Saint Charbel Makhlouf, Pray for Us!

By Marc Massery

When Christ died on the Cross for the salvation of the world, He left nothing behind. He had no home, no money, no wife or children, no possessions at all. The very clothes on His back were stripped away and even His blood drained from His body. With His final breaths, He gave away all He had remaining; His mother He gave to the apostle John, and His spirit He offered back to Abba.

Christ lost everything in order to gain it all back. To become saints, we must model our lives on the sacrifice of Christ and empty ourselves, too, so that He can fill us with His grace. Though He may not ask us to die a violent death as He did, many saints have taken extreme steps to imitate His sacrifice in a non-bloody manner.

In the early 19th century, high in the mountains of Lebanon, Youssef Makhlouf dreamed of giving his life to Christ in a radical way. In his youth, he tended to his family's cows helping to keep his mother and four siblings well fed. After his father died, Youssef worked for his uncle in the fields while his mother made plans for him to marry and have a family.

In 1851, at age 23, Youssef left home unannounced to join the Lebanese Maronite Order. Two years later, he took the vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience at St. Maroun's Monastery in Annaya, Mount Lebanon. With these vows, he gave up the future of a wife and children and promised to never take any possessions for his own. His family did not attend the ceremony; they were not allowed. Youssef, now Br. Charbel, belonged entirely to the Lebanese Maronite Order.

Even after having been ordained a priest in 1859, Fr. Charbel still desired to give himself to Christ in a more perfect way. In 1875, he received permission from his superiors to spend his remaining years as a hermit. High above the Kadisha River in the caverns of northern Lebanon, Fr. Charbel spent thousands of hours in prayer and penance at the hermitage of Saints Peter and Paul. Without the comfort of regular human interaction, he observed an even more severe asceticism than he had in the monastery. He ate one meal per day, performed manual labor, observed continuous silence, and slept no more than five hours per night on the ground with a log as his pillow. Even his clothing was a penance; beneath his black habit, he wore a hair shirt meant to irritate the skin in mortification.

In 1898, after 23 years of prayer and penance as a hermit, Fr. Charbel died, having suffered a stroke while saying Mass. His brother monks buried him in a common tomb without a casket, as was customary for the order. Not long after his death, a light emanated from the tomb. After more than a month of this supernatural marvel, the Church granted permission to open the grave to investigate. They discovered that his body was in perfect condition. He looked as he did the day he died. Furthermore, they discovered that his body mysteriously emitted a mixture of blood and water, reminiscent of Christ's last moments on the Cross. Several doctors examined his corpse and could not give a medical explanation for either phenomenon. For the next 67 years, his body remained in perfect condition and continued to drip blood and water.

On July 24, we celebrate the Feast of St. Charbel Makhlouf, OLM, who was canonized in 1977 by Pope Paul VI. In emptying himself of all imaginable comforts, this saint was filled with grace, allowing God to work through him in a more powerful way. Since St. Charbel's beatification in 1965, St. Maroun's Monastery in Lebanon has received hundreds of thousands of letters from around the world, many reporting miracles and wonders worked through this simple hermit's intercession. At St. Charbel's canonization, Pope Paul VI said, "[We] need people who offer themselves as victims for the salvation of the world, in a freely accepted penance, in an unceasing prayer of intercession ... in a radical way [St. Charbel embodied] a spirit from which no faithful of Christ is exempt ... a path salutary for all." If we empty ourselves of our worldly attachments, we, too, can live more like St. Charbel, more like Christ, so that God can fill us more completely with His grace.

In the summer of 2013, I travelled to Lebanon with my sister and cousin to see family. We visited the Kadisha Valley where St. Charbel lived, and we hiked its steep cliffs, some reaching several thousand feet high. These peaks, sanctified by the prayers of holy men throughout the centuries, continue to act as a barrier between the busy modern world and this holy place of contemplation. We followed an unsteady path to a cave fashioned into a chapel. A stone altar stood against the back wall, and votive candles provided just enough light for us to discern an icon of St. Charbel. Pilgrims like us frequent these caves, hoping to experience a taste of the detachment and contemplation that made Youssef Makhlouf a saint.



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