For Westerners, who don’t often hear “Arab” and “Christian” mentioned in the same breath, it may be strange to hear about one Arab Christian—Charbel Makhlouf—who is also a canonized saint.
Charbel was a nineteenth-century monk who lived and died in Lebanon, in the mountain region where the country’s famous cedars grow. Like most Lebanese Christians even today, he was a Maronite Catholic—a member of one of the great Eastern churches, which has been in union with Rome since its beginnings in the late fourth century.
St. Charbel lived as a hermit with a rigorous austerity that reminds us of the ancient desert fathers. This radical asceticism, too, may strike us as strange. But as Pope Paul VI explained in his 1977 canonization homily, however unusual Charbel’s life may seem, God raised him up as “a paradoxical artisan of peace.”
An Intercessor for All. Lebanon especially needs peace, for it is a wounded nation, scarred and disfigured by a civil war that tore the country apart from 1975 to 1990. Robert Fisk, a well-known war journalist, aptly titled his in-depth study of the conflict Pity the Nation. In it, he compared Lebanon to a lamb led to slaughter. Even today, despite all the reconstruction, many buildings throughout the country still bear the scars of war.
It’s not just the buildings, either. Perhaps the biggest wound is in the people’s memories. Even now, twenty years later, many Lebanese are still searching for inner peace, for the ability to forgive and to be forgiven, and for the assurance that the years of conflict are truly behind them.
These people—about four and a half million in all—come from varied backgrounds. Muslims make up a slight majority, with Christians comprising roughly 40 percent of the population. Maronites are the most numerous of these, living side by side with Christians from many other churches—Chaldean, Syriac, Armenian, Copt, Latin, Orthodox, and Evangelical. Lebanon also has a small minority of Druze, an offshoot of Islam, but its once thriving Jewish community has all but vanished.
Still, whether Christian or not, the people of Lebanon regard Charbel as an intercessor they can turn to. Drawn by his reputation as a powerful healer and miracle worker, they flock to his tomb in the mountaintop Monastery of St. Maron in Annaya, coming especially on the twenty-second of every month.
How this pilgrimage began involves the story of a breathtaking healing attributed to Charbel’s intercession.
Supernatural Surgery. On the night of January 22, 1993, Nuhad Chami, a mother of twelve, felt a special urge to pray before going to sleep. A few months earlier, she had suffered a stroke that left her half paralyzed. Little could be done— her carotid arteries were almost completely blocked, doctors told her. They wanted to try inserting stents in her neck, but she was afraid of the surgery. As she prayed that night, sending up her cry to the Virgin Mary and St. Charbel, deep repentance pierced her heart. Afterwards, she fell asleep with an unprecedented sense of peace.
Around 2:00 a.m., Mrs. Chami testified, she woke up. Or was she still asleep? A dazzling light filled her room, and from it emerged two monks. One she recognized as St. Charbel; the other, she determined later, was the fourth-century hermit, St. Maron. “I have come to perform the surgery that you didn’t want doctors to do,” Charbel told the woman. He touched her neck for a moment, helped her sit up in bed, and gave her a glass of water. She drank without a straw—something she had been unable to do. Then she realized she could now move her hand and walk normally.
Nuhad Chami woke her husband and daughters to share the good news. All were dumbfounded, for her healing was complete and instantaneous. And on each side of her neck was an incision sewn with threads of cotton, silk, and nylon. Today, these signs of her extraordinary healing remain visible as scars.
Ever since, at St. Charbel’s request, Nuhad Chami goes on pilgrimage to Annaya on the twenty-second of every month. She is not alone: A recent weekday pilgrimage involved several thousand people; if the twenty-second falls on a Sunday or a holiday, when more men are free, the crowd is much larger.
There, at the Monastery of St. Maron, the pilgrims attend a special Mass. Occasionally afterwards, some approach Mrs. Chami with prayer requests; she prays briefly over each person. Others draw close to see her neck scars, which bleed slightly on the day of every pilgrimage.
Pilgrims also pray at the tomb of St. Charbel, whose coffin is exposed in a small chapel within the new church behind the monastery. Processing further up the mountain, they visit the hermitage that overlooks the beautiful and fertile valley of the Nahr Ibrahim, the River of Abraham. Just rustic cells and kitchen built around a chapel dedicated to St. Peter and St. Paul, this primitive lodging is where Fr. Charbel spent his final years.
Wrapped in Silence. Visitors to the primitive hermitage may find themselves wondering why some people would choose to live in such isolation and austerity. Unfortunately, Charbel didn’t leave a lot of clues! He talked very little, leaving much of his inner life shrouded in mystery.
Born on May 8, 1828, Joseph Makhlouf was always known for his silence. Even as a child watching over the family cow, his conduct was so different that people nicknamed him “the saint.” By the age of twenty-one, he had heard God’s call to religious life. Inspired by the example of two uncles, he joined the Lebanese Maronite Order and became a priest and monk, taking the name Charbel after a second-century martyr.
No one knows what lit the flame of love that consumed this man. Not even his fellow monks understood how he managed to keep his monastic vows so perfectly. Though he was once heard calling out to God for help against a temptation, he kept his struggles to himself.
Charbel was radical in observing the order’s strict rules. He loathed money. He carefully avoided contact, even eye contact, with women. Once, he even turned his own mother away from his hermitage. Speaking to her gently but firmly from behind his closed door, he assured her that even if they never met again in this world, they would see one another in the next. But for all that, obedience was the hallmark of his spirituality. Having chosen to subordinate his will to that of his superiors, he kept this rule to the end. In fact, in his old age, he obeyed even the younger monk who helped him in his hermitage, eating only when he was told to do so.
As extreme as his observances may seem, Charbel’s austerity was part of his path to holiness. As Paul VI observed: “It left the way wide open for the Holy Spirit.” His words were few, but they were effective. Men from the local villages sought him out, following him even to his hermitage for counseling, healing, or just to serve his Mass.
There were many miracles as well. One involved Charbel’s oil lamp, which a mischievous monk once filled with water, only to be amazed when Charbel lit the lamp as usual for his nightly prayer vigil! On at least two occasions, hordes of hungry locusts were driven away by sprinkling the wheat fields with water that Charbel had blessed. No wonder the local villages, both Muslim and Christian, turned to him for help! And Charbel gave it freely to everyone, requiring only that they obtain his superior’s permission first.
A Presence that Evangelizes. After sixteen years at the monastery, Fr. Charbel requested and received permission to move to the hermitage. After twenty-three years of even more arduous prayer, fasting, and penance, he suffered a stroke and died eight days later, on Christmas Eve 1898.
People from all around Annaya braved the cold and deep snow to attend his funeral. Then Charbel’s body was placed on the muddy floor of the leaky, underground burial chamber that served as the monastery’s common grave. Afterwards, every night for over a month, a bright light was seen emanating from the tomb and encircling the monastery.
So many people—monks and villagers alike—saw the light and attributed it to Charbel’s holiness that, at the end of winter, the monastery’s abbot was persuaded to investigate. The stone covering the tomb was lifted, and there, floating in a puddle of water lay the body of Charbel, as supple as if he had just fallen asleep. It remains incorrupt to this day.
Through Charbel’s intercession, countless miracles have taken place through the years. Fr. Louis Matar keeps careful track. In 2010, he officially recorded the healings of more than sixty people, including ten Muslims. Like Mrs. Chami, many people receive instant, total healing of some bodily ailment. But there are spiritual healings, too. Fr. Matar remembers one husband and wife who were surprised to run into one another in front of the hermitage one morning. St. Charbel, it seems, had engineered the encounter by appearing to each one in a dream and asking them to go to Confession there at 10:00 A.M. (Perhaps they needed reconciliation with one another, as well as with God!)
Given the uneasy situation in the Middle East, as well as the continued aftereffects of the country’s own civil war, the Monastery of St. Maron has become one of Lebanon’s main confessionals. Many men involved in the war come for reconciliation. Young couples with children seek God’s blessing and protection on their homes. Quite a number of pilgrims kneel before the Lord in a spirit of repentance. With four and a half million visitors coming to Annaya every year, silent St. Charbel is a most eloquent exemplar of the “new evangelization.”
Fr. Matar tells of a Canadian who had a dream in which he saw a monk he did not know. “Who are you?” he asked. Said the monk: “I am Charbel of Lebanon.” For a saint to identify himself with a country is a very high honor. And a great challenge, calling his countrymen to also seek God with their whole hearts.
But Charbel is not for Lebanon alone. Through his penance and unceasing prayer of intercession— “like Moses on the mountain,” said Pope Paul VI—Charbel offered himself for the salvation of all. His life and his continuing intercession are a gift to the world. n
Fady Noun is a Lebanese journalist, essayist, and poet living in Beirut. For more information on St. Charbel, see the monastery Web site: www. saintcharbel-annaya.com.