By: Jim Dunning
(This article was originally published in "Ireland's Own" magazine. The webmaster would like to thank the author for his kind persmission in reprinting it here.)
Most of us are familiar with European saints, such as St. Bernadette, St. Therese and Padre Pio. Less well-known, but still popular in his own area, is Saint Charbel, a monk from the Lebanon who lived much of his life quietly as a hermit, achieving fame only after his death.
Charbel Makhlouf was born on 8th May, 1828, in the small village of Biqa-Kafra in the high mountains of Northern Lebanon. His parents were poor but religious, and their fifth child was attracted at an early age to prayer and solitude. In spite of the opposition of his family, he left home at the age of twenty-three and entered the Monastery of St. Maroun at a place called Annaya. Ordained priest in 1859, he spent sixteen years there before receiving permission from his reluctant superiors to retire to the nearby hermitage of Saints Peter and Paul.
It had taken over seven years for his wish to be granted. Only exceptional monks were allowed such a privilege. A sign that he was ready to leave the secure environment of the monastery came about in a strange way. Given a request to prepare an urgent report, Charbel sat down at night to work on it. To his dismay he found his lamp had run out of oil. He asked one of the monastery’s lay servants to fill it for him. By way of a joke the servant filled it with water, but was amazed to see that the lamp lit up immediately and continued to burn brightly. The Superior, when advised of this, removed the lamp to check it for himself. To his amazement he found it was indeed full of water. He took this as a sign from above that Charbel was ready to live the severe life of a hermit.
For the remaining twenty-three years of his existence Charbel lived an extemely hard life, one of severe mortification. He wore a hair shirt, slept on a straw mattress with a plank for a pillow, and for his one meal of the day was content to eat the meagre left-overs from the monastery,. He displayed a remarkable devotion to the Eucharist, spending hours in preparation for saying Mass and hours in thanksgiving afterwards.
The Miraculous Light
In 1898 Charbel suffered a massive stroke while saying Mass and died just eight days later on Christmas Eve. He was seventy years old. After three days he was buried in the monastery cemetery, and as was the custom, without the benefit of a coffin. Like many a holy monk before him he would soon have been forgotten were it not for a very strange happening. For the next forty-five nights his tomb was surrounded by a dazzlingly bright light. This was witnessed by an increasingly large number of people, none of whom could provide an explanation. Permission was sought from the ecclesiastical authorities for the monk’s body to be exhumed.
On the night he died the monks from the monastery nearby had rushed to the hermitage to kiss his hands and to be blessed by touching his body. Many spent the whole night kneeling in prayer beside him. The snow was falling heavily and it was extremely cold, which was not surprising since the hermitage was fourteen hundred metres above sea level. Those keeping vigil asked each other : ‘If we’re suffering so much for only one night, how was Father Charbel able to live here for twenty-three years?’
His Holy Remains Are Found Incorrupt
Eventually permission for his exhumation was given and four months after Charbel’s death a crowd gathered to witness it. To everyone’s surprise his body was found to be perfectly preserved, in spite of the fact that the grave had been flooded by heavy rains, leaving the body floating on a sea of mud. Charbel was lifted out and given fresh clothing before being placed in a wooden coffin in a corner of the monastery’s private chapel. However, it was found necessary to change his clothing twice per week because of a strange liquid exuding continually from the pores of the body. Described as a mixture of perspiration and blood, it just kept coming. Pieces of cloth soaked in this fluid were soon being distributed as relics and credited with effecting cures.
His Incorrupt Remains Are Examined By Physicians
In 1927, more than twenty-eight years after his death, Charbel’s still incorrupt body was examined by two physicians of the French Medical Institute at Beirut, then transferred to another coffin lined with zinc, before being placed in a new tomb inside the wall of an oratory. In the Holy Year 1950, pilgrims to his shrine reported seeing liquid oozing from a corner of the tomb. When the tomb was opened up it was found to be dry and the coffin also, except for a viscous liquid which was seen seeping through a crack at its base. Two months later, after permission had been obtained from the ecclesiastical authorities, the seal on the coffin was broken and the body was examined. Once again it was found to be free of any trace of corruption and the strange fluid continued to issue from its pores.
"...In writing to the shrine in Lebanon I was informed by one of the priests
there that the saint is no longer incorrupt, but that his bones are an
unusual shade of red. The fluid, however, is still produced by the bones.
You might want to check a later edition of my book, "The Incorruptibles",
for this update. Since the saint's beatification, the body was no longer
Miraculous Cures and the Road to Canonisation
Since then the shrine has been besieged by thousands of pilgrims from all over the world. In 1950, the monastery started keeping records of miracles attributed to Charbel. In less than two years it accumulated more than twelve hundred such claims.
As early as 1925 the monk’s name had been put forward in a petition to Pope PiusXI to begin canonical proceedings leading to his beatification, but this did not happen until 1965 during the reign of Pope Paul VI. Two cures accepted as being miraculous were necessary and both selected for the purpose had taken place in 1950.
The first of these concerned a nun by the name of Sister Maria Abel Kawary. She had suffered serious intestinal problems for fourteen years and had been given up by doctors as a hopeless case, but after praying all night beside Charbel’s grave she was cured instantaneously. The doctor who examined her at the time recorded her cure as ‘a supernatural happening which is beyond man’s power to explain.’
The second miracle accepted by the Sacred Congregation was the restoration of sight to a blacksmith named Iskandar Oubeid. He had lost the sight in one eye after suffering a blow to it while at work. Eminent eye specialists announced that the damage to the iris was so severe that he would never see through it again. Thirteen years later he took the advice of friends to visit the tomb of Father Charbel. On returning home he had a dream in which a monk appeared, promising to cure him. The next morning he found he could see perfectly out of both eyes. No medical explanation could be found.
The most famous of Charbel’s cures also occurred in the year 1950. It caused a stir not only in Beirut, but in the whole of Lebanon. The recipient was a fifty-year-old seamstress named Mountaha Daher Boulos who had been a hunchback since the age of one after contracting typhoid fever. Her story is rather touching. While visiting the monk’s tomb she stood some distance off and prayed for her two orphan nephews who were in need of help. The only request she made on her own behalf was that she might keep her sight so that she could continue working as a seamstress.
Three days later, after returning home, she woke up in the morning to discover that the hump on her back had disappeared. Her doctor confirmed this, while her parish priest testified to the fact that ‘her silhouette has suddenly become perfectly normal!’
On 9th October, 1977, just twelve years after his beatification, Pope Paul VI presided over the canonization proceedings and announced to the world that Blessed Charbel had joined the ranks of saints in heaven. The saint’s body, however, did not remain incorrupt. By 1965 it was found to have succumbed to the laws of nature, leaving only bones of a reddish colour. Evidently the previous years were sufficient to prove the good monk’s sanctity, while miracles attributed to his intervention have continued to this day.
One of the most recent took place in 1993 when Nohad El Shami, a fifty-five-year-old woman suffering from partial paralysis caused by a severe hemiplegia, reported seeing two monks in a dream. One of these, whom she identified as Charbel, ‘operated’ on her neck, and when she awoke she discovered she was completely healed. The second monk in her dream was believed to be Saint Maroun, a fifth century Syrian Christian martyr who founded the Maronite Order.
As Joan Carroll Cruz relates in her excellent study entitled ‘The Incorruptibles’, pilgrims ‘continue to climb the cedared hills of Lebanon to the shrine of this once perfectly preserved saint.’ She goes on to say : ‘May the veneration now deservedly lavished on the memory of Saint Charbel be renewed in equal measure in favour of all those incorruptibles from past ages who await in the shadows of their reliquaries the day of their glorious resurrection.’
-‘Saint Charbel’ by Paul Daher
-‘The Incorruptibles’ by Joan Carroll Cruz