By Abbot Paul Naaman, 199 pages, cistercianpublications.org.
Abbot Naaman shows how Christian the Eastern part of the Mediterranean was in ancient times, before Islam's expansion. Ancient Syria boasted Aramaic- and Syriac-speaking church fathers, and a monastery-dotted landscape. Along with the Greek Byzantines and the Egyptian Christians, these centers of theology were debating big questions, such as the nature of Christ in his human and divine natures, long before Europe had become Christendom.
The Second Council of Ephesus in 449 and the Council of Chalcedon in 451 form the backdrop to the events in Syria at this time. Imperial intrigue meshed with church politics and theological issues. Theology, in fact, was a political issue.
Naaman excels at keeping things clear for his readers, who are probably unaware of much of the history and the contribution of the "Orientals, including the Syrians.
Syrians such as Theodoret, bishop of Cyr in northern Syria and founder of a monastery which would play a key role in the formation of the Maronite church, was a controversial figure censored at Second Ephesus but rehabilitated at Chalcedon, where in fact he worked closely with the legates from Rome in formulating key canons of the Council on Christology (the nature of Christ).
Theodoret was a gifted churchman who participated in politics, the church hierarchy, and theological debate. He was a church builder.
Theodoret was also a product of the Syrian church. At this time Christianity almost always expanded through the work of missionary monasteries. Monks did the chief evangelizing work by establishing themselves in under-Christianized areas, or in the case of ancient Syria, where the church was split due to theological controversy. Orthodox monks would establish a monastery where they could fight heresy.
Syria at the time of Theodoret had already long established a rich Christian heritage, like the other centers of ancient Christianity, Armenia, Egypt, and Asia Minor. Monasticism, including a more hermit, or eremetical, style, was a deep part of the culture.
Maron, a friend of John Chrysostom, was a fifth-century hermit priest who built a community known as the Maronites. An anchorite, or solitary, he lived on top of a mountain, and soon attracted followers, as was usual. These hermits were the spiritual guides of the larger Christian community, and though they tended to submit to the local bishop, they too had a parallel power in their counseling and prayer service to the community. "The lives of these ascetics made a tremendous impression on their contemporaries," Abbot Naaman notes.
Marcion was the other pillar of early Syrian Christianity. While he initially tried the solitary life, he eventually lived more closely to community than Maron did. Abbot Naaman gives us a clear sense of the importance of such leaders to ancient Syrian Christianity, which was a more masculine, demanding, and ascetic church than contemporary Christianity: "His reputation for saintliness was so great that people walked four days to come and visit him." Though Marcion was more moderate in his ascetic practices than Maron, he influenced Syrian Christianity deeply.
Syrian Christianity practiced asceticism rather than pop-psychology, so it is worth studying as a way for us to become more Christ-centered.