Saint Charbel Makhlouf: Peace of Soul, Silence and Solitude

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On 24 July, the Church commemorates the Memorial of Saint Charbel Makhlouf, a Maronite monk and one of the most splendid models of contemplative spirit.

Newsdesk (July 25, 2021 00:05, Gaudium Press) From the earliest days of Christianity, there have shone in the firmament of the Church prayerful men and women who lived lives of contemplation and silence, absorbed in God alone. Devoid of all earthly concerns, their souls were fixed on a single goal: ‘vacare Deo’ – to rest in God; to give themselves to God.

Back to Lebanon

Let us travel back almost two centuries and search out one of these souls, to a country of rugged mountains whose wonders have been proclaimed countless times in the Sacred Books: Lebanon.

It was there, in 1828, in the village of Beqaa Kafra, little Youssef Makhlouf was born in the shade of centuries-old cedars.

God begins to speak to his heart … and he listens

When just a young boy, his father, Antun Za’rur Makhlouf died, suffering under the forced labour regime of the Ottoman army. His mother, Brigid, had remarried, leaving the house and the small Antun properties to their children, who were watched over by their paternal uncle, Tannus.

Little Youssef, the youngest of five brothers and sisters, was inclined to piety and devotion, and it fell to him to set a good example in the fulfillment of duties. Endowed with a pious and highly submissive spirit, he recited daily prayers with his family, while also carrying out with great care the task of watching over the animals in the pasture.

His virtues soon became manifest to all the inhabitants of the village. He liked solitude, was prudent and intelligent. While attending church, he remained focused, not even casting a glance around. His good behaviour was so remarkable that the local boys referred to him as “the Saint”.

Providence was gradually preparing the soul of this chosen son to the point that, while he was still living in the world, he used it only to fulfill what was the sole aspiration of his life. “When God wants to unite Himself intimately with a man and speak to his heart, He leads him into solitude. If a man is called to the contemplative religious life, God, in order to fulfill His desire, begins by separating him from the world”.

Thus it was that in 1851, at the age of 23, Youssef left his mother’s home and entered the Monastery of Our Lady in Maïfuq; there he adopted the name Charbel, in honour of the Martyr of Edessa of the second century.

From Maifouk to Saint Maron of Annaya

With the desire to isolate himself from the world burning in his soul, Maifouk was certainly not the most favourable environment for the realization of his ideal. Although he led a life of prayer and work there, as the holy Rule demanded, contact with the neighbouring peasants was very detrimental to his recollection.

One day, while the novices were engaged in their daily task of removing leaves and bark from the mulberry trees to raise silkworms, a young girl who was working next door, wanting to test Charbel’s silence and seriousness, threw a cocoon in his face.

When that didn’t work, she threw another. The young novice remained impassive, but that same night, he left the monastery of Maifouk without saying anything to anyone. He traveled to the convent of San Maron in Annaya, which was four hours away.

There he began his novitiate, separated from the world by a severe cloister, observing the rule that guided him on the paths of contemplation, recollection, prayer, and obedience. Two years later Charbel received the habit of the Maronites – black tunic, cone-shaped hood, and cord made of goatskin – and pronounced the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. From then on, he was a monk immersed in anonymity and his conversations with God.

Although he endeavored to remain unnoticed, his holiness became notorious to the other religious men. By decision of the Superior and the Council of the community, he was admitted to Holy Orders and, after completing the necessary studies, was ordained a priest in 1859.

Charbel celebrated the Holy Sacrifice with the utmost dignity and with such a lively faith that often, during the Consecration, tears flowed from his deep, dark eyes – eyes like two windows opened unto Heaven. In times of contemplation, he was so absorbed that he was never distracted by any noise or interruption.

Model of obedience and purity

From the time of his novitiate until his last breath, Charbel stood out as an exemplary monk in obedience and observance of the Rule. So much so that, when the Superior ordered a difficult task be completed by a monk, he would often receive a response such as this:

“Are you thinking, perhaps, that I am Father Charbel?”

On one occasion, while he was still a novice, a priest decided to test his patience.

When it was time to transport agricultural tools from one field to another, he began to heap onto Charbel’s shoulders sacks of seeds, tools and other materials…

When he had finished, Charbel’s smiling face could be seen in the middle of the load, repeating Jesus’ reproach to the teachers of the Law: “Woe to you who burden men with burdens they cannot carry” (Lk 11:46).

Everyone found humour in his witty response and hastened to rid him of his excessive burden.

This Saint shone also in a special way in the heroic acts of his struggle to preserve the virtue of chastity, without ever showing to others the mortifications he undertook. The Rule of the Order urges monks to diligently exercise control over their senses; among other attitudes of vigilance, they are exhorted to avoid any conversation with women, even if they are relatives. Saint Charbel went even further: he made and kept a resolution never to look at a woman’s face.

The gift of working miracles

He had a gift of working miracles, and he exercised it with his customary humility.

On one occasion, a poor woman suffering from haemorrhage whose illness resisted all treatments, asked a messenger to give Father Charbel a certain amount of money and to ask him to send her a holy veil. There is a common Marian devotion in Lebanon: in times of emergency – public calamities, epidemics, wars, etc., -these veils are woven together and hung around the chapel until the Virgin brings an end to the misfortune. Father Charbel then took one of these veils, which was on the image of Our Lady of the Rosary, and handed it to the messenger, saying:

“Let the woman gird herself with this veil, and she will be cured. As for the alms, place it on the altar, and the priest who provides the alms will take it.” The woman was cured.

At the hermitage of Saints Peter and Paul

As solitude had always drawn him, and since in the monastery of Annaya he was living almost like an anchorite, Saint Charbel was transferred to the Hermitage of Saints Peter and Paul, a short distance from the monastery. He was then 47 years old, and remained there until the day of his death, 23 years later.

His prayer was only interrupted by the need to cultivate the vineyard or other work at the hermitage. The only meal of the day, eaten around three o’clock in the afternoon, turned out to be an exercise in penance because of the scarcity and poverty of the food.

His devotion to Mary was incomparable: he repeated Her blessed name continually, and every time he entered or left his cell, he recited, on his knees, the Angelic Salutation before a small statue that stood there.

His peace of soul was equally remarkable. One stormy day, lightning struck part of the southern wing of the hermitage, knocked down a wall of the vineyard and burnt the altar cloths in the chapel while the holy monk was there praying.

Two hermits entered the chapel and witnessed him in the most peaceful tranquility. One asked,
“Father Charbel, why didn’t you move to put out the fire?”
He replied,
“My dear brother, how could I? For immediately after it had started, the fire was extinguished.”

In fact, as the fire had broken out very quickly, he thought it more important to continue praying without being disturbed.

Birth into eternal life

When he was celebrating Mass on December 16, 1898, just as he was receiving the Most Precious Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ, a sudden attack of incapacity paralyzed him and made him unable to finish the Holy Sacrifice. Assisted immediately, he was taken to his poor cell, where he remained eight days between life and death, with intervals of lucidity during which he recited short prayers.

On Christmas Eve, while the Church was commemorating the coming into the world of the Child Jesus, that holy Maronite monk was born into eternity: the first Easterner to be canonized according to the form used in the Latin Catholic Church.

His mortal remains were buried in a common grave, together with those of the other deceased monks, as the Holy Rule requested. From that day forward, the cemetery was illuminated at night by a soft and mysterious light. This and other miracles, together with his reputation for sanctity, led to his transfer to a new tomb in the crypt wall of the Church of Saint Maron.

The grave where Saint Charbel had been buried was so damp that, on exhumation, the body appeared literally soaked, but miraculously intact and supple, transmitting a reddish liquid and pleasant odor. When the new tomb was opened in 1950, 1952 and 1955, the body was each time found to be supple and incorrupt.

His model monastic life and the many miracles performed through his intercession led Pope Paul VI to beatify him on 5 December, 1965, just days before the closure of the Second Vatican Council, and to canonize him on 10 October, 1977.

 

An example for us also

The example of Saint Charbel Makhlouf points to a way of going forward even in our days, for silence and prayer are a valuable help in resolving the anxieties and afflictions of contemporary man.

Those who think that recollection is the exclusive privilege of cloistered religious men and women are mistaken; it is available to all of us, since “the source of true solitude and silence lies not in the conditions or quality of work, but in intimate contact with God […].”

Silence, thus understood, can be found in the street, in the bustle of factory work, in the activities in the field – because we carry its possibility within us.

Text from the magazine Heralds of the Gospel, July 2009.

Compiled by Sandra Chisholm

 

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