We have been captivated by the Marian poetry of this oasis.
What’s more, an age-old tradition, of which the writer of the Proto-Gospel of James seems aware, places at Choziba the dawn that heralded the Redemption.
This is because Joachim, the father of Mary, went there to fast and pray, receiving the comforting promise that a child would be born to him to gladden and brighten his old age.
The Choziba Monastery, an oasis of penitence
There is no need to search in the mists of time to discover the origins of the monastery at Choziba.
The monk Antony of Choziba, who grew in holiness in this lonely spot, accurately pieces its history together in two monographs from the first half of the 7th century.
The origins and development of the monastery are identical to those of the ancient Palestinian monasteries. From the time of the apostles, hermits were led to receive disciples and duty-bound to give them religious training. The disciples gathered round their revered master, drawing companions into the community, and in this way cells were gradually established that led to the foundation of a religious community that gave birth to monastic life itself.
The religious community protected the loneliness of the anchorite meditating in his lonely cell whilst easing the harshness of that isolation with communal activities, especially that of observing the Lord’s Day.
Communal living became gradually more prominent because the organisation of increasingly more frequent meetings soon became essential, especially for the training of aspirants.
The communal life of coenobitism was to react against the increasingly more comfortable lifestyle that was gaining ground among the anchorites, by imposing monastic discipline on them.
But it is not an interest in monastic life that fixes our attention on this eagle’s nest set among the rocks of the Wadi-el-Qelt; Choziba is one of the foremost shrines to Mary in Palestine.
In fact we need to go back to the beginning of the seventh century to discover the earliest written confirmation of a church consecrated to the Mother of God at Choziba. Nevertheless, monographs of Antony the monk allow us to ascribe the construction of the church to Abbot John, the founder of Choziba, who dedicated it to the Theotokos (Mother of God) around the fifth or the beginning of the sixth centuries.
Moreover, an archaeological examination of the church confirms these facts whilst the choice of its dedication, entirely in keeping with the customs of that time, derives from the Marian doctrine of the Council of Ephesus (431) that stirred the eastern Church.
Furthermore, these historical facts are confirmed by the fact that it shares its name and a striking similarity in appearance with the monastic church of Saint Saba, consecrated by the patriarch Elias of Jerusalem in 501.
Antony the monk could in no way cast doubt on the dedication of the church at Choziba to Mary because he was at one with tradition. He resorts to this when he wishes to explain the admission of women to the monastery precincts despite the fact that they are strictly closed communities.
The Mother of God appeared to a woman and entreated her to visit her at Choziba, assuring her that this was her house.
“I believe this event took place so that all should understand that this holy place belongs to Her, and that it should be recognised that all that is achieved or performed there is done according to her will.”
Now, Antony the monk is in no way expressing a personal opinion because Saint George of Choziba, himself notes that the monks were kept safe from the bite of poisonous snakes that infested the area, ascribing this remarkable protection to the mother of God to whom this place was consecrated.
The monastery at Choziba is known to us through the writings of Antony the monk who recorded its golden age in history. In fact, it began to decline shortly after this and, three centuries later, it had been forgotten. During this period, history only makes brief reference to it, a decaying monastery fading away through neglect and ruin.
But the half-light of the glorious history of the monastery at Choziba allows us to pinpoint that lonely spot chosen by Saint Joachim when he decided to devote himself to a life of penitence.
According to the Proto-Gospel of James, Joachim, whose generous offerings were refused because he hadn’t been fruitful, withdrew to the desert to pray and fast until the time that God would deign to look with compassion upon him. But an angel of the Lord appeared to him and said,
“Joachim, Joachim, the Lord has granted your prayer. Leave this place because, behold, your wife Anna will conceive within her womb. And Joachim, answering the angel’s call, departed with his flocks”.
It is of interest to know whether this apocryphal legend is at the heart of the worship of Mary at Choziba, or whether it brought it about. If account is taken of the veneration of the Virgin in the monastery church since its foundation, wouldn’t it be logical to conclude that this derives from a local tradition going back to Joachim?
The authority ascribed to the Proto-Gospel at that time, as well as its use in the iconography of the period, justify these assertions. However, the absence of detail in the monographs of Antony the monk does not allow us to build up such a clear picture.The 8th century does not offer any new evidence in favour of the Choziba legend.
John of Euboea (730 AD) seems to refer to Choziba in a distinguished sermon about the Virgin, but his insistence on replacing the word ‘desert’ used in the Protevangelium by the word ‘mountain’ leads us to suppose that he drew his information from different Apocryphal traditions.
We can draw no firm conclusion from this direction because the local tradition on which he relies has no solid foundation, but does nothing more than agree perfectly with the Protevangelium without specifying any of the locations.
Besides, the two terms employed - desert and mountain – are not irreconcilable; the apocryphal source itself uses both indiscriminately in the account where Joachim withdraws to the desert in a mountainous region. What’s more, the gospel of pseudo-Matthew which is, in short, a very free Latin translation – or a fanciful re-working in Latin of the Greek Proto-Gospel text – is content to describe the mountain fastness chosen by Mary’s father for his penance.
From its beginnings therefore, the shrine at Choziba seems to be a place of prayer created to facilitate the veneration of Mary rather than to commemorate a religious event.
Whatever the case, it is of interest to know that a shrine to Mary very like those still to be seen in Palestine existed in the 5th century, marking out the life of the Mother of God and reminding us of her motherly goodness.