St Charbel Makhlouf – the Miracle Monk of Lebanon – was born on 8th May 1828 in Bekaa Kafra, one of five children born to Antoun Zaarour Makhlouf and Brigitta Chidiac. Christened Youssef – the Arabic translation of Joseph – and familiar from an early age with the eremitical life practiced by two of his uncles, he cared for his family’s small flock of sheep at a local grotto, into which he installed an icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary, before which he would spend the day in prayer. He joined the Lebanese Maronite Order at the Monastery of Our Lady of Mayfouq in 1851, later transferring to the ancient Monastery of St Maron, where he received his religious habit and name, Charbel, in honour of a 2nd Century Antiochian Christian martyr – by now fully bearded, in keeping with the traditions of his Order, still followed faithfully even during these contemporary times!
Having made his final religious profession in the Order on 1 November 1853, he began his study of philosophy and theology at the Monastery of Sts Cyprian and Justina to further his education on the path to Priesthood, under the influence of Nimatullah Kassab, one of his Seminary Professors and later a saint venerated in the Maronite and Latin Rite Churches. Following his Ordination on 23 July 1859 in Bkerke, he returned to St Maron Monastery, where he lived a life of severe asceticism and became well-known for providing counsel and blessing. To focus more on the solitude of his religious discipline, he lived as a hermit at the Hermitage of Sts Peter and Paul from 1875 until his death, on Christmas Eve 1898.
On the day of his funeral, the weather cleared – later, a bright light was seen surrounding his tomb; and, furthermore, it was incorrupt and flexible, with a blood-like liquid flowing from it. He was Beatified on 5 December 1965 and Canonised on 9 October 1977, both events occurring at St Peter’s Basilica and presided over by Pope Paul VI, himself a saint venerated in the Roman Catholic Church, who spoke of St Charbel’s dedication to his religious vocation and to the paramount value of poverty, penance, and asceticism, to liberate the soul in its ascent to God.
Many miracles have been attributed to St Charbel: the healing of Sr Mary Abel Kamari of the Sacred Hearts, the healing of Iskandar Naim Obeid from Baabdat, and the healing of Mariam Awad from Hammana. The most famous one, however, is that of Nohad El Shami, a 55-year-old woman healed from a partial paralysis – who dreamed that, on the night of 22 January 1993, she saw two Maronite monks standing next to her bed; one put his hands on her neck and operated on her, relieving her from her pain, while the other held a pillow behind her back. In fact, she discovered two wounds in her neck, one on each side, when she awoke, and she discovered that, having been completely healed from her infirmity, she had recovered her ability to walk. She believed that it was Saint Charbel who healed her but did not recognize the other monk. The following night, St Charbel appeared to her in a dream, informing her "I did the surgery to let people see and return to faith” and instructing her “to visit the hermitage on the 22nd of every month, and attend Mass regularly for the rest of your life”.
People now gather on the 22nd of each month to pray and celebrate Mass in the hermitage of St Charbel in Annaya. As is customary, visitors and pilgrims to the shrine collect oil and dust, trusting in the intercession of St Charbel, and in the hope of their alleged curative properties.
St Charbel frequently spoke about the theme of marriage and the family and the concept of the nuclear family (that which is referred to in Catholic circles as Holy Matrimony). In our times, Pope Francis has also placed great emphasis on family life – so, to conclude with the words of St Charbel:
Guard your families and keep them from the schemes of the Evil One through the presence of God in them. Protect and keep them through prayer and dialogue, through mutual understanding and forgiveness, through honesty and faithfulness, and most importantly, through listening. Listen to one another with your ears, eyes, hearts, mouths and the palms of your hands, and keep the roaring of the noise of the world away from your homes because it is like raging storms and violent waves; once it enters the home, it will sweep away everything and disperse everyone. Preserve the warmth of the family, because the warmth of the whole world cannot make up for it.
Let’s say Amen to this, in all families!