A Saint Without Borders

A sainted hermit draws the world to a Lebanese village

by Marilyn Raschka with photographs by Sarah Hunter

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St. Sharbel ranks among Lebanon’s most celebrated religious men. During his life, the hermit performed numerous miracles and inspired the lives of those who sought his counsel. Even after his death in 1898 at the age of 70, he has touched the lives of countless more. As did the legendary oil lamp that once illuminated his cell, Sharbel’s memory still burns today, inspiring pilgrimages, parish shrines, internet chat-room conversations and even a feature film.

Born Youssef Antoun Makhlouf on 8 May 1828, Sharbel grew up in a remote mountain village near the Cedars of Lebanon. He entered religious life at the age of 23, leaving his village home to serve Christ as a priest and monk in the Maronite Catholic tradition at the Monastery of St. Maron, in the village of Annaya, north of Beirut. He was given the name Sharbel, after a second-century Christian martyr, and lived at the monastery for 16 years before retreating to a nearby cell to live as a hermit in ceaseless prayer, which he did for the remaining years of his life. He died quietly on Christmas Eve 1898 and was buried near the monastery.

While Sharbel never traveled much further than a couple days’ journey from his boyhood home, stories of his miraculous works during and after his life have spread throughout the world. He is said to have cured a madman by reading from the Gospel and to have protected crops from locusts by sprinkling them with water that he had blessed. In the last century, pilgrims to the saint’s tomb have attributed numerous miracles, two of which were made public before Sharbel’s beatification in December 1965 and a third before his canonization in October 1977.

But perhaps St. Sharbel’s most famous miracle was his first, which involved an old oil lamp. One evening at the monastery, Sharbel asked to have his oil lamp refilled. Two attendants decided to play a trick on the young monk, and filled the lamp with water instead of oil. The attendants then watched Sharbel through a crack in the wooden door to his cell. When they saw Sharbel light the lamp, they whispered to one another in amazement, catching the attention of another monk. Hearing the men’s story, the monk entered Sharbel’s cell. He then extinguished Sharbel’s lamp and tried, unsuccessfully, to relight it using the flame from his own lamp. He removed the wick from Sharbel’s lamp and tasted the liquid. Convinced that it was water, he handed the lamp back to Sharbel, who, again, successfully lighted the lamp before the others’ eyes.

Every year, tens of thousands of pilgrims from around the globe visit St. Sharbel’s hermitage and tomb.On the monastery’s grounds, a statue of the saint marks the spot where he was first laid to rest. A few months after his burial, mysterious dazzling lights danced around the grave. Now holes blotch the grassy area around the statue; pilgrims have taken bits of the sacred soil, which they believe to have miraculous powers. As did early Christian pilgrims, many still kiss the ground where Sharbel was once buried.

Children and youth, in their exuberance, climb the statue of the saint, leaving behind inhibitions as well as flowers and articles of clothing. They bow their heads as they balance precariously, a parallel with their lives in today’s world of anxiety and temptation.

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Tags: Lebanon Village life Pilgrimage/pilgrims Monastery