Let's pray to them to intercede in the name of Lebanon. Amen.
Two thousand years ago, news of the teachings and the healing powers of the Prophet of Galilee reached Lebanon early in his ministry, and prompted people from Lebanon to go and witness the wonder of this man called Jesus. He himself was to visit Lebanon and while there he famously turned water in wine at Cana, southeast of Tyre, and also healed the daughter of a Phoenicia woman (Matt. 15, 21-28; Mk. 7, 24-31). A couple of miles southeast of Sidon lies a grotto housing a Church dedicated to Sayyidat al Mantarah (Our Lady of the Watch) and is where Mary awaited her son's advent. Many of Christ's followers went to Lebanon and St. Paul visited and stayed in Lebanon on a number of occasions and by the close of the second century Tyre had become the seat of a Christian bishop. In 325 the bishop of Sidon attended the coucil of Niceia and in 335 a council was held in Tyre, at about the same time a missionary from Tyre introduced Christianity to Ethiopia. Christianity has thus been linked with Lebanon from the earliest of times and plays a major role in its culture and society and monasteries cover its landscape. Being such a religious land it is not surprising that Lebanon has produced a number of Saints through the ages. During the first decades of persecution the Lebanese offered many martyrs such as St. Tlalaos of Mount Lebanon (d.284) St. Aquilina of Byblos (d.293), St Christina of Tyre (d.300), St Theodosia of Tyre (d.293), St Kyrillus of Baalback (d.362) St. Dorothee, bishop of Tyre (d.362) and many others. However not all of the Saints lived in days of antiquity. Lebanon has also been blessed with relatively modern Saints who inspire millions. Saint Charbel Makhlouf, whom Pope Paul Vl canonized on October 9th, 1977, and Rafqa Rayess, whom Pope John-Paul II beatified on November 17th, 1985, and Nimutallah al-Hardini's beatified by Pope John Paul II on Sunday May 10, 1998 are Maronites who followed Jesus Christ, doing his will.
Saint Maroun, born in the middle of the 4th century was a priest who later became a hermit, retiring to a mountain of Taurus near Antioch. It is believed that he spent all of his life on a mountain in the region of Cyrrhus, in a place called "Kefar-Nabo" on the mountain of Ol-Yambos. The holiness of this saint and his miracles attracted many followers, and drew attention throughout the empire. St John of Chrysostom sent him a letter around 405 AD expressing his great love and respect asking St Maroun to pray for him.
St Maroun is considered the Father of the spiritual and monastic movement now called the Maronite Church which had a profound influence on Lebanon. Saint Maroun's first disciple Abraham of Cyrrhus, who was called the Apostle of Lebanon, realised that paganism was thriving in Lebanon, and so he set out to convert the pagans to Christians by introducing them to the way of St Maroun. The followers of St Maroun, both monks and laity, always remained faithful to the teachings of the Catholic Church.
St Maroun's way was deeply monastic with emphasis on the spiritual and ascetic aspects of living. For Saint Maroun, all was connected to God and God was connected to all. He did not separate the physical and spiritual world and actually used the physical world to deepen his faith and spiritual experience with God.
St Maroun embraced the quiet solitude of the mountain life. He lived his life in open air exposed to the forces of nature such as sun, rain, hail and snow. His extraordinary desire to come to know Gods presence in all things, allowed St Maroun to transcend such forces and discover that intimate union with God. He was able to free himself from the physical world by his passion and fervour for prayer and enter into a mystical relationship of love with God.
St Maroun was a mystic who started this new ascetic-spiritual method that attracted many people to become his disciples. Accompanying his deeply spiritual and ascetic life, he was a zealous missionary with a passion to spread the message of Christ by preaching it to all he met. He sought not only to cure the physical ailments that people suffered, but had a great quest for nurturing and healing the "lost souls" of both pagans and Christians of his time. After his death in the year 410 AD, his spirit and teachings lived on through his disciples.
On May 8, 1828 in a mountain village of Bekaa-kafra, the highest village in the near-east, Charbel was born to a poor Maronite family. Yussef, who later took the name Charbel, was the youngest of five children born to Antoun Zaarour Makhlouf and Brigitta Elias al-Shediyaq. His siblings were Hanna, Beshara, Koun and Warde (Sfeir 1995: 15). His father died when he was three years old. Like many of the Christians from the Lebanese Mountain, his father had been taken away from his family [by the Turks] and forced into hard labor. Antoun was required to transport the harvest on his donkey to the Emir (Prince) (ibid. 1995: 25-26). On his way back to his hometown, he developed a high fever and subsequently died. Because Antoun was buried in Gherfeen, near Byblos, where he had fallen ill, his family was unable to pay its last respects. (ibid. 1995: 26; Hayek 1956: 28-29)
With his father's premature death, his mother became responsible for the welfare of her five children during another brutal period. She was a pious woman of strong character. In Bekaa-Kafra, Brigitta was renowned for daily fasting and praying the rosary. She was engaged in silk weaving like many other women of the village. (Hayek 1956: 36)
Upon the death of their father and in accordance with the custom of the times, Youssef and his siblings were placed under the guardianship of their paternal uncle, Tanious Zaarour Makhlouf. Two years later, the widowed Brigitta married Deacon Lahoud, son of Girgis Ibrahim Makhlouf, who later became a priest under the name of Abdel-Ahad. She had two more children, Noah and Tannous. (Sfeir 1995: 26)
Father Abdel-Ahad, Brigitta and the children lived together as a devout Christian family. Brigitta continued to raise her children with love, faith and piety. The future saint and his siblings were used to prayer, fasting and attending Mass every day. Under the care of his stepfather, Yussef grew spiritually as he assisted him at Mass and in serving the community. (Sfeir 1995: 37)
Yussef studied at the parish school and tended the family cow. He spent a great deal of time outdoors in the fields and pastures near his village and he meditated amid the inspiring views of boundless valleys and proud mountains. Outdoor work suited him perfectly because it allowed him to pray and meditate. He spent many hours in prayer at a grotto near the pastures. Around 1845, the village people named it "the Grotto of the Saint" even before he had decided to become a monk. (Sfeir 1995: 37)
Yussef had several good role models within his family. In addition to his pious parents and his stepfather, his maternal uncles Augustin and Daniel al-Shediyaq were hermits at the monastery of Saint Anthony of Qozhaya in the Qadisha Valley, also called the Valley of Saints. He would visit them, follow their example and accept their guidance. He was so impressed by his uncles' devotion that his uncle Tanious and his mother were worried he would follow in their footsteps. Often, he said that he wanted to become a monk, but his uncle and mother were completely opposed and tried to change his mind. (Sfeir 1995: 49-50)
Yussef Becomes Brother Charbel
From early childhood, Yussef showed that he loved prayer and solitude. In 1851, without informing anyone, he left home. Tanious, his uncle and guardian, wanted Yussef to continue working with him. His mother wanted him to marry the young woman who loved him. (Daher 1952: 18-19; Sfeir 1995: 72-75)
When Yussef became Brother Charbel, he was filled with determination and walked all the way to his new home, "the monastery," his new family, "the Lebanese Maronite Order," and his new bride, "the Church." He followed in the footsteps of his maternal uncles, who were already hermits at the hermitage of Mar Boula (Saint Paul) in the Holy Valley of Qadisha, across from the Monastery of Our Lady of Qannobine. (Daher 1993:48-49)
The Lebanese Maronite Order of monks is the embodiment of the ancient eastern monasticism, which since early Christian times existed and thrived within widely dispersed, independent monasteries. In 1695, Lebanese Maronite monasticism was united under one order by the monk, 'Abdallah al-Qaraali, and his fellows (Khalife 1995: 1). During Saint Charbel's time, the Lebanese Maronite Order had over 1,000 monks out of a total Maronite population of about 300,000. (For information concerning the Maronite population in 1800s, see Mallah 1985: 22)
In 1853, two years after his novitiate, begun at Our Lady of Mayfouq and completed at the Monastery of Saint Maron in 'Annaya, the monastery council under the patronage of its Superior met to consider his request to become a monk. He was accepted and therefore would take the monastic vows. (Personal communication: interview with Reverend Hani Matar 1998)
At Mass on November 1, 1853 and in the presence of the superior, the novice master and the monks of the monastery, Charbel took the monastic vows. Neither the monk's family nor the public were allowed to attend this solemn occasion. Only the monastic family was present. (Matar 1998)
During Mass, the Superior questioned the novice about his readiness to observe all his vows (Matar 1998). After giving affirmative replies, Yussef then pronounced his monastic oath: "I, Brother Charbel, promise God Almighty, in the presence of my Most Reverend Father General, to commit myself to obedience, chastity and voluntary poverty until death, according to our Rule and Order." (Saint Charbel Makhlouf 1989: 28)
After pronouncing his vows, his hair was cut to show his dedication. He was then dressed in the black monastic habit, the angelic cowl [hood], the belt of the Order, the tassel and the habit (Matar 1998). Each of these has its own special meaning and is an important symbol in the novitiate's transition to monkhood.
Black represents dying to the world. The black garb means that the monk has withdrawn from the world and all things worldly. By wearing the habit --the cloth of the poor-- the monk proclaims his poverty. The angelic cowl is what the angel gave to Saint Anthony the Great. It symbolizes the purity of the monk, who has forsaken the world and renounced his desire for marriage and children. By wearing the cowl, the monk proclaims his chastity and celibacy --his total commitment to the will of God. The belt symbolizes the monk's fidelity and chastity. The black tassel reminds us of the whip used to scourge Jesus. Every time the monk touches the tassel, he says "With your pain, O Jesus Christ." The robe symbolizes the plea to God to protect the monk. It means that the monk is in God’s care. (Matar 1998)
After being vested, Charbel carried a cross in his left hand in response to Christ's call to "take up your cross and follow me" (Mt 10:38) and a candle in his right hand to symbolize Christ, "the light of the world" (Mt 5:14). He was then led in a procession to the church to show the community's joy that it had a new member. (Matar 1998)
Yussef was now Father Charbel, a name he took in honor of an earlier Saint Charbel, a martyr of the Antiochian Church. In wearing the monastic habit, cowl and belt, he was no longer part of the world or his family. Now he belonged to God and his community of monks.
For formation and education, Charbel was transferred to the Monastery of Saints Yostina and Keprianos in Kfifan, the most important school of theology in Lebanon. He stayed there for six years, from 1853 to 1859, for studies in philosophy and theology. At Kfifan, he met two holy monks who were his teachers. They were Namatallah al-Kafri and Namatallah al-Hardini. The latter was a renowned and pious reformer whose imprint on the Order remains even today. Al-Hardini will be beatified by His Holiness John Paul II in Rome this coming May. (Hayek 1956: 56-59; Daher 1952: 51-55)
Father al-Hardini became Charbel's spiritual mentor. As such, al-Hardini gave him a spiritual education and nurtured his deep love for holy monasticism. Father al-Hardini had a great influence upon Charbel. (Sfeir 1995: 147-166)
Charbel was ordained a priest at the Maronite Patriarchate in Bkerke in 1859. (Daher 1993: 77) His monastery was under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchal Vicar who resided in Bkerke at the time. (Personal communication)
After his ordination, Father Charbel returned to the Monastery of St. Maron. During his 19 years there, Charbel performed his priestly ministry and monastic duties in an edifying way. He dedicated himself totally to Christ to live, work and pray in silence. Charbel had said to his superior, "If you judge me worthy, give me the heaviest and most humiliating work." (Saint Charbel Makhlouf 1989: 31)
As he had done at Kfifan, Charbel tilled, planted and harvested the crops of the community’s land in Annaya. Indeed, working the land and engaging in manual labor formed the second element in monastic life after prayer: Ora et Labora (Hayek 1956: 50, 89-91). Until just a few decades ago, the Maronite Patriarch himself did farm work. Working the land in the Maronite tradition --the temporal and the sacred-- embodies a level of mysticism best illustrated by Father Michel Hayek. "A Maronite," said Hayek, "works, builds, plants as if he is celebrating the liturgy. His whole economy has a sacramental taste and a liturgical savoring --the vine and the wheat for the bread and the wine of the Eucharist; the olive tree to make the holy oils; the mulberry plant to weave the altar cloth and the vestments for benediction. All of which are signs of the hereafter." (Hayek 1980: 197)
Charbel The Hermit
As he worked the land and performed manual labor at the monastery, he continued a life of purity, obedience and humility that has yet to be surpassed. In 1875, because he showed "supernatural power," he was granted permission to live as a hermit at the Hermitage of Saints Peter and Paul, which is near the monastery. This foreshadowed the true significance of 'Annaya which is a Syriac word meaning "hermit" or "anchorite". (Hayek 1956: 65)
The Hermitage of Saints Peter and Paul was built as a monastery in 1798 and became a hermitage in 1829 when the Order decided to build the Monastery of Saint Maron on a nearby property (Dagher 1988: 96, 104). The first monk to live as a hermit in this newly established hermitage was Father Alisha' al-Hardini, the brother of Namatallah al-Hardini who was Charbel's teacher and mentor at Kfifan. He was followed by Fathers Yohanna al-'Akoury, Yowakim al-Zouki, Libaous al-Ramati and Charbel Bekaa-Kafra. (Dagher 1988: 104-111)
As a monk, Father Charbel learned and followed the rules of his Order to the letter, including:
He must say Mass and visit the chapel frequently night and day.
He must pray, meditate and read the Holy Scriptures.
He must do manual labor as a powerful remedy for many temptations, as a proof that he is not deserting his human obligations and in accordance with the stern injunction of Saint Paul: "If anyone will not work, neither let him eat."
He must live a life of strict poverty." (Vincent 1992: 52; Benedict 1990: 76-77; St. Charbel Makhlouf 1989: 54-56; Daher 1965:103-107)
He did penance alone and in silence, for the rule states:
The hermit can eat only one meal a day, which is sent by the monastery.
He must never eat meat or drink wine. During Lent he can have only vegetables, with a little oil.
He must not sleep more than five hours.
He must observe strict silence. In case of necessity, he must speak briefly and in subdued tones.
He must not leave the hermitage without the express consent of his superior (Vincent 1992: 52; Benedict 1990: 76-77; St. Charbel Makhlouf 1989: 54-56; Daher 1965:103-107).
At the hermitage, Saint Charbel's companions were the Son of God, as encountered in the Scriptures and in the Eucharist, and the Blessed Mother. The Eucharist became the center of his life. Though this hermit did not have a place in the world, the world had a great place in his heart. Through prayer and penance he offered himself as a sacrifice so that the world would return to God. (Benedict 1990: 10-11)
It was in this secluded sanctuary that the monk Charbel spent the remaining twenty-three years of his life practicing severe mortification. It is recorded by his companions that he wore a hair shirt, practiced corporal punishment, chained himself, slept on the hard ground and ate only one meal a day – the leftovers from his companions' meals. (Hayek 19526: 81-83; St. Charbel Makhlouf 1989: 41, 56-58; Sfeir 1996: 90-91)
His pillow was a piece of wood covered with an old cloth, a remnant from an old habit. His bed was made of goat hair and laid directly on the floor. Although a hermit, he was not exempt from the supervision and orders of his superiors. He was to follow strict religious practices and carry out a severe ascetic way of life. His day would start with adoration of the Eucharist, prayers and celebration of the Holy Mystery, followed by manual labor, fasting, penance, continuous prayer, little sleep, and mortification of the body…all of which Charbel practiced with utmost humility and love. (Hayek 1956: 81-83, 107; St. Charbel Makhlouf 1989: 41, 56-58; Sfeir 1996: 90-91)
Father Charbel suffered a stroke on December 16, 1898 while he was reciting the prayer of the Holy Liturgy: "Father of Truth, behold Your Son, a sacrifice pleasing to You. Accept this offering of Him who died for me..."As he fell to the floor, he kept his hands clasped around the Holy Eucharist. His companion, Father Makarios Al-Mishmeshani the Hermit, and some other monks helped him to his cell. Eight days later, on Christmas Eve, he died while murmuring the names of Jesus, His Blessed Mother and Saint Joseph. (Chebli 1950: 24-25; 'Awwad 1952: 33-34) This marked 23 years of solitude lived in total abandonment to God.
When Charbel died, Father Antonios Mishmeshani, the Superior of the Monastery was away at the Patriarchate because Patriarch John Peter el-Hage was dying. When the Superior returned to find that Charbel had died, he wrote prophetically about him. A paragraph from the Monastery's official Death Record states:
"On this day, the 24th of December 1898, Father Charbel of Bekaa-Kafra, the Hermit, died of a stroke in the mercy of God after receiving the Sacraments of the Church. He was buried in the graveyard of the monastery at 68 years of age when I, Father Antonios Mishmeshani, was the Superior. Because of what he [Charbel] is going to accomplish after his death, I excuse myself from giving details of his life, especially in regard to the extent to which he kept his vows so that we can say his obedience was angelic and not human." ('Awwad 1952: 85; Daher 1993: 8-9)
The body of the Saint was then laid out in the Church of the hermitage. The monks knelt near the body all night, praying and contemplating the life of their pious monk. On the morning of Christmas Day, a small cortege of monks and people from neighboring villages left the hermitage. The procession set out towards the Monastery of Saint Maron of 'Annaya for the burial ceremony, proceeding solemnly in prayer down the hill through the snow. The blessed body, clothed in the monk's habit, was laid on a stretcher made of three wooden planks. As the procession moved toward the monastery, a priest incensed the saint's body, while the mourners chanted in Syriac the psalms of the burial service. (Hayek 1956: 107-110; Daher 1993: 7; 'Awwad 1952: 50-35)
As the cortege drew near the monastery, the tolling of the bells could be heard more clearly. Despite the glacial weather, the men and women villagers who had heard about the Saint's death came to pay their respects and obtain the blessing of the holy man. All the monks from the monastery were waiting outside, reciting the rosary and chanting in Syriac "Open your doors, O Celestial Jerusalem!" The ceremony continued and the body was laid upon a catafalque draped with a pall in the nave of Saint Maron's Church. In keeping with custom, the monks and the people came forward one by one and kissed the hands of the monk. As the crowd and the assembly of monks left, the body was left alone in the church illuminated by candlelight. (Hayek 1956: 107-110; Daher 1993: 7; 'Awwad 1952: 50-35)
Charbel's First Miracle After His Death
An unusual occurrence took place that night when, according to custom, Brother Elie Mehrini came to visit the Blessed Sacrament at midnight. As he knelt in prayer and adoration facing the tabernacle, a great light issued forth from the tabernacle and caressed the face of the deceased. Astonished, Brother Elie ran to his superior to inform him of his vision. The superior dismissed him and asked him to ring the bell for recital of the Office of the Second Day of Christmas. (Daher 1993: 9-10)
Early the next morning, the body was carried to the grave located outside the monastery and adjacent to the wall of the church. After the Funeral Service was recited, a wooden board was placed in the large pit which contained the bones of other monks. Then Father Charbel’s body was lowered into the grave without a casket, covered only by his monk’s habit and hood with a cross-clasped in his hands. Water was dripping into the pit and mud covered its floor. Seeing the miserable condition of the grave, some monks and villagers asked that the body be buried in a private tomb or put in a coffin. However, the monk in charge explained that there was no exception to the rule. Father Charbel was to be buried just like his brothers in the order. The grave was subsequently covered with a stone, sealed with concrete and then sprinkled with holy water. (Daher 1993: 12; 'Awwad 1952: 60-78)
In the death records of the Monastery of Saint Maron, Charbel's superior wrote that because of what Charbel would accomplish after his death, he had no need to write about his life but was satisfied with stating that Charbel had kept his vows like an angel and not like a human. ('Awwad 1952: 85; Daher 1993: 8-9)
Starting on the night of his death, Charbel's tomb emanated a bright light. This aroused the suspicion of the Ottoman Army which came searching for people who might be conspiring against the Empire (Daher 1993: 12-13; St. Charbel Makhlouf 1989: 77-78). After getting permission from the Church authorities, the superior opened the tomb for the first time on April 15, 1899, four months after Charbel's death. The body was found to be intact and as of that day exuded a blood-like moisture for the next 67 years. Between 1950 and 1975, his tomb was opened eight times and was examined by medical doctors in the presence of the Protector of the Faith and representatives of the Maronite Patriarch and of the Vatican, who found that his body still resembled a living one. Experts and doctors were unable to give any medical explanation for the incorruptibility and flexibility of the saint's body. (St. Charbel Makhlouf 1989: 78-82; Hayek 1956: 114-125; also see 'Awwad 1952)
His tomb has been a site for pilgrimages ever since the day he died. Hundreds of miracles were performed through the intercession of Saint Charbel in 'Annaya, Lebanon, and throughout the world. By 1977, 'Annaya had received 135,000 letters which are kept in an archive. They have come from 95 countries that wish to share with Charbel's community the news of miracles, cures and wonders. (Nour wa Hayat 1977:79) Two of the cures were considered miracles by Church authorities --namely, the healing of Sister Maria Abel Kamari S.S.C.C., who suffered from pain caused by an ulcer, and the healing of Mr. Alessandro Obeid who had been blinded in his right eye following an accident. Both cures were instrumental in the beatification of Charbel on December 5, 1965 and in his canonization on October 9, 1977. (Hayek 1956: 127-138; Daher: 1993: 141-148; see also Shahin n.d.)
At the closing of the Second Vatican Council, on December 5, 1965, Charbel was beatified by Pope Paul VI who said: "Great is the gladness in heaven and earth today for the beatification of Charbel Makhlouf, monk and hermit of the Lebanese Maronite Order. Great is the joy of the East and West for this son of Lebanon, admirable flower of sanctity blooming on the stem of the ancient monastic traditions of the East, and venerated today by the Church of Rome.... The holy monk of Annaya is presented as one who reminds us of the indispensable role of prayer, hidden virtues and penance.... A hermit from the Lebanese Mountain is enrolled among the blessed...a new, eminent member of monastic sanctity is enriching the entire Christian people by his example and his intercession.... In a world largely fascinated with riches and comfort, he helps us understand the paramount value of poverty, penance, and asceticism to liberate the soul in its ascent to God...." (Saint Charbel: the Hermit of Lebanon n.d.: 24-28)
Charbel Is A Phenomenon In This Age
In 1965, just before his beatification in Rome, a high-ranking Roman prelate with the Sacred Congregation for the Causes of Saints said to Bishop Francis Zayek, head of the diocese of Saint Maron in the United States of America: "Reading about the holy hermits who lived in the desert, we used to consider many reported facts as mere fables. In the life of Blessed Charbel, however, we notice that these facts are authentic and true. Blessed Charbel is another Saint Anthony of the Desert, or Saint Pachomius or Saint Paul the Anchorite. It is marvelous to observe how your [Maronite] Rite was able to preserve the same spirituality of the fathers of the desert throughout the centuries, and at the end of the 19th century, 1500 years later, produced a Charbel for the Church." (Zayek n.d.: n.p.)
Through the intercession of Saint Charbel, many miracles have occurred since his body was laid to rest in the catacombs of the Monastery of Saint Maron in 'Annaya one hundred years ago. Myriad are the physical miracles and innumerable are the souls that have been healed. It is much easier for a person to proclaim one’s physical cure than to admit the healing of one’s soul.
Recently, a young married woman and mother of two, named Nadia Sader, publicly confessed her life of sin and proclaimed the work of Saint Charbel in her life. Her courage to speak in public astonished Lebanese society. According to her testimony, not only did she believe in the pleasures of this world, but she had experienced all of them. Then she was struck with an incurable disease that left her paralyzed and in unbearable pain. After medical examinations and trips to France to find a medical cure, this beautiful woman in her thirties, rich and prominent, was at the mercy of God.
Family and friends advised her to pray, to trust only in God's mercy or be blessed by a relic from Saint Charbel. However, her arrogance and cynicism prevented her from believing in Saint Charbel even after he appeared to her and she was cured time and time again. Finally, her baptism of pain and tears paved the way for her true baptism in the Spirit. Nadia finally bore witness to divine love through Charbel's intercession. In a society of double standards, she stood blameless before God and Saint Charbel. She had become humble yet dignified through God's forgiveness.
Nadia documented her visions and Saint Charbel's messages to her. In this she was supported and encouraged by her husband, family, friends and three priests who were her spiritual guides. The messages are simple. The message of July 30, 1996: "Carry the cross which is on my chest as a weapon with which to fight.... Preach by the Word, love and humility --the Word is the beginning and the end." The message of August 30, 1996: "Charbel loved Christ in silence. Teach the world to love Jesus aloud." The message of March 5, 1997:
"In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, always testify to the cure of your soul and not your cure from pain. Carry your pain in silence for the Glory of God. Listen and pray. Through the Rosary, you overcome your enemies and the wicked will leave you alone. Through confession and communion you protect your bodies. Through your love, work and prayers, you save your souls --so do not let anyone lead you astray." (Sayfi: 1997: 54-62).
Nadia was not the first person to have been touched by the mercy of God, Our Heavenly Father. She will not be the last. Nouhad El-Shamy and Raymond Nader are two of the most recent believers, blessed by visions of Saint Sharbel, one of the greatest saints of our times.
The spirit of Charbel still lives in many people. His miracles include numerous healings of the body and of the spirit. Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk known as "the American Hermit", discovered Saint Sharbel nine years after becoming a monk and he wrote in his journal: "Charbel lived as a hermit in Lebanon, he was a Maronite. He died. Everyone forgot about him. Fifty years later, his body was discovered incorrupt and in short time he worked over 600 miracles. He is my new companion. My road has taken a new turning. It seems to me that I have been asleep for 9 years, and before that I was dead." (Benedict 1977: xii)
Boutrosiya (Pierina) Shabaq al-Rayes, the only child of her parents, was born on the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, the 29th of June 1832 in Hemlaya, Lebanon. Her father was Mourad Saber Shabaq al-Rayes and her mother was Rafqa Gemayel. She was orphaned upon her mother's death six years later. After working as a maid in the house of her father's friend in Syria from 1843-1847, she returned to Lebanon. In 1853, she entered the convent of Our Lady of Liberation in Bikfaya and became a nun in the Marian Order of the Immaculate Conception (Saadé 1986: 11-12).
Boutrosiya recounted that "As I entered the church of the convent, I felt immense joy, inner relief; and looking at the image of the Blessed Virgin, it seemed as if a voice had come from it and entered the most intimate part of my conscience. It said to me: 'You will become a nun' (A Message 1985: 7).
She became a novice on Saint Maron's day, the 9th of February 1855. In 1856, she pronounced her monastic vows and took the religious name of Anissa (Agnes). While serving in Deir-el-Qamar in 1860, she witnessed the massacres of the Christians in the Chouf Mountain and was greatly affected by the suffering of her people.
In 1871, her order united with the order of the Sacred Heart of Jesus to form the Order of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. The nuns were given the free choice of joining the new order or another existing order, or resuming lay status after being dispensed from their vows.
This was a very difficult time for the nuns of both orders who were not involved in the original decision to unite. Sister Anissa was teaching in Ma'ad in the Batroun region in North Lebanon. When she learned of the decision and the new situation, she went to Saint George's Church to pray. While in prayer, she cried because of her great distress. She fell asleep and felt the presence of someone who told her, "I will make you a religious" (A Message 1985: 11).
That night she dreamed of a man with a long white beard carrying a staff shaped like a "T" at the tip. He told her twice: "Become a nun in the Baladiya Order (The Lebanese Maronite Order)" (A Message 1985: 12). Sister Anissa did enter. Through interpretation of her dream, Sister Anissa learned that the old man in her dream was Saint Anthony the Great, who carries a baton with a T-shape tip, made from a branch of a tree. Saint Anthony is the model of monastic life for the Baladiya Order.
On the 12th of July 1871 when she was 39 years old, she entered the novitiate again but it was at the monastery of St. Simon in El-Qarn as a member of the Baladiya Order. Her new religious congregation was cloistered. The nuns prayed, meditated, worked in the monastery and lived a life of asceticism. Her novitiate was documented in the records of that monastery as follows; "Sister Rafqa, whose name was Boutrosiya from Hemlaya, began her novitiate on the 12th of July 1871 at the age of 39" (Saadé 1986: 119). Two years later, on the 25th of August 1873, she made the solemn profession of her perpetual vows of obedience, chastity and poverty in the spirit of the strict Rule of the Baladiya Order. In the records of St. Simon's monastery we read "Sister Rafqa received her angelic cowl (the hood) from Father Superior Ephrem Geagea al-Bsherrawi during the administration of Sister Zyara al-Ghostawiye, Superior of the monastery on the 25th of August 1873" (Saadé 1986; 119). She took her mother's name Rafqa (Rebecca) as her religious name.
The Lebanese Maronite Order has its roots in the early monastic life in the East. However, it became an institution in the modern sense of the word in 1695. Pope Clement XII approved the monastic rules of the Order on the 31st of March 1732 (Shehwan 1996: 499). In 1736 at the Lebanese Synod, the women's branch of the Order was organized under the same rules (Azzi & Akiki 1995: 36). Their relationship with the men's branch was spiritual and administrative (Shehwan 1996: 505). Their monastic life was that of an Oriental solitary type, which stresses prayer, contemplation and asceticism (Shehwan 1996: 502).
Life as an enclosed (semi-cloistered) nun of the Baladiya or the Lebanese Maronite Order was not easy, and not everyone could observe the strict, rigorously observed rules. The Order followed the monastic spiritual and idealistic values of "following and imitating Christ; communal, fraternal life; emulating the martyrs; under Christ's banner, fighting against evil; spiritual expatriation (Ghourba: absence from our "heavenly home"); and waiting for the Second Coming with eternal life in the Divine Presence (Azzi & Akiki 1995: 49-50). The Order also follows the monastic practical and living values of "obedience, chastity, poverty, prayer, work, mission, and communal living" (Azzi & Akiki 1995: 50-52).
The nuns followed the basic monastic principle: pray and work. Their monastic daily life was divided as follows: prayer, chanting the office, meditation and Holy Mass, during the three hours from 4-7 A.M. Then came work from 7 to 10 A.M.
At 10 A.M. the nuns would sing the Breviary and this was followed by breakfast. Then they worked in the convent, paused to pray the Breviary once again, read from spiritual works and engaged in pious conversation as a community. At 2 o'clock in the afternoon they recited Vespers and this was followed by supper. Half an hour after sunset, they conducted the evening prayers from the Breviary, followed by the "great silence" when the nuns retire to their respective cells to meditate and rest until midnight. At that time (midnight), they leave their cells to join together in singing the first part of the Breviary. That would ordinarily last one and a half hours but during lent and Holy Week would last two hours. Back in their cells, they would be called again at four in the morning. Many of the nuns would stay in church to pray and meditate waiting for the four o'clock call to begin their day again [i.e. some nuns remained in chapel, and not in their cells, at prayer from midnight until 7 A.M.]. (A Message 1985: 15-16).
Rafqa lived her monastic life in great joy. On the feast of the Holy Rosary in 1885, seeing that she was blessed with health, Rafqa asked our Lord to let her share in the suffering of His crucifixion. Sister Rafqa prayed "Why, O My God, why have you distanced yourself from me and abandoned me? You have never visited sickness upon me! Have you perhaps abandoned me?" (A Message 1985: 17).
Blessed Rafqa was born in Lebanon at a time when suffering was the daily bread. She witnessed and experienced distress. For her to ask for more suffering is beyond comprehension. But Rafqa so requested. She believed that suffering is the path to salvation and a source of joy. Emulating Christ's love, she prayed asking to share in the suffering of Jesus and her people.
Her prayers were answered. From that night on her health began to deteriorate, yet she rejoiced in being made worthy to participate in the suffering of Our Lord. She began feeling pain in the optic nerves. The doctor who was treating her pierced through and destroyed her right eye in a barbaric manner. During bleeding and unbearable agony, Rafqa said only: "In communion with Christ's passion." Her other eye deteriorated and she became totally blind. Rafqa continued to suffer optic hemorrhage daily. She was left with no strength or energy.
Blind and in pain, she continued to work by spinning wool and cotton and knitting stockings for the other sisters. She took part in common prayer, chanting the psalms and reciting the Breviary -- all of this from memory. Even when blind and weak, she often begged the mother superior to let her share in the daily work of the other sisters. Refusing to eat what was considered the good food, Rafqa often chose to eat the leftovers.
In 1897, Sister Rafqa was transferred to the monastery of Mar Youssef of Grabta (Saint Joseph) with Sister Ursula Doumit, the superior, and three other sisters. In this monastery, Sister Rafqa's earlier request of suffering continued to be granted. In 1907 she told her superior about the intolerable pain. Rafqa soon became totally paralyzed, with complete disfunction of the joints.
In a 1981 medical report based upon the evidence presented in the Canonical Process, three specialists in ophthalmology, neurology and orthopedics diagnosed the most likely cause as tuberculosis with ocular localization and multiple bony excrescencies. This disease causes the most unbearable pain.
Rather than ever complain of her pains, she prayed unceasingly, saying: "In communion with Your suffering, Jesus", "With the wound on Your shoulder, Jesus," "With Your crown of thorns, Jesus," "With the sufferings caused by the lance… by the thorns… by the nails of the Cross, my Lord Jesus."
Under obedience, the superior, Sister Doumit ordered Sister Rafqa to tell her life story since she did not wish to do so because she was humble. On the 23rd of October 1914, Sister Rafqa asked for final absolution and the plenary indulgence. She died in peace and received a humble monastic burial in the tombs of the monastery.
Four days after her death, Sister Ursula Doumit experienced a miracle, which took place through the intercession of Sister Rafqa. For eight years, Sister Ursula Doumit had been suffering from a lump in her throat that prevented her from even drinking milk. On the fourth night after Rafqa's death, after having asked the other sisters to let her rest undisturbed, she heard a knock at the door of her cell and heard someone say, "Take sand from Rafqa's grave and swab your throat with it. You will be cured." (A Message 1985: 281). Sister Ursula thought that one of the sisters had come to her about community affairs, so she asked to be left alone and went back to sleep. Again there was a knock and she heard the same message. She answered "I will get the sand when morning comes." In the morning, after learning that none of the nuns had knocked on her door, she went to Rafqa's grave and took some sand. Though still in wonder about what had happened during the previous night, she mixed the sand in water and swabbed the lump. The lump disappeared immediately.
Sister Ursula had been miraculously cured! Since then, she advised all who came come to her with an illness to do the same.
On the 23rd of December 1925 and during the tenures in office of Maronite Patriarch Elias Howayek, the Superior General of the Lebanese Maronite Order Abbot Ignatius Dagher, and Pope Pius XI, the Lebanese Maronite Order presented Rafqa's cause for beatification to Rome. The causes of the future Blessed Hardini and Saint Sharbel were submitted at the same time.
Many physical and spiritual healings have been attributed to Rafqa's intercession such as the miracle of Joseph Ibrahim Fayyad, a child who was cured from a cancer at the right side of his neck in 1925, the miracle of Kafa Youssef Gerges, a child who was cured from paralysis in 1924, the miracle of Linda Philippe Hanna Sakr, a child who was cured from acute hemorrhage in 1924, the miracle of Mariam Hatem who was cured from nervous disorders in 1925, the miracle of Dona Youssef Abdallah who was cured from a skin disease in his leg in 1924, the miracle of Fahd, a boy who was cured from paralysis in 1925, the miracle of a woman from Ain Kfaa who was cured from ear pains in 1925, the miracle of Rachel Mahmoud el-Khazen who was cured from nervous disorders in 1935, the miracle of Michel Elias Sarrouf who was cured from an unknown disease that prevented him from speaking, the miracle of Marian Habbour who was cured from colon cancer in 1952, and the Miracle of Basma Youssef el-Khoury who was cured from skin cancer in 1966.
However, the miracle put forward for the Beatification of Sister Rafqa was the instantaneous, complete, definitive and scientifically inexplicable curing of a Lebanese woman named Elizabeth En-Nakhel from Tourza in northern Lebanon, who was suffering from uterine cancer. Elizabeth was cured, through Rafqa, in 1938 and lived for 28 years more. She died from a completely different illness in 1966.
On the 9th of June 1984, the eve of Pentecost, in the presence of the Holy Father John Paul II, the authenticity of the miracle experienced by Elizabeth En-Nakhel was publicly announced. This was necessary for beatification which took place on the 17th of November 1985. She was then called Blessed Rafqa. Her feast day is celebrated on the 23rd of March.
The Miracle of Celine Rubeiz was the miracle that confirmed Rafqa's Saintliness.
The story starts in October 1984, when one-year old Celine slept abnormally for 24 hours before being taken to hospital. After suffering from hemorrhage and swollen belly, Celine's tests showed she had a tumor in her kidney that had to be removed.
Soon after the surgery, Celine's little body was ravaged by cancer. She was bleeding from her nose and ears. Doctors gave her 24 hours.
In November 1985, Celine grandmother read an article about blessed Rafka and believed that some sand from Rafka's tomb was the only cure. So she brought some sand and gave them to Remonda, Celine's mother, who mixed the holy sand to a Mhallbieh plate to feed it to Celine who had stopped eating for a while.
Celine ate the first plate and a second plate, them she woke up and started walking around in the hospital. Nurses and doctors could not believe their eyes. Today Celine leads a perfectly normal life.
Celine's miracle was the latest proof awaited by the investigation committee for the saintliness of Rafka and it has finalized the Rafka case. Saint Rafqa's Miracles continue to this day and Shadi Estephan Kayyal was cured from a generalized cancer in 2000.
Rafqa is like the bride of the Song of Songs who listened to the calls of her beloved: "Come from Lebanon, my promised bride, Come from Lebanon, come on your way. Look down from the heights of Amanus, From the crests of Senir and Hermon, The haunt of lions, The mountains of leopards. The scent of your garments Is like the scent of Lebanon. She is a garden enclosed, My sister, my promised bride; a garden enclosed A sealed fountain Fountain of the garden, Well of living water, Streams flowing down from Lebanon!" Excerpts from the Song of Songs 4:1-15
Miracles continue to be granted through her intercession. Thousands of believers visit her tomb at Saint Joseph's monastery in Grabta. Saint Rafqa was canonized on June 10, 2001.
The Canonization of Saint Rafqa
The Blessed Hardini
Father Hardini was born Joseph Kassab in the year 1808 his father was George Kassab and his mother Marium Raad, daughter of Reverend Yousef Yacoub. He had four brothers and two sisters, his brothers were 'Assaf, Elias, Tanious, Yacoub and his sisters Masihieh and Mariam. Joseph's brother Elias became Father Lesha', the Hermit at Qozhaya, and later at 'Annaya where he died. Father Sharbel replaced the late Father Lesha' at the hermitage in 'Annaya. Joseph entered the school of the monks of St. Anthony at Houb from 1816 to 1822 and then entered the monastery of St. Anthony Ishaia and became a novice on November 1828. There he adopted the name Fr. Nimatullah Kassab Hardini, then he learned to bind books.
He professed his first vows on 14th of November 1830. After he finished his theological studies, he was ordained a priest under Bishop Seiman Zwain in the monastery at Kfifan on 25th of December 1833.
He became a member of the general council three times from 1845 to 1848, 1850 to 1853, 1856 to 1858. As a member of the council he continued to bind books. He taught in monastic schools, especially in Kfifan.
Father Nimatullah lived a very holy life. He was a man of prayer, totally "enraptured by God". He spent days and nights in meditation, prayer and adoration of the Eucharist. The Virgin Mary was his patron and Father Nimatullah prayed Her Rosary. He was also a very humble, sensitive and patient person who lived his monastic vows of "obedience, chastity and poverty" to perfection. His fellow brother Monks and the people who knew him called him "The Saint" while he was still alive. One of his students was Charbel Makhlouf (St. Charbel), 1853 to 1858.
Father Nimatullah Hardini died in the monastery of Kfifan on 14th December 1858. He passed away after struggling ten days with a high fever which he contracted from the cold winter wind characteristic of northern Lebanon. He was only then fifty years of age. He died holding a picture of the Virgin Mary, his last words being: "O Virgin Mary between your hands I submit my soul." People who were nearby at the moment of Father Nimatullah's death witnessed a heavenly light illuminating his room and an aromatic smell which remained in his room for a number of days afterwards. When the then Patriarch, Boulos Massad, heard of Father Nimatullah's death he commented: "Congratulations to this monk who knew how to benefit from his monastic life."
Some time later, the Monks opened Father Nimatullah's tomb and to their surprise they found his body had remained incorrupt. He was then removed and placed in a coffin near the church. After obtaining due permission from the local ecclesiastical authority, from 1864 visitors were allowed to see Father Neemtallah's intact body until 1927. In that same year the Committee of Inquiry set up to investigate the Cause of Father Nimatullah finalised its investigation. Father Nimatullah's body was then reburied in the curving wall of his monastic cell, before being transferred to a little Chapel where masses are celebrated for visitors.
He was declared Venerable on September 7, 1989. At the behest of his Beatitude Patriarch Nasrallah Peter Sfeir, his body was examined and placed in a new coffin on May 18, 1996. His body was recently transferred to a new coffin made of cedar and placed in the Monastery of Kfifan where people may visit.
Several cures have taken place through his intercession. These include the raising to life of a Muslim child whose mother claimed had died, the healing of a person with a neurological disease, the restoration of sight to a blind person and the curing of a person suffering from cancer.
The case of the curing of Andre Najm is of particular note due to its very recent occurance and thourough investigation by the international medical community that followed. Andre Najm, born on October 29, 1966 enjoyed excellent health for the first twenty years of his life. However in June of 1986 he began to experience a chronic fatigue and nervous breakdowns, unable to even walk a short distance. Many physicians in Lebanon and abroad treated him to no avail. He was suffering from a form of blood cancer and required frequent blood transfusions.
On September 26, 1987 Andre accompanied family and friends to the monastery of Kfifane where he prayed fervently at the grave of Fr. Hardini. The people around him heard him say "I beg you, Fr. Al-Hardini, give me a drop of blood for I am so tired to the point where I can't even beg for blood on the street." He then asked to wear the monastic habit, moments later he was cured, and cried out with joy, "I wore the monastic habit, I am cured, I don't need blood anymore!" Andre has not required any blood transfusions since that day, and in 1991 he married Rola Salim Raad. They have two children, a son named Charbel and a daughter named Rafka. Today, Andre is in excellent health.
On May 2, 1996, His Excellency Bishop Khalil Abi-Nader, retired Bishop of the Maronite Diocese of Beirut, obtained the permission of His Beatitude Nasrallah Boutros Cardinal Sfeir to start the investigation of the miracle of Andre Najm. On September 26, 1996 the Congregation for the Causes of Saints began to study the miracle. On February 27, 1997 the five member medical team unanimously voted to accept the miraculous cure of Andre Najm, and on May 9, 1997, the seven member theological team also voted unanimously to accept the miracle. On July 1, 1997 the General Assembly of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, which includes twenty-four cardinals, accepted the miracle.
On July 7, 1997, and in the presence of the Holy Father Pope John Paul II, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints published a decree of accepting the miracle attributed to the intercession of the servant of God, Fr. Al-Hardini.
Nimutallah al-Hardini's Beatification by Pope John Paul II was held at Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome on Sunday May 10, 1998. The Maronite Church celebrates his feast day on the 14th of December.
Aquilina was born in Byblos in 281. Her father's name was Eutolmius. She received her catechism from Evthalios, Bishop of Byblos. Her heart was inflamed with the love of Christ; hence her faith and fervor radiated like the sun in Byblos and its surroundings. At the age of twelve, Aquilina began an endeavor to spread Christianity among her compatriots. That was done through her example and teachings driven by the zeal of apostles and the innocence of children. Due to her preaching, many of the pagans were baptized, especially young lads and maidens. She was reported to the authorities and brought before Magistrate Volusian during the reign of Emperor Diocletian, and, when questioned about her activities she replied "I am Christian". The Magistrate said, "You are leading your friends and comrades away from the religion of our gods to the belief in Christ, the Crucified. Don't you know that our kings condemn this Christ and sentence to death those who worship him? Leave this error and offer oblation to the gods and you shall live. If you refuse, you shall undergo the most atrocious sufferings." Aquilina answered "I am not afraid of suffering at all; rather, I aspire to it because with it I emulate my God, Jesus Christ, and die like Him, so that I am resurrected and glorified with Him."
Upon her response, Volusian ordered that she be flogged. She was then tied and flogged mercilessly. The Magistrate tried again to shake her determination, but she answered with courage: "Neither you nor Satan will be able to impose on me sufferings stronger than my strength to sustain, with the power of my God, Jesus."
Volusian, the Magistrate, tried to forget the matter of this maiden, counting on time to change her position, saying to her: "You are going to change your opinion in a few days, so contemplate the matter." Aquilina answered, "I shall never change my mind. I am determined and I shall not budge. I lived a Christian since my childhood and Christian I shall die." Upon her answer, the Magistrate ordered that her body be lacerated by a sharp rake. This lasted until she fainted and fell on the floor, then her eardrums were punctured with flaming iron rods forcing the brain to discharge through her nose. Volusian thought that she had died so he ordered that she be thrown outside the walls of the city.
Later, it is said with the help of an angel, Aquilina regained consciousness and went before the Magistrate. Upon seeing her, he was astonished and thought that he was dreaming. He ordered that she be imprisoned and decapitated in the morning. The next day, 13th June 293 A.D, she was found dead in her cell. The Christians buried her body outside the city where her tomb became a site for pilgrimage and cures.
Later her holy relics were transported to Constantinople where a great basilica was built in her honor near the Forum of Constantine in the Philoxene quarter. This basilica was later destroyed in a fire. (Aigrain 1924: 1143; Daher 1969: 240; The Lives of the Holy Women Martyrs 1991: 206-207; and Sauma 1994: 89-90)
Marina was born in Qlamoun North Lebanon sometime in the fifth century . Her father was a pious man. Her mother died while Marina was very young. This has made her father renounce the world and leave for the Monastery of Qannoubine in the Holy Valley; accompanying him was his daughter, whom he dressed like a man. It is said that her parents names were Ibrahim and Baddoura or and Eugene and Theodora. It is also said that her when the father became a monk left her in the care of her caretaker and after a few years he returned to see her, at which time she insisted on going wherever he went. In any event, father and daughter entered into monkshood with the daughter still pretending to be a man. As a monk she was known by the name Marinos.
Although young, Marina occupied herself with the practice of monastic virtues with utmost spirit and minuteness. She was silent and reticent with bowed head and eyes, concealed the features of her face and eyes with a hood.
One day she was sent to a neighboring town on a mission for the Monastery. He was obliged to spend the night at the house of a friend of the monks named Paphnotius.
Paphnotius had a young girl who had fallen into adultery and was found pregnant. Upon finding out, her father was enraged and demanded the name of the perpetrator. His daughter told him that Marinos the Monk had raped her the night he spent in their house. Her father went straight to the Monastery and told the Superior, who was surprised for he knew that Marinos is pious and pure. The Superior called Marina and scolded her, but Marina said nothing to defend herself and did not reveal that she was a woman. Consequently, the Superior was very perplexed and considered Marina’s silence to be an admission of guilt. He then sentenced Marina to dismissal and to be thrown outside the Monastery.
Marina resigned herself to the will of God and stayed at the door of the Monastery praying and living off the leftovers of the monks’ food. Her father had long since died.
When Paphnotius' daughter delivered, Paphnotius brought the child, a boy, to the Monastery and gave him to Marina to raise.Marina took the boy and began raising him with what the monks used to bring in th way of goat's milk and of leftovers from their table. Marina carried the shame of this hideous accusation without any complaints and still did not reveal that she was a woman. It is believed that upon receiving the child to raise, she cut a piece from her habit to swaddle him and that upon her retreat into the grotto to raise the child, she miraculously was able to nurse the infant from her own breasts.
Another version states that she used to feed the child milk, donated by the shepherds who used the pastures in the vicinity of her grotto. This situation lasted four years until the Superior had compassion for her and let her enter the Monastery under very strict conditions.
Marina persevered in her ascetic work until the hour of her death when the features of his face glowed with a heavenly light. She asked forgiveness from all and she forgave all those who sinned against her. She then gave up her spirit. The Superior then ordered that the body be prepared for burial outside the Monastery. It is not known how long she lived after the accusation, there are mainly two versions, one claiming that it was 4 years and another states that it was around 20 years.
It was a great moment of astonishment when the monks found that Marina was infact a woman and not a man. The Superior and the monks fell on their knees before asking God and marina for forgiveness. Legend tells that when she died, the bells of the monastery rang on their own. As for the father of the sinful daughter, he was ashamed and came to make a statement before everyone. As for the daughter, she spent her life crying and repenting at the tomb of Marina.
Tradition has it that Tourza, a village in north Lebanon about 29km from Besharre, was the place of the sin that was laid on Marina. It is believed that because of the slanderer’s action, this village remained forever poor and was several times destroyed by earthquakes.
The sanctity of Marina spread all over Lebanon, people from all its regions came to the Monastery of Qannoubine to be blessed by her body. Her tomb became a source of cures and graces.