Sometimes it’s difficult for us to read scripture and superimpose a map over it—so much has changed since biblical times, the Middle East reconfiguring itself several times over—so not everybody knows that Jesus was in Lebanon when he visited Tyre and Sidon. In fact, Lebanon is mentioned in the Bible over 70 times, so it is surely holy ground.
And the home of a saint.
Youssef Antoun Makhlouf was born in 1828, in Bekaa Kafra (North Lebanon). He had a passion for prayer, which his mother might have come to regret, as he kept slipping off to pray at the nearby monastery; she kept looking for him and finally realized he was drawn to the monastic life. He left his family village and entered Our Lady of Maifouk monastery to spend his first monastic year before heading to the St Maron monastery in Annaya, where he entered the Maronite Order, receiving the name Charbel, a name of one of the Antioch church martyrs of the second century.
When Charbel was 32 years old and living quietly in his monastery, civil war broke out in Lebanon, the culmination of a peasant uprising begun in the north of Mount Lebanon as a rebellion of Maronite peasants against their Druze overlords. 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 assume the life of a hermit. 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 lived in solitude, but his life has touched the world.