Fr. James Doran on his journey to the Maronites
A little-appreciated facet of the Catholic Church is the true diversity of Eucharistic liturgies available to Catholics, who are offered many forms and rites to meet their spiritual needs. Aleteia has been featuring occasional articles by Catholics writing on how and why a particular liturgy speaks most deeply to their spirit, and their worship. Here, Father James H. Doran shares what he loves about Maronite spirituality.
Awe, majesty, wonder and humility before Divine Mercy—these are notions expressed in all the Catholic traditions. While they all radiate out in beauty from the One Incarnate Word, Our Lord Jesus Christ, they are expressed in different nuances in each of the traditions, rites and spirituality found in the Catholic Church. At the risk of oversimplification, one could say that Rome glories in the Precious Blood of the Lamb of God on Calvary, Who graciously acts in the Sacraments from His glorious place eternally at the Right Hand of the Father, and that the Byzantine Churches worship before the eternal High Priest as He acts in Mystery among His members.
The Byzantines are often thought of as the Eastern Church, but there are other traditions that trace their history to the ancient See of Antioch. In these Churches, the baptized turn in adoration and awe before the Hidden One as they await the Day of Judgement—the Day of the Lord.
I have served as a priest in the Latin Church for 28 years, but by God’s Providence I have found myself traveling, spiritually, to Antioch. I already had a love for the Eastern traditions when I visited Damascus, Syria, in 2007. But a chance meeting with a Maronite archbishop at his cathedral there led eventually to my being a Maronite priest.
A spirituality of “light,” expressed liturgically by veiled transformative communications in the radiant light of the “Bright-One-Who-cannot-be-Clouded,” is especially present in the Syriac traditions, and this drew me easily toward the Maronite Church. It also seemed an appropriate time in history to show solidarity with our persecuted brothers and sisters in the ancient cradle of Christianity. Indeed, the Damascus cathedral and residence of the archbishop who invited me to serve in the Maronite Church were bombed four times in early November. A neighboring hostel the Church built for university students was also hit. One student was killed and 15 wounded.
The Syro-Maronites, having been formed around an ascetic/monastic movement initiated by Saint Maron (d. 410), have taken from both the Western and Eastern Aramaic traditions, and—post-Crusades—there’s been an influence also from Rome.
By the time of Jesus, Mesopotamia had cultivated an Aramaic culture for many centuries. When the Word of God entered time, He came to a people of Aramaic language and customs, not only as the Son of Mary in Nazareth, but as the Son of Man born to a culture of vast antiquity, language and customs. The Incarnate Word thus was cradled in one of the most ancient civilizations still extant at the time.
The first quality of these ecclesiastical traditions then is that they are the most “Semitic” of all the Churches.
All the Catholic traditions hold the Scriptures in veneration, but the Syriac Churches traditionally seem to have adopted the ancient synagogue as their architectural model in which to enthrone the Sacred Texts. The Book of the Gospels was veiled in its place on the raised bema, more or less central to the congregation, and the reserved Eucharist, also veiled, replaced the Torah in the Holy of Holies. This is a simple and appealingly beautiful custom that emphasizes the central preoccupation these Semitic Christian traditions have had for the written word of God. While the authoritative Scriptures for the Latin and Greek Churches were transmitted through the Vulgate and Septuagint respectively, historically the Syriac Churches possessed the Old Testament, Peshitta, as directly translated from the Hebrew and Aramaic texts. Traditionally, the Scriptures that have most influenced the Syriac Churches have been the Old Testament Wisdom Books, the Gospel of St. John and the Epistles of St. Paul.
In Semitic thought, God is ineffable, “wholly Other,” ultimately transcending all human concepts and words. The Hidden One reveals Himself definitively in His Incarnate Word—and by extension the Church—but by necessity these communications/epiphanies act simultaneously as “veils.” Insofar as they exist in a created manner they must be limited. They infinitely fall short of that which they are meant to express and reveal. They reveal and veil, uncover and cover, at one and the same time. They are simultaneously true and inadequate. From this point of view, the better theological expression chosen in the Aramaic tradition is poetry. What is to be described remains ever transcendent Mystery and therefore to humanly describe It requires that terms turn about the indefinable center in paradox and image rather than in categorical linguistic definition. The greatest of these Aramaic theologians is St. Ephraim of Edessa, Doctor of the Church.
The Syriac Churches happily follow the ancient Hebraic and Mesopotamian poetic traditions. As an example, as Catholics we certainly believe in “transubstantiation” but even before this scientific word was created other terms had been used. Here is an excerpt from a hymn for the Consecration and Renewal of the Church:
At thy feast He mixed a cup; Those who drink it thirst no more. Come and eat Fire in the Bread. Drink Spirit in the Wine. Clothed in Spirit and Fire, Thou shalt be with Him, His bride.
Another thing demonstrating this Semitic tradition is the central ceremony of the Maronite Church called the Hoosoyo. In the Old Law the place above the Ark in the Holy of Holies, framed by the cherubim, was known as the “kapporeth/propitiation,” and this word is translated into the Syriac as “hoosoyo.” Thus the “mercy seat” of the Old Testament, once physically localized in Jerusalem, has been taken over into the Christian Faith and is now universalized: “the hour cometh, when you shall neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, adore the Father. … and now is, when the true adorers shall adore the Father in spirit and in truth. For the Father also seeketh such to adore him.” The “hoosoyo” is considered a spiritual reality now present, neither “here” nor “there,” but a Place of Mercy ever present in the Messiah: the juncture of God and man in the Person of the Word.
The Epiclesis invoking the transforming presence of the Spirit of God is common to all the Eastern traditions. In the Maronite Mass the priest kneels at the altar and invokes the Holy Spirit not only to transform the sacred oblata and to perfect the Divine Offering, but the Divine Power is also called upon to transform all the baptized present as He once did in the Virgin in Nazareth, analogously making Christ present also in them.
The last characteristic to be mentioned is the Marian quality of Maronite prayers. Mary’s central title is simply “The Mother of the Light.” The ever-Virgin Mary is seen as the fulfillment of all the promises made to Israel. She fulfills the types of the Old Testament as the embodiment of the “Daughter of Zion.” She is present everywhere and invoked continually under many images and types: Chariot of the flesh, the Closed Door, Higher than all the ranks of the angels, Palace of Mysteries, Blessed Field, Source of Joy, etc.
O Mary, thou art the Tower of David where marvelously appeared the Light Who proceeds from the Light. Petition the eternal Light within thee to drive from our souls the darkness of sin and fill them with the light of justice. With enlightened and pure hearts, we shall then celebrate thy glorious feast and give glory to the One Who is within thee, to His Father, and to the Holy Spirit, forever. Amen.
While the Messiah is the perfect Manifestation of God and man, the ever-blessed Virgin is the perfect finite expression of all creation. She is the perfect created response and fidelity to God in whom we find our exemplar, intercessor and Mother.
The following prayer addressed to the Mother of God, taken from the Night Office of Tuesday, allows us to appreciate the extraordinary vision of the Syriac Church that at once brings together the notions of holiness, light and the Divine Maternity. It also gives a taste of the beauty to be found in the Aramaic tradition, and why this Latin priest has easily been captivated in her embrace.
Palace of holiness in which the King descended and came to dwell, new heaven which carried God the Word; in thine arms thou didst embrace the Flames and didst give milk to the devouring Fire; blessed is He, the Infinite, Who was born of thee.
More to read: Why I love the Latin Mass
More to read: Why I feel called to the Anglican Ordinariate