Each year, tens of thousands visit Annaya, Lebanon, to pray at the tomb of St. Sharbel. (photo: Sarah Hunter)
Nohad El Shami, who attributes her miraculous recovery from a stroke to St. Sharbel, touches a pilgrim’s head. (photo: Sarah Hunter)
Candles illuminate Sharbel’s tomb. (photo: Sarah Hunter)
A eucharistic procession winds its way from Sharbel’s hermitage to St. Maron Monastery. (photo: Sarah Hunter)
Behind the monastery, the church of St. Sharbel houses the saint’s tomb. (photo: Sarah Hunter)
Pilgrims from around the world pray to the saint and request his intercession. (photo: Sarah Hunter)
The gift shop at the monastery sells goods produced by the local community. (photo: Sarah Hunter)
St. Sharbel’s tomb attracts the most pilgrims on the 22nd day of each month. (photo: Sarah Hunter)
St. Sharbel ranks among Lebanon’s most celebrated religious men. During his life, the hermit performed numerous miracles and inspired the lives of those who sought his counsel. Even after his death in 1898 at the age of 70, he has touched the lives of countless more. As did the legendary oil lamp that once illuminated his cell, Sharbel’s memory still burns today, inspiring pilgrimages, parish shrines, internet chat-room conversations and even a feature film.
Born Youssef Antoun Makhlouf on 8 May 1828, Sharbel grew up in a remote mountain village near the Cedars of Lebanon. He entered religious life at the age of 23, leaving his village home to serve Christ as a priest and monk in the Maronite Catholic tradition at the Monastery of St. Maron, in the village of Annaya, north of Beirut. He was given the name Sharbel, after a second-century Christian martyr, and lived at the monastery for 16 years before retreating to a nearby cell to live as a hermit in ceaseless prayer, which he did for the remaining years of his life. He died quietly on Christmas Eve 1898 and was buried near the monastery.
While Sharbel never traveled much further than a couple days’ journey from his boyhood home, stories of his miraculous works during and after his life have spread throughout the world. He is said to have cured a madman by reading from the Gospel and to have protected crops from locusts by sprinkling them with water that he had blessed. In the last century, pilgrims to the saint’s tomb have attributed numerous miracles, two of which were made public before Sharbel’s beatification in December 1965 and a third before his canonization in October 1977.
But perhaps St. Sharbel’s most famous miracle was his first, which involved an old oil lamp. One evening at the monastery, Sharbel asked to have his oil lamp refilled. Two attendants decided to play a trick on the young monk, and filled the lamp with water instead of oil. The attendants then watched Sharbel through a crack in the wooden door to his cell. When they saw Sharbel light the lamp, they whispered to one another in amazement, catching the attention of another monk. Hearing the men’s story, the monk entered Sharbel’s cell. He then extinguished Sharbel’s lamp and tried, unsuccessfully, to relight it using the flame from his own lamp. He removed the wick from Sharbel’s lamp and tasted the liquid. Convinced that it was water, he handed the lamp back to Sharbel, who, again, successfully lighted the lamp before the others’ eyes.
Every year, tens of thousands of pilgrims from around the globe visit St. Sharbel’s hermitage and tomb.On the monastery’s grounds, a statue of the saint marks the spot where he was first laid to rest. A few months after his burial, mysterious dazzling lights danced around the grave. Now holes blotch the grassy area around the statue; pilgrims have taken bits of the sacred soil, which they believe to have miraculous powers. As did early Christian pilgrims, many still kiss the ground where Sharbel was once buried.
Children and youth, in their exuberance, climb the statue of the saint, leaving behind inhibitions as well as flowers and articles of clothing. They bow their heads as they balance precariously, a parallel with their lives in today’s world of anxiety and temptation.
Sharbel’s remains were later moved to a tomb in a large church built behind the monastery. It is here where thousands of pilgrims come to seek the saint’s intercession. Some, especially those from the older generation, proceed to the chapel barefoot. Some enter it on their knees. At the tomb, pilgrims kneel, heads bowed, and engage in deep prayer. From time to time, whispers can be heard from pilgrims who say they truly feel the holy man’s presence.
The tomb attracts the greatest number of pilgrims on the 22nd day of each month. And when that day falls on a Sunday, as it did in March of this year, the number of pilgrims reaches the thousands. The day has been associated with the power of Sharbel’s intercession since 22 January 1993, when Nohad El Shami, a Lebanese woman who had suffered a paralyzing stroke, was healed miraculously.
Soon after her stroke, Mrs. El Shami’s son visited Sharbel’s monastery and collected soil and the oils that emanate from the saint’s remains. When he applied them to her body, she felt a tingling sensation in her paralyzed limbs. Later that night, she dreamed she was at the saint’s hermitage, where the holy man appeared and gave her Communion.
Then, on 22 January, she again dreamed that the saint came to her.
“I saw a blinding light fill my room,” said the woman, “and two monks approaching my bed; one of them placed his hand on my neck and said, ‘I am here to operate on you. I am Father Sharbel and have come to perform the operation.’ I felt a pain in my neck and unconsciously I touched the spot. I realized I could use my disabled arm and I could move my leg under the blanket.”
Miraculously, she was able to stand up and walk to the bathroom. When she looked in the mirror, she saw two incisions, one on each side of her neck.
A week later, she had another dream in which St. Sharbel told her, “Don’t leave the people. Keep your faith.” He then asked her to visit his hermitage and tomb on the 22nd of every month for the rest of her life.
And so, on the 22nd of every month, Mrs. El Shami visits Sharbel’s hermitage, and with a group of pilgrims, she walks from there to the monastery and church — about a mile away — to celebrate the Divine Liturgy. Afterward, she greets the pilgrims.
As the liturgy ended, the now 70-year-old, gray-haired mother of 12 walked outside and stood quietly. Pilgrims crowded around her, trying to get close enough so she could place her hands on their heads and shoulders. Parents lifted their children for her to touch.
Mrs. El Shami’s gentle smile reassured the infirmed among the pilgrims. Her peaceful demeanor affirmed the message written on a sign across from where she stood: “Shine on me, Father, that I may reflect your light.”
That day, pilgrim after pilgrim told his or her story of a healing miracle attributed to St. Sharbel.
Among them was Lodi Neil. She regularly visits the saint’s tomb on the 22nd day of each month — her heart filled with gratitude. Mrs. Neil’s son was born with serious health problems, including an eye condition doctors said could never be cured. The anguished mother prayed faithfully to St. Sharbel to heal her son. Today, he is now a healthy 25-year-old college student with plans to become a priest.
Among the throngs of pilgrims, Lebanese of all backgrounds reached out to Mrs. El Shami; others made their way to the tomb to offer their prayers and requests of miraculous intercession.
One sporty father in flashy sunglasses had in tow his 5-year-old son named Sharbel, also wearing flashy sunglasses. This modern-day Sharbel will most likely attend a school where classes will be taught in English, French and Arabic. Access to the internet will broaden his horizons beyond all borders, and his Facebook page will extend his social network around the world.
But not all pilgrims were wearing the latest fashions or, as was one visitor, bandages from recent nasal plastic surgery. Poor pilgrims, disguised by their Sunday best, bowed their heads and furrowed their faces. Their prayers could be easily guessed.
These days, with a global recession well under way, St. Sharbel no doubt is hearing prayers from middle-class people as well. Six months ago, many would have taken the trip to the saint’s tomb as a Sunday family outing — the monastery sits on a beautiful bluff, high above the Mediterranean Sea. But as they receive news from family members losing their jobs abroad — loved ones on whom they often depend for remittances — the pilgrimage has taken on new meaning.
The holy site also attracts others besides Christians. Among the crowd was a young Syrian Muslim couple.
“People with good hearts come here,” said the husband simply about the experience.
Nearby, a group of Indian men and women, who live in Lebanon as guest workers, looked on excitedly. On their day off, they made the pilgrimage to the former home and burial place of the holy Sharbel. The women, their saris glistening in the sunshine, said they came to pray for peace. The men, said they came to pray as Hindus, but felt close to their Christian brethren.
For one reason or another, many potential pilgrims cannot make the journey. Instead, they send their prayers and requests of intercession by letter. In recent years, emails have become popular. All such requests arrive at the office of the monastery’s abbot, Father Tannous Nehme. He and his seven-member staff keep up with the letters, which often include requests for oil and relics.
The office includes a display of letters and their stamped envelopes sent to the monastery from around the world, such as Cuba, Kuwait, Senegal and Tanzania.
Among those on display is a letter sent 20 years ago by Margaret Morrow, a Massachusetts woman. A simple search connected the woman’s address on the envelope with a phone number, which in turn led to a fascinating conversation with the author. Ms. Morrow, now 86, continues to pray daily to St. Sharbel.
Items sent from all over the world cover Father Tannous’s desk, attesting to the saint’s global reach. The jovial priest pointed out the most recent gifts: yard-long white ribbons with messages in Spanish from Mexico and a book about the Maronite saint and his miracles from Russia. Later that afternoon, Father Tannous was expecting a television crew from a Sri Lankan news program, which planned to run a segment on the saint.
The monastery’s gift shop offers plentiful reminders of St. Sharbel’s life and legacy. Visitors can choose from books, icons, key chains, medals and rosaries, all of which have been blessed.
Residents from the surrounding community produce many of the goods sold at the shop. For instance, women from a nearby village assemble the rosaries. The shop also sells a variety of locally grown and produced food items, such as stuffed grape leaves, jams, olives, pickled cucumbers, garlic and turnips and a wide selection of wines.
All the jars and bottles are stamped with the shop’s signature logo: a blue stylized image of Sharbel’s oil lamp. Purchases are placed in white plastic bags, which also carry the logo.
Two Armenian Lebanese friends, both named Silva, bought a handful of small medals embossed with the face of the saint to share with family and friends.
“There is much to pray for these days,” they said.
This year marks Marilyn Raschka’s 20th as a contributor to ONE magazine.