Today we celebrate the feast of St. Charbel, someone many Catholics have never heard of. Joseph Makhloof was born at Beqa-Kafra in the mountains of Lebanon in 1828; he entered the Lebanese Maronite monastery of Notre-Dame de Mayfouk when he was 23 and took the name Charbel.
We’re not the first generation to have forgotten St. Charbel. Thomas Merton wrote that “Charbel lived as a hermit in Lebanon—he was a Maronite. He died. Everyone forgot about him. Fifty years later, his body was discovered incorrupt and in short time he worked over 600 miracles. He is my new companion. My road has taken a new turning.”
That’s high praise indeed from arguably the most influential American Catholic author of the twentieth century. The two men had a great deal in common. Merton was a monk and a hermit at the Abbey of Gethsemani, a community of Trappists, who are the most ascetic Catholic monastic order. Like Merton, Charbel was a monk, an ascete, and a hermit. Like Merton, he lived in turbulent times.
When Charbel was 32 years old and living quietly in his monastery, civil war broke out in Lebanon, the culmination of a peasant uprising that had begun in the north of Mount Lebanon as a rebellion of Maronite peasants against their Druze overlords, and which culminated in a massacre in Damascus. It soon spread to the south of the country where the rebellion changed its character, with Druze turning against all Maronite Christians. Around 20,000 Christians were killed, with 380 Christian villages and 560 churches destroyed.
The year after the war began, Charbel was ordained a priest and immediately petitioned his monastery to allow him to live the life of a hermit. He wasn’t permitted to do so for seven more years, but one imagines that the seeds for this extraordinarily difficult and pious life were sown as he saw his country ripped apart by conflict and thousands of his fellow Maronite Christians massacred.
Finally God let the abbot know it was time for Charbel to leave. His superior had asked Charbel to prepare an urgent report that had to be finished overnight, but Charbel’s lamp had run out of oil. Charbel asked one of the monastery’s lay servants to fill it for him; as a prank, the servant filled the lamp with water rather than oil. To his amazement, the lamp lit up immediately and burned brightly. The servant ran to the abbot to inform him of what had happened, and the abbot investigated, finding the lamp filled with water and still lit, with Charbel working industriously by its light. The abbot subsequently granted Charbel’s request to live the severe life of a hermit.
It wasn’t the last time that God surrounded Charbel with light. The hermit died of a massive stroke on Christmas Eve, 1898, and was buried in the monastery graveyard. For the next forty-five nights, his tomb was surrounded by a dazzlingly bright light witnessed by an increasingly large number of people.
Lebanon’s beloved St. Charbel—the country’s first saint—now towers high on a mountain in the land of the cedars in the form of an 89-foot statue.
Pope Paul VI remarked at the beatification ceremony, “What a symbol of union between East and West! His whole existence was completely centered on the celebration of Mass, on silent prayer before the Blessed Sacrament and in the heroic practice of the virtues of obedience, poverty and chastity. May he make us understand, in a world largely fascinated by wealth and comfort, the paramount value of poverty, penance and asceticism, to liberate the soul in its ascent to God.”
So why is St. Charbel meaningful to us? Because he knew the existence of violence and evil, and still maintained his unwavering faith in God. He knew that prayer can conquer the worst that the world can offer and bring us closer to the Kingdom of God. He lived a life that few can emulate but from which all can benefit.
He is, in many ways, a saint for our time. Happy feast day, St. Charbel!
by Jeannette de Beauvoir