Sunday, 26 July 2009

St. Charbel in The Year for Priests

St. Charbel Makhlouf

We recently celebrated the feast of St. Charbel. It seems to me that we should take note of his life and example especially in this Year for Priests.

Youssef Antoun Makhlouf was born in May 1828. He later took the name Charbel, in memory of an early martyr, when he became a monk. He came from a poor Lebanese family and was the youngest of five children. His parents were devout Christians. His father died when Youssef was only two years old, but his uncle helped to support the family and the Christian atmosphere of the house was maintained. There were two other uncles, both hermits, and he would visit them often. They would often say something like, “All here below is nothing, the world is vanity, and life is short. The true beauty is God – near Him there is true happiness” By the age of sixteen, Youssef was known to be devout. He often hid himself in a cave so that he could spend time in prayer. He served Mass every morning, and developed a strong devotion to the Mother of God.

The Monastery

When Youssef was twenty-three he quietly left home one morning and went to the Monastery of Our Lady of Maifouk. His uncle and tutor, Tanios, tried to persuade him to return home. He was unsuccessful. Youssef’s mother also appealed to him to leave the monastery but he refused. A week later he received a monastic habit and chose the name Charbel. He became an exemplary student and monk. One of his tutors was Saint Nehmetallah Kassab Al-Hardini who had a greater influence on Charbel than anyone else. The young monk was the best of students and strictly followed the monastic life, advancing in the Christian virtues and growing in holiness. Charbel was ordained priest on July 23rd 1859, and was sent to the Monastery of St. Maroun. He lived in simplicity and poverty and was happy in the silence of the Monastery.

The Hermit

Charbel wanted to be a hermit, but the monastery hermitage could only house three, and it was full. He accepted everything according to his vow of obedience, but something happened to change the minds of his superiors. A lamp in Charbel’s cell continued to glow for some time even though there was no oil. This was taken as a sign that God was calling him to be a hermit, so, in 1875, he was allowed to join the hermitage of Saints Peter and Paul in the mountains of ‘Annaya. He had longed to follow the example of St. Anthony of Egypt and St. Maroun. As a hermit he practised even greater mortification, taking only one small meal a day and praying endlessly. To the Lebanese Christians he is known as the Patron of the Divine Liturgy of the Mass. This is because he structured his day around the Eucharist which he celebrated around noon. In the morning he would spend time in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. The afternoons were dedicated to thanksgiving. He spoke rarely and only if ordered to do so. He apparently needed to be told to eat, otherwise he might not. He wore a hair shirt and slept on the floor. The Holy Spirit gave him some extraordinary gifts, including the ability of reading souls in the Sacrament of Confession.

Charbel lives in the hermitage for twenty-three years. During his daily celebration of the Mass he could be heard saying the words of the Divine Liturgy, “O Father of Truth, behold Thy Son, a Sacrifice which is pleasing to Thee.” He would say with great reverence, “You have united O Lord, Your Divinity with our humanity, and our humanity with Your Divinity, Your life with our mortality, and our mortality with Your life. You have assumed what is ours and You have given us what is Yours, for the life and salvation of our souls. To you be glory forever.” It was whilst saying these very words that Fr. Charbel was struck down with paralysis. For a whole week he was unable to move from his bed, and continued reciting the words of consecration of the Mass which he had been forced to interupt. He also said many rosaries and often repeated the names of the Holy Family. He died on December 24th, 1898.

The Body of a Priest

Charbel’s body was placed on a hair mat. Although dead, the body seemed to be alive, as though in prayer. Few had really seen his face up to then since he had always faced the ground. No one had seen his eyes, and could not see them now since even in death they were closed. His burial was delayed because of heavy snow which had blocked all roads. It was the custom at the monastery to bury the deceased on the day after death. Miraculously, the weather changed dramatically on Christmas Day, so that the burial was able to take place. For a short time after this, the grave seemed to be illuminated by a very bright light. To begin with the body was wrapped in cloth, and when the grave was reopened not long after his death, it was found to be incorrupt, with no sign of rigor mortis. The body was placed in a coffin and has been exhumed several times. In 1950 a doctor testified that he had touched the body and that it was still flexible, the tissue being soft. He said it had the appearance of being both dead and alive at the same time. The body also exuded a mixture of perspiration and blood. The body was examined again in 1965, the year of Charbel’s beatification. After this, nature was allowed to take its course, and further investigation showed that the body had quickly corrupted. Charbel was canonised in 1977.

The Eucharistic Life

St. Charbel can certainly be called a “Eucharistic Saint”. Of course, this title can be given to every saint since the Eucharist is at the centre of the Christian life, but Charbel seems to have a particular importance in this regard. The Dogmatic Constitution on the Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council tells us that the Eucharist is the “source and summit of the Christian life.” In centering his day, and his whole life, on the celebration of the Divine Liturgy, St. Charbel prophetically exhibited the truth of this teaching. In the way that his body remained incorrupt until his place in Heaven was officially recognised, The Holy Spirit surely invites to to consider the words of Our Lord Jesus Christ regarding the Bread of Life;
“He who eats this Bread will live forever”. There is another consideration which is appropriate at this time when the catholic Church is celebrating a special year of the priesthood. Every time St. Charbel celebrated the Mass he would repeat the words of Christ at the Last Supper; “This is My Body, This is My Blood”. Every priest is bound in a special way to the One who said those words. The priest is an instrument of The Holy Spirit, and especially in celebrating the Liturgy he is an “alter Christus” which means that Christ both acts through and in him. In the Catholic Rite of Ordination the bishop says these words to the new priest; “Become what you celebrate”. The whole Church, in fact, is called to be “Eucharistic” in imitation of Christ who gave His life to save souls. The Eucharistic Presence in our tabernacles is not the only form of that presence because we, both individually and as a community of faith, are invited to be “Bread broken for a new world” (The motto of the 1981 Eucharistic Congress in Lourdes). In a special way, the miraculous properties of St. Charbel’s body remind us that we are all called to live now as though we are already at the gates of Heaven. In our earthly spiritual journey, we may, even here, experience something of a transformation, rather like that shown by Moses whose face shone when he came down from the mountain, or like St. Seraphim whose body was seen to glow in the darkness of the forest. Whatever we may, or may not, see externally, we are all called to be transformed by the grace of God so that we become like Christ even on this earth, which itself must be transformed as though newly-born through the mystery of the resurrrection.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for posting this. I visited St Charbel's Monastry years ago. Your post brought back fond memories.

    God bless.