'The Apostle of Lebanon'
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.
The region of Cyrrhus (1) - in what is today Turkey - yielded many anchorites, ascetics, and hermits whose eremitic life was inspired by that of Jesus Christ. One of these holy people is Abraham known as 'Abraham of Cyrrhus' (2), 'Abraham the Apostle of Lebanon' (3), and 'Abraham of Harran' (4).
Theodoret of Cyr (393-466 A.D.), the Bishop of Cyrrhus, included Abraham's life among the thirty notable lives of holy men and women as he wrote the religious history of ascetic life Historia Religiosa (c. 440).
Abraham was born ca. 350 in Cyrrhus in Ancient Syria. He spent the first part of his life in the desert of Chalcis (5) where he mastered the virtues of ascetic life. Abraham aspired to control his body by fasting and by standing still (6). According to Theodoret, Abraham left to Lebanon after hearing that a large village "was engulfed in the darkness of impiety." (7) He successfully converted the village (8) after almost being killed by its citizens. He lived in that village and served as its priest for three years. Theodoret then tells us that "after spending three years with them [the people of the village] and guiding them well towards the things of God, he got another of his companions appointed in his place" (9) and returned to his ascetic life. Theodoret is not clear on how many of Abraham's companions stayed in Lebanon, however from his account "it would... appear that Abraham founded an ascetic community with his companions in the Lebanese village." (10)
Theodore does not mention the name of the village, however it is believed to be 'Aqura- Afka; "it would seem that Abraham... founded an eremitic community on Mount Lebanon. It was probably located in 'Aqura near the river Adonis."(11) Legend has it that the Adonis River, which is the name of a Phoenician God, was changed to Abraham River after that village and later the region was christiannized by Abraham and his companions.
After leaving Lebanon, Abraham was made bishop of the Carrhae (Harran in Mesopotamia), a largely pagan city according to Procopius' History of the Wars. In ca. 420, Abraham visited the emperor Theodosius II (408-450) and his wife the empress Eudocia in Constantinople, while at this visit he died (ca. 422) and was escorted by the emperor and empress and their entourage to the city of Antioch where he was buried.
Here is Abraham's account as it is translated in A History of the Monks of Syria from Theodoret's original Greek Historia Religiosa:
Nor would it be pious to pass over the memory of the Wondrous Abraham, using as a pretext the fact that after the solitary life he adorned the episcopal chair; for because of this he would with good reason deserve to be remembered surely all the more, in that, when compelled to change his position in life, he did not alter his mode of life, but brought with him the hardships of asceticism, and completed his course of life beset simultaneously with the labors of a monk and the cares of a bishop.
This man too was a fruit of the region of Cyrrhus, for it was born and reared there that he gathered the wealth of ascetic virtue. Those who were with him say that he tamed his body with such vigils, standing, and fasting that for a long time he remained without movement, quite unable to walk. Freed of this weakness by divine providence, he resolved to run the risks of piety as the price of divine fervor, and repaired to the Lebanon, where, he had heard, a large village was engulfed in the darkness of impiety. Hiding his monastic character under the mask of trader, he with him companions brought along sacks as of coming to buy nuts- for this was the main produce of the village. Renting a house, for which he paid the owners a small sum in advance, he kept quiet for three or four days. Then, little by little, he began in a soft voice to perform the divine liturgy. When they heard the singing of psalms, the public crier called out to summon everyone together. Men, children, and women assembled; they walled up the doors from outside, and heaping up a great pile of earth poured it down from the roof above. But when they saw them being suffocated and buried, and willing to do or say nothing apart from addressing prayer to God, they ceased from their frenzy, at the suggestion of their elders. Then opening the doors and pulling them out from the mass of earth, they told them to depart immediately.
At this very moment, however, collectors arrived to compel them to pay their taxes; some they bound, others they maltreated. But the man of God, oblivious of what had happened to them, and imitating the Master who when nailed to the cross showed concern for those who had done it, begged these collectors to carry out their work leniently. When they demanded guarantors, he voluntarily accepted the call, and promised to pay them a hundred gold pieces in a few days. Those who had performed so terrible a deed were overwhelmed with admiration at the man's benevolence; begging forgiveness for their outrage, they invited him to become their patron- for the village did not have a master; they themselves were both cultivators and masters. He went to the city (it was Emesa), and finding some of his friends negotiated a loan for the hundred gold pieces; then returning to the village he fulfilled his promise on the appointed day.
On observing his zeal, they addressed their invitation to him still more zealously. When he promised his consent if they undertook to build a church, they begged him to start operations at once, and conducted the blessed man round, showing him the more appropriate sites, one recommending this one, another that. Having chosen the best one and laid the foundations, in a short time he put the roof on, and now that the building was ready bade them appoint a priest . When they said they would not choose anyone else and begged to take him as their father and shepherd, he received the grace for the priesthood. After spending three years with them and guiding them well towards the things of God, he got another of his companions appointed in his place and went back to his monastic dwelling.
Not to make the narrative long by narrating all he did - after gaining fame among them, he received the see of Carrhae, a city which was steeped in the sottishness of impiety and had given itself up to the frenzy of the demons. But after being honored by his cultivation and receiving the fire of his teaching, it has remained free of its former thorns, and abounds now in the crops of the Spirit, offering to God sheaves of ripe ears. The man of God did not perform this cultivation without labor; with innumerable labors and imitating the art of those entrusted with the treatment of bodies - in some cases sweetening by fomentation, in others contracting by astringent medicines, in others again applying surgery and cautery - he effected this sound state of health. His teaching and other attentions found support in the luster of his life. Illuminated by this, they hearkened to what he said and gladly welcomed what he did.
All the time of his episcopacy, bread was for him superfluous, water superfluous, a bed useless, and use of fire superfluous. At night he chanted forty psalms antiphonally, doubling the length of the prayers that occur in between; the rest of the night he sat on a chair, allowing a brief rest of his eyelids. That 'man will not live on bread alone' had been said by Moses the lawgiver, and the Master recalled this utterance when he rejected the invitation of the devil; but that living without water is among the things possible, we have nowhere been taught in the divine Scripture - even the great Elijah first satisfied this need from the brook, and then on going to the widow of Zarephath first told her to bring him water and then likewise asked for bread. But this wonderful man throughout the time of his episcopacy took neither bread nor pulses nor greens cooked by fire and not even water, which is considered by those reputed clever about these things to be the first of the elements in utility; but it was lettuce, chicory, celery, and all plants of the kind that he made his food and drink, rendering superfluous the skills of baking and cooking. In the fruit-season fruit supplemented his needs. His food he took after the evening liturgy.
While wearing down his body with such labors, he was inexhaustible in the services he rendered others. For strangers who came a bed was ready, glistening and select rolls were offered, wine of a fine bouquet, fish and vegetables and all the other things that go with them; he himself a midday sat with the diners, offering to each portions of the fare provided, giving goblets to all and bidding them drink, in imitation of his great namesake- I mean the Patriarch- who served his guests but did not dine with them.
Spending the whole day on the lawsuits of those in dispute, some he would persuade to be reconciled with each other, while to those who would not obey his gentle teaching he applied compulsion. No wrongdoer went away victorious over justice through audacity; to the wronged party he always accorded the just man's portion, making him invincible and stronger than the one who wanted to wrong him. He was like an excellent physician who always prevents the excess of the humors and contrives the equilibrium of the elements.
Even the emperor desired to see him, for fame has wings and easily publishes everything, good and bad. He summoned him, and when he arrived embraced him, and considered his rustic goats's hair cloak more honorable than his own purple robe. The choir of the empresses clasped his hands and knees; and they made supplication to a man who did not even understand Greek.
And so for emperors and all men philosophy is a thing worthy of respect; and when they die its lovers and adherents win still greater renown. This can be learnt from all sorts of examples, but not least from the case of this inspired man. For when he died and the emperor learnt of it, he wanted to bury him in one of the sacred shrines, but realizing that it would be right to restore to the sheep the body of the shepherd, he himself escorted it at the front of the procession, followed by the choir of empresses, all the governors and governed, soldiers and civilians. With the same zeal the city of Antioch received him, and the cities after it, until he reached the great river. Along the bank of the Euphrates there hastened townspeople and foreigners. Everyone both of the country and of the adjoining region pressed forward to enjoy his blessing; many rod-bearers accompanied the bier, to deter through fear of blows those who tried to strip the body of its clothing or who wanted to take pieces therefrom. One could hear some singing psalms, others dirges; one woman with sighs called him patron, another foster- father, another shepherd and teacher; one man in tears named him father, another helper and protector. With such eulogy and lament did they entrust to the tomb this holy and sacred body.
I myself, out of admiration at the way he did not alter his mode of life when changing his position in life, and did not as bishop love a relaxed regime but increased his ascetic labors, have listed him in the history of the monks, and have not separated him from the company he loved, in my desire to receive blessing from his source as well.
February 14 is dedicated as Saint Abraham's feast day.(12)
(1) Cyrrhus, Cyr, Quros, or Hagioupolis, is now Huru Pegamber in Eastern Turkey. The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, vol. I, (Oxford, 1991), pp. 574-575. | Back to text |
(2) Festugière, A. Antioche Paienne et Chretienne; Libanius, Chrysostome et les Moines de Syrie. (Paris, 1959), p. 315. | Back to text |
(3) 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. 119 | Back to text |
(4) Baudot and Chaussin. Vie des Saints et des Bienheureus. (Paris, 1936), p. 325. | Back to text |
(5) AbouZayd, p. 353. | Back to text |
(6) Theodoret, p. 120. | Back to text |
(7) Theodoret, p. 120. | Back to text |
(8) Theodoret, p. 121-122. | Back to text |
(9) AbouZayd, p. 353. | Back to text |
(10) AbouZayd, p. 354. | Back to text |
(11) AbouZayd, p. 304. | Back to text |
(12) Baudot and Chaussin, p. 325. | Back to text |
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