontificia Universita Lateranense, (Italy, 1964), p. 763. | Back to text |
(5) Pseudo-Clementine Epistles on Virginity in Ante-Nicene Fathers. Edited by Roberts, A. and Donaldson, J., volume 8, (Massachusetts, 1995), pp. 56. | Back to text |
(6) Brock, S. and Ashbrook Harvey, S. Holy Women of the Syrian Orient, (California, 1987), p. 9. | Back to text |
(7)Theodoret, p. 187. | Back to text |
(8) Ibid., p. 186. | Back to text |
(9) Ibid., p. 187. | Back to text |
(10) Ibid., note 3, p. 189. | Back to text |
(11) Ibid., p. 187. | Back to text |
(12) AbouZayd, S. Ihidayutha: A Study of the Life of Singleness in the Syrian Orient. From Ignatius of Antioch to Chalcedon 451 A.D. (Oxford, 1993), p. 233. | Back to text |
(13) Theodoret, p. 187. | Back to text |
(14) Many other Syriac hermits shed tears as a way of cleansing their souls from sin or out of love or longing for Jesus. Among them were, Mary Abraham Qidunaya's niece, Abraham the Syrian desert hermit, and Agrippa the superior of the Monastery of Telada east of Antioch. AbouZayd, pp. 239-240. | Back to text |
(15) Theodoret, pp. 186-189. | Back to text |
(16) Holweck, p. 289. | Back to text |
(17) Daher, B. Al-Sinksar bi Hasab Taks al-Kanisah al-Intakiah al-Marouniyah, (Lebanon, 1974), p. 152. | Back to text |
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