God chooses certain people to remind the world in an extraordinary way of His existence, His all-powerful love, and unbounded mercy. Saint Charbel Makhlouf is one of the best known saints in the Middle East. He arouses admiration and universal awe because of the extraordinary miracles and signs wrought through the power of his intercession.
He was born on April 8, 1828, the fifth child of impoverished parents, Antuna and Brigida Makhlouf, who lived in the small hilltop town of Beqaakafra, 140 kilometers north of Beirut. He was christened Joseph, his parents being Catholics of the Maronite Rite. Their children grew up in a joyful atmosphere of mutual love which flowed from a life of daily prayer and hard work on the land. During this time Lebanon was under the rule of the Ottoman Empire.
When Joseph was three years old, his father died. To ensure her children's keep and education, Joseph's mother decided to remarry. She took as her husband an upright and devout deacon by the name of Ibrahim. At the age of fourteen, Joseph felt the first stirrings of a call to the monastic way of life; but it was only in 1851 that he decided to enter the monastery in Maifug. He applied for admission and there spent the first year of his novitiate. In his second year he moved to the monastery in Annaya, where, on November 1, 1853, he took his preliminary vows and took the name of Charbel — after the Antiochian martyr of 107 AD. He finished his theological studies and was ordained to the priesthood on July 23, 1859.
As a young priest in 1860, he was witness to the appalling massacre of over 20,000 Christians by Muslims and members of the Druse sect. Muslim troops murdered entire families of Christians without mercy, looting, plundering, and burning churches, convents, farms, and homes. Hundreds of refugees, hungry, wounded, and terrified by what had happened and might yet happen, sought shelter in the monastery of Annaya. Father Charbel rendered every possible assistance to the refugees, all the while praying, fasting, imposing severe penances upon himself, offering himself to God in a spirit of expiation for the crimes committed, and begging for God's mercy on persecutor and persecuted alike.
When someone, who is totally devoted to God, prays, he makes God's all-powerful love present in the world. It is Christ Himself who then speaks through him, conquering evil with good, lies with truth, and hatred with love. No more effective means of struggling against evil in the world exists.
This is how Father Charbel fought evil, for he knew that the surest way of changing the world for the better was to change oneself, to become holy by uniting oneself with God. This was the main aim of his monastic life. Only those who sincerely seek after holiness make the world a better place.
On February 15, 1875, after spending seventeen years in the monastic community in Annaya, Father Charbel received permission to move to the hermitage of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, there to unite himself with Christ, through prayer, manual labor, and even stricter acts of self-denial. This tiny, isolated hermitage (home to but three monks) stood 1,350 meters above sea-level. Charbel's cell was only six meters square. He always wore a hair-shirt under his habit and slept only a few hours every day. Once a day he ate very meager meals without meat. The Eucharist was the focal point of his life. After long preparation, he would say Holy Mass in the hermitage chapel, then remain there for two more hours of thanksgiving. His cherished form of prayer was Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. His daily round consisted of meditating on Holy Scripture, praying without cease, and working. In this way Charbel offered himself up to God, that God might purify his heart and free him of all evil inclinations and selfishness; in other words, He made him into a saint, such as Jesus desired. His fellow monks considered him a saint during his lifetime, for they knew just how heroically he strove to imitate Jesus.
Only certain people are called to a way of life as rigorous as Charbel's; but Christ calls every one of us to holiness. Our purpose on earth is to grow in love — to attain heaven; that is, to love as Christ loves us, and to realize in our daily lives His greatest commandment "that you love one another even as I have loved you, that you also love one another" (In 13:34).
So closely was Father Charbel united to Christ that he would radiate the joy of his pure love to everyone he met; and that is why Jesus could work all kinds of miracles and signs through him. One of the many miracles wrought by this Lebanese monk took place in 1885 in the fields of the poor villagers who lived in the vicinity of the monastery of Annaya. A vast cloud of locusts descended on the farmers'fields and began to ravage the harvest. For the people it was a terrible plague that promised widespread famine. The monastery Prior asked Father Charbel to go at once to the infested fields, to pray over them and bless them with holy water. The locusts disappeared from every field the monk blessed, and the harvest was saved.
In 1873 Father Charbel's superior sent him to the palace of Prince Rachid Beik Al-Khoury, to pray for his son Nagibem who was dying of typhus. The doctors held out little hope for him. Father Charbel administered the Sacrament of the Sick to the boy and blessed him with holy water. An instant later, to the great joy of all present, Nagibem recovered. After finishing his medical studies, he went on to become one of the most famous physicians in Lebanon.
In the small town of Ehme there lived a mentally ill person who was a great danger to himself and others. With great difficulty, several men brough him to the monastery in Annaya, but they were unable to bring him into the church, for he resisted with superhuman strength. Father Charbel approached and asked him to go in with him and kneel before the tabernacle. The man calmed down and humbly did as the monk asked. After praying in accordance with the eastern custom, Father Charbel read to him from the Gospel. Then a miracle occurred: the man regained his sanity. Later he married, had a large family, and moved to the United States. There are many other accounts of miracles associated with Father Charbel, but most occurred after his death.
Father Charbel died on Christmas Eve of 1898, while adoring before the Blessed Sacrament. His fellow monks found him on the chapel floor. Flooding the body was a strange light radiating from the tabernacle. The monks saw this as a visible sign from heaven. Outside, it was snowing hard, and a chill wind was blowing. All the roads to the hermitage were snowbound, and no one from the monastery could inform the local villagers of the hermit's death. Yet a strange thing happened. That very day every local villager experienced an inner conviction that Father Charbel had been called to heaven. Young men set out with shovels to clear the snow, that they might reach the hermitage and carry the body to the monastery in Annaya. "We have lost a brilliant star that protected our Order, the Church, and all of Lebanon with its holiness" wrote the Prior. "Let us pray that God make Charbel our patron, who will watch over us and be our guide through the darkness of our earthly life."
On Christmas Day, Father Charbel was laid to rest in a communal grave in the monastery. The following night a mysterious brilliant light became visible across the entire valley. It continued to shine for forty-five nights. The event caused a great stir throughout the whole district. Thousands of Christians and Muslims came to the tomb to see this extraordinary phenomenon. Some managed to dig up the grave and help themselves to scraps of the saint's clothing and locks of his hair as relics. For reasons of safety the Maronite Patriarch decided to have the body brought to the monastery. The grave was opened in the presence of a doctor and other official witnesses. Though covered with wet mud, the exhumed body was perfectly preserved. The body was then subjected to medical tests, which confirmed that it was free of any signs of decay; moreover, it gave off a wonderful aroma and a fluid of unknown origin (a mixture of plasma and blood). To this day, the fluid continues to seep out of the Saint's body as a sign of Christ's healing power. Father Charbel's body was washed, dressed in fresh robes, laid in an open coffin, and interred in a chamber of the monastery closed to the public. Owing to the fluid constantly seeping out of the body, the monks had to change the Saint's robes every two weeks.
It was only on July 24, 1927 that the mortal remains of the hermit were laid in a metal coffin and removed to a marble tomb in the monastery church. In 1950, a mysterious fluid began to flow in profusion from the tomb. The Maronite Patriarch had the tomb opened and the body, exhumed. This was performed in the presence of a medical commission, church representatives, and city officials. An extraordinary sight greeted their eyes. The Saint looked just as he had at the moment of death — in a state if perfect preservation. In fact, the mysterious fluid that constantly seeped from the Saint's body had corroded the metal coffin and eaten its way through the marble of the tomb. Again the body of Saint Charbel was washed and dressed in new robes and, after being shown to the public for several days, laid in a new coffin, and placed in a tomb sealed with cement. That year a record number of miraculous healings and conversions was noted in Annaya. The monastery became the focal point of pilgrimages, not only for Christians but also Muslims and those of other faiths.
Another exhumation took place on August 7, 1952, this time in the presence of the Syriac-Catholic Patriarch, bishops, five professors of medicine, the Minister of Health, and other observers. The remains of the hermit saint were incorrupt but submersed in the same mysterious fluid which continued to seep out. Saint Charbel was put on public display from August seventh to the twenty-fifth of that year. Various attempts to stop the emission of the fluid were made, among others, by removing the stomach and intestines, but all to no avail. Human efforts could not stop the power of God acting on the body of the holy hermit.
The renowned Lebanese professor of medicine, Georgio Sciukrallah, has closely examined the body thirty-four times over a period of seventeen years. This is how he summed up his many years of study: "No matter how many times I examined the body of Saint Charbel, I always found to my amazement that it was intact, free of any decay, and supple as though death had just occurred. What amazed me in particular was the fluid constantly seeping from the body. In my travels I have consulted with professors of medicine in Beirut and in various cities across Europe, but none have been able to account for this phenomenon. The phenomenon is truly unique in all of history. If the body were to secrete only three grams of fluid daily (in fact it secretes several times more than that), then in the space of sixty-six years the total weight of the fluid would be 72 kilograms, which is considerably more than the weight of the body itself.... From a scientific standpoint, this phenomenon admits of no explanation, for the human body contains five liters of blood and other fluids. Based on studies I made so far, I conclude that the body of Saint Charbel remains in a state of perfect preservation, while secreting a mysterious fluid, which I attribute to the intervention of God Himself."
Father Charbel was beatified in 1965 and canonized on October 9, 1977 in St Peter's Square in Rome by the Holy Father, Paul VI. No one ever photographed Saint Charbel, neither did anyone paint a portrait of him in his lifetime. On May 8, 1950, still another extraordinary event occurred. Several Maronite missionaries took a photo of themselves before the Saint's grave. After the photo was developed, it turned out that there was another unknown figure — that of a monk — standing among them. Some of the elderly monks recognized that figure as Father Charbel himself, and from that time on this photo has been the prototype of all subsequent portraits of the saint hermit. (See picture on opposite page.)
By the example of his life and constant intercession before God, Saint Charbel calls on us to aspire to eternal happiness in heaven — daily, courageously, and without compromise. One road only leads to heaven, and that is the one that Jesus invites us to take: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and for the gospel will save it" (Mk 8:34-35).
Taking Saint Charbel as our example, let us not fear the way of mortification, self-denial, and dying to sin. Let us unite ourselves with Christ — the Source of Love — through constant prayer, the reception of the Sacraments of Penance and Holy Communion, and sacrificial love of neighbor.
Fr. Mieczyslaw Piotrowski SChr
Reprinted with permission. This article is taken from the excellent Catholic magazine Love One Another (n. 8), published by the Society of Christ. Website: www.loveoneanothermagazine.org