Saint Sharbel: Lebanon’s “Paradoxical artisan of peace”

by Dorothy Mauro
photos: courtesy of Giancarlo Giuliani

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The aged woman, wrinkles echoing her years, grasps her cane tightly as she slowly makes her way up the rugged Lebanese mountainside to the Monastery of St. Maron. After first resting on the cold gray rock at the entrance to a tomb, she then kneels, painfully, huddled among fellow Christians, and Moslems alike.

Hope for nothing less than a miracle has brought the woman to this shrine at Annaya, the barren little spot perched high on the topmost point of Mount Lebanon. Her daughter is desperately ill, and she has come to pray to the Church’s newest saint, Sharbel Makhlouf.

This woman is not alone in her devotion to St. Sharbel, the Maronite monk who, on October 9, 1977, became the first member of the Eastern rite to be canonized by the Roman Catholic Church.

From a humble beginning to a devout life as a monk, Sharbel has become, as Pope Paul VI has called him, “a paradoxical artisan of peace.” For although he sought, during his lifetime, to live apart from the world, years after his death, the glow of his existence remains in all parts of the globe.

Born in 1828 in Beqa-Kafra, a tiny village set amidst northern Lebanon’s immortal cedars, Yusif (Joseph) Makhlouf was the youngest of the five children of Antoun Makhlouf and Bridgit Shediack.

It was in the rugged purple mountains which nestle in the soft green land of Lebanon that Yusif spent his youth. Unlike many of its neighboring countries, Lebanon is a land with virtually no desert. The crystal sea serves as the country’s livelihood, and the mountains form its backbone. Joseph worked as a shepherd in these mountain areas, where often the cascading of a “horsetail” waterfall could be seen. This countryside, with its sleeping baby tranquility, was a perfect setting for his meditation and prayer to God.

Against his family’s wishes, Yusif left home at the age of 23, to join first the Monastery of Our Lady of Mayfouk, and then the more secluded Monastery of St. Maron, at Annaya. Both monasteries were run by monks of the Maronite order, a rite which arose from the Antiochene tradition. The beginnings of the Maronite church can be traced to the hermit, St. Maron, who chose to perpetuate the teachings of St. Peter.

Shortly after settling at Annaya, Yusif changed his name to Sharbel (also spelled Charbel), after one of the first martyrs of the Church of Antioch.

After several years of strenuous study, Sharbel was ordained a priest on July 23, 1859, and for the next 16 years he settled into a devout existence at the Monastery. As farm work provided the food for the community, the saint’s time was divided between prayer and work in the fields.

Possessed of an extreme spiritual detachment, though, Father Sharbel was not content in merely giving up the world and its possessions. He sought even further self-denial at a nearby place of solitude called “mahbasse,” or hermitage.

This hermitage of Saints Peter and Paul is a quiet refuge 5,200 feet above sea level. It was here that Sharbel completely devoted his life to God. He slept on a mattress of straw and used a log for a pillow. He ate once a day, a meal consisting of vegetables or herbs, but never any meat. For twenty-three years he prayed, fasted and adored God as a hermit.

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Tags: Lebanon Unity Eastern Christianity Monastery Prayers/Hymns/Saints