ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Saint Sharbel: Lebanon’s “Paradoxical artisan of peace”

The story of the Maronite monk who was the first Eastern Christian canonized by the Latin Catholic Church.

The aged woman, wrinkles echoing her years, grasps her cane tightly as she slowly makes her way up the rugged Lebanese mountainside to the Monastery of St. Maron. After first resting on the cold gray rock at the entrance to a tomb, she then kneels, painfully, huddled among fellow Christians, and Moslems alike.

Hope for nothing less than a miracle has brought the woman to this shrine at Annaya, the barren little spot perched high on the topmost point of Mount Lebanon. Her daughter is desperately ill, and she has come to pray to the Church’s newest saint, Sharbel Makhlouf.

This woman is not alone in her devotion to St. Sharbel, the Maronite monk who, on October 9, 1977, became the first member of the Eastern rite to be canonized by the Roman Catholic Church.

From a humble beginning to a devout life as a monk, Sharbel has become, as Pope Paul VI has called him, “a paradoxical artisan of peace.” For although he sought, during his lifetime, to live apart from the world, years after his death, the glow of his existence remains in all parts of the globe.

Born in 1828 in Beqa-Kafra, a tiny village set amidst northern Lebanon’s immortal cedars, Yusif (Joseph) Makhlouf was the youngest of the five children of Antoun Makhlouf and Bridgit Shediack.

It was in the rugged purple mountains which nestle in the soft green land of Lebanon that Yusif spent his youth. Unlike many of its neighboring countries, Lebanon is a land with virtually no desert. The crystal sea serves as the country’s livelihood, and the mountains form its backbone. Joseph worked as a shepherd in these mountain areas, where often the cascading of a “horsetail” waterfall could be seen. This countryside, with its sleeping baby tranquility, was a perfect setting for his meditation and prayer to God.

Against his family’s wishes, Yusif left home at the age of 23, to join first the Monastery of Our Lady of Mayfouk, and then the more secluded Monastery of St. Maron, at Annaya. Both monasteries were run by monks of the Maronite order, a rite which arose from the Antiochene tradition. The beginnings of the Maronite church can be traced to the hermit, St. Maron, who chose to perpetuate the teachings of St. Peter.

Shortly after settling at Annaya, Yusif changed his name to Sharbel (also spelled Charbel), after one of the first martyrs of the Church of Antioch.

After several years of strenuous study, Sharbel was ordained a priest on July 23, 1859, and for the next 16 years he settled into a devout existence at the Monastery. As farm work provided the food for the community, the saint’s time was divided between prayer and work in the fields.

Possessed of an extreme spiritual detachment, though, Father Sharbel was not content in merely giving up the world and its possessions. He sought even further self-denial at a nearby place of solitude called “mahbasse,” or hermitage.

This hermitage of Saints Peter and Paul is a quiet refuge 5,200 feet above sea level. It was here that Sharbel completely devoted his life to God. He slept on a mattress of straw and used a log for a pillow. He ate once a day, a meal consisting of vegetables or herbs, but never any meat. For twenty-three years he prayed, fasted and adored God as a hermit.

Then, on December 16, 1898, Sharbel suffered a stroke while saying Mass. Eight days later, on Christmas Eve, he died. As was the custom, he was buried in the monastery’s cemetery, dressed in his religious habit.

While Sharbel’s physical life ended, his spiritual presence was, and is still being felt. Soon after his burial, many priests and other witnesses saw light surrounding the tomb. When the grave was reopened, four months later, the body was found incorrupt, as it remains to this day.

Gradually, pilgrims, as well as local people, began to come to the tomb to pray. With Sharbel’s spiritual help, great numbers of cures (with no medical explanation) have taken place. The blind see, the deaf hear and sickness disappears. Today, pilgrimages to the hermitage attract thousands of people.

Called “the Great wonder-worker of this century,” Father Sharbel was elevated to the ranks of Blessed on December 5, 1965. Ten years later his cause was completed, but the Lebanese civil war blocked plans for an earlier canonization date.

Finally, on October 9, 1977, in ceremonies designed to promote Moslem-Christian unity, the Lebanese monk was canonized in St. Peter’s Basilica. Pope Paul VI celebrated the canonization Mass, surrounded by Maronite leaders, including Patriarch Antoine Pierre Khoraiche of Antioch and Bishop Francis M. Zayek, of St. Maron Diocese in Detroit, Michigan.

In his address, Pope Paul called Sharbel’s life “a quest for sanctity,” continuing that “his life is the most perfect conformity to the humble and poor Christ.”

Perhaps Sharbel’s greatest miracle is the spiritual community developing between the Christians and Moslems of Lebanon. Divided in so many other areas, the faithful of both religions have shared in the saint’s miraculous powers.

The devoted woman is not alone as she struggles up the path to the shrine at Annaya. Every day, greater numbers of believers seek St. Sharbel’s help. He is truly a “star” in the troubled Near Eastern sky.

Dorothy Mauro is a freelance journalist with an interest in Middle East affairs. She currently lives in New York.

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