Guita G. Hourani & Antoine B. Habachi: "The Maronite Eremitical Tradition: a Contemporary Revival" in Heythrop Journal vol. 45, 2004, p. 451-465.
The authors "intend to look at the eremitical experience as lived within the Maronite Church." At the time of writing, four hermits -- three monks and one nun -- represented an eremitical revival after many years without hermits. This recent absence was a painful irony for the Church that was built upon the spirituality of the fourth-fifth century hermit St. Maroun.
Even today the Maronite Church is unique. Successors of the hermit Maroun founded a monastery in the Apame district of modern Lebanon, and from the monastery emerged a Church, that is, an ecclesiastical structure of bishops and priests, although the preference has been to make appointments from monks, not secular clergy.
The Maronite Church evolved a rite within the Antiochan Syriac in union with the Catholic Church.
The close, sacred relationship found between the land of Lebanon and the Maronites, transformed the land of refuge into a patriarchal see of the Catholic Church. From then on, the patriarch has become the symbol of their unity since all Maronite groupings of the diaspora claim his ecclesiastical authority.
Yet this structure is not the representative source of Maronite spirituality.
The Syriac hermit tradition is the work of individuals who chose to live in solitude and not the result or outcome of coenobitic life. On the contrary, the numerous disciples eager for this life in solitude were the ones who very early on urged their masters to organize a coenobitic structure.
Thus St. Maroun recovered the Syriac eremitical tradition and adapted it to his own spirituality. Thus, too, the hermit came to be distinguished from the recluse or anchorite, the latter shut away in a hermitage while the former, called hibise, referring to the hermit proper, a solitary living "in the heart" of the Church.
This term applied to Maronite hermits should not be taken in the strict sense of recluse. By hibso, we do not mean to say the recluse who avoids people but the hermit who leads a way of life which allows him to carry out a mission.
The historical distinction emerged, too, not so much from outward appearance or psychological factors but the hermit's full acceptance of the common community's mission and fate in times of persecution. The hermit did not shun martyrdom, and over the centuries of Ottoman occupation (the authors seem reluctant to describe this) did not. The hermit identification with the Church and the community has been steadfast.
Thus the reputation of the hermit is a very positive one in the Maronite Church. Indeed, as mentioned, ecclesiastical hierarchy usually originate in monasteries, and monasteries continue to foster the ascetic discipline of the hermits. The history of Maronite bishops reveals their outward appearance, personal habits, and inward disposition to be that of austere monks.
But the important point about the entire Maronite culture is clear:
This austere way of life was not only the preserve of the ecclesiastical hierarch. It was practiced by the believers, the common Maronite people.
The Church that has prided itself on its eremitical tradition suffered a crisis of numbers in the late twentieth century which "has threatened the eremitical tradition itself." There are four hermits in the Maronite Church, as mentioned, who retain the eremitical spirituality but are counted as monks. This is due to the fact that the 1965 reforms that radiated from the Second Vatican Council revised the Maronite monastic order to abolish the status of hermit.
The article describes the four contemporary hermits at some length. They are: 1) Antonios Chayna, a priest, monk, and long-time university professor who retired in 1982 to a mountain hermitage; 2) Sister Mary-Jesus Abboud, who lives in a hermitage on the grounds of an ancient convent; 3) Yuhanna Khawand, who like Chayna is a priest, monk, and teacher. Khawand was inspired by having attended the 1958 funeral of the then-last living hermit of the Maronite Lebanese Order. Khawand started a hermitage in 1998 on the grounds of a 1673 monastery; and 4) Dario Escobar Montanya Sanchez, who was born in Colombia, studied and was ordained in the U.S., and taught for many years. Rejected by his U.S. bishop in his bid to become a hermit, Escobar traveled to Lebanon to become a monk in the Maronite Lebanese Order, where he eventually occupied the hermitage of Our Lady of Hawqa, abandoned since the seventeenth century.
The article concludes with a description of two efforts to sustain eremitical practice and spirituality in the Maronite tradition. One is a youth program in Qadisha in which young people live for a full day as a hermit would, exactly reproducing the prayer cycles of the day and eating, dressing, and functioning as they do. This is part of a program that includes instructional and recreational activities under Church auspices.
The second effort is the formation of Maronite communities in North America with hermitages adjacent to monasteries.
To adequately distinguish the eremitical component of Maronite spirituality from that of the Church itself and the monastic structure that sustains it is an artful historical task that is only pressing today, when eremitism is challenged within the Church and by secular society. This useful article gives a sense of this paradox in the modern world.