If the world was to ask us what St Charbel famous for what would we answer? He did not come from a noble family and was not a renowned theologian or philosopher. No dignitaries were present at his funeral.
What is it that makes St Charbel so special? Holiness! Plain and simple holiness. This holy man who is the very blood of our blood and bones of our bones, achieved sainthood by living the simplest life in prayer, humility and work. His eyes were always gazing at the floor but his heart, mind and soul were always lifted to the Lord. He did not concern himself with what the world would think of him, rather he concerned himself only with the Lord.
St Charbel’s life may seem to the world unremarkable. He was born on 8 May 1828 in the village of Bekaafra, high in the mountains of Lebanon. His Maronite parents Antoun Makhlouf and Brigitta Chidiac named him Youssef Antoun Makhlouf. His father died when he was 3 years old, leaving Brigitta a widow with five children. She later remarried a man who joined the priesthood and became the parish priest of the village.
In 1851 at age of 23, Youssef left his family and entered the Lebanese Maronite Order at the Monastery of Our Lady of Mayfouq. It is at that monastery that the famous Maronite icon of Our Lady of Elige is located. One could imagine Youssef spending many nights praying before an icon, seeking the intercession of Our Lady. Later, Youssef transferred to the Monastery of St Maroun in Annaya, where he took the name Charbel, after the Christian martyr, Saint Charbel of Edessa.
Charbel then began studies at the Monastery of Saints Cyprian and Justina in Kiffan. One of his professors at the seminary was Father Nehmtallah Kassab, who later became the Maronite saint, Nehmtallah Hardinie.
Charbel was ordained a priest in 1859 at 31 years of age. He was sent back to the Saint Maroun Monastery, where he lived a life of asceticism. In 1875, Charbel was given permission to live as a hermit at the hermitage of Saints Peter and Paul. He lived for the next 23 years as a solitary hermit.
On Christmas eve, 1898, while serving the liturgy, Charbel collapsed at the altar and died from a stroke at the age of 70. His death was a quiet affair and his funeral was attended by only four monks. It was only long after his death, when many miracles were attributed to him, that St Charbel became known. He was canonized as the first Maronite Saint on 9 October 1977, by Pope Paul VI.
For those not familiar with the area, Baakafra, where St Charbel grew up, is located above the Qadisha valley in North Lebanon. Nearby, in Becharre, are located the Cedars of God. Over time, this entire secluded area has become a refuge and sanctuary for many Maronites and the perfect place to search for God. It is no surprise that St Charbel, who was born high in Baakafra, developed a love of silence. St Charbel did not rely on words to attain sainthood. He would have come to know silence well in his 23 years in solitude at the hermitage of Saints Peter and Paul. It is that great simple, contemplative silence which has marked Maronite asceticism for generations and it is that silence which the world needs now more than ever.
The desire to want nothing (not even words), but to be with our Lord, has been the way of the Syriac monastics from the beginning. No doubt, if St Charbel was here with us now, he would inspire us to turn off social media and phones and all the many distractions of our time and grasp just a moment to build up our souls in contemplation of God.
Contemplation is not only for monks, like St Charbel we can look to detach from the things in this world, the things keeping us away from God. We can all regularly abstain and fast and moderate the things of the flesh. We can be inspired by St Charbel to have a preparedness to pilgrim to a place of holiness deep within ourselves where in solitude we can just be with God and be ‘wakeful and pray’. (Matt. 26:41). We all need to carve out our own space and our own time and find silence in the noise of each day.
St Charbel died while serving the liturgy and there can be no doubt that the liturgy would have been the centre of St Charbel’s life. God uses the physical to make known the intelligible. God the Son clothed himself in humanity so we may come to know him. In the same way, the liturgy raises our mind to the spiritual realities. Like the incarnation in which the invisible Word of God became visible, our liturgy inspires us to deepen the spiritual dimensions of our lives. Be inspired by St Charbel to visit the liturgy regularly. The liturgy is our ladder to salvation and at its summit is the life-giving Eucharist.
So as the Maronite Church celebrates this great feast and the bells in the mountains of Baakafra ring out in joy to the rest of the world, we look to St Charbel to inspire the world by his example of simplicity and humility to strive for holiness.
Christina Maksisi and Theresa Simon