The Purest Cedar of Lebanon
The Memorial was first inserted into the Liturgical Calendar in the United States in 2004. Prior to that, today’s saint was known primarily among the Christians of Lebanon, either in their homeland or in Lebanese diaspora communities outside of the Middle East. The dominant form of Catholicism in Lebanon is the Maronite Church. Maronites are united to the Bishop of Rome. The universal Church is like an umbrella under which are found different rites, or ritual forms of praying. The vast majority of the world’s Catholics pertain to the Latin Rite. But millions of other Catholics, fully members of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, worship using an Eastern, or Middle Eastern, liturgy. To the casual Western observer, this liturgy can seem exotic. The Maronite liturgy, rituals, church customs, and forms of prayer are, however, of ancient origin and enrich an already diverse Church with theological fruit picked from one of Christianity’s oldest orchards.
St. Charbel, baptized as Youssef (Arabic for Joseph), was one of five children born into a poor family from a remote village in the hills of Lebanon. They were devout Maronite Catholics whose relatives included priests and monks. Youssef shepherded his family’s small flock of animals when he was young. Very early on, he displayed a tender devotion to the Virgin Mary and a natural disposition toward prayer. In his early twenties, he left the family home to enter a monastery. In due time he made his religious profession and took the name Charbel (or Charbel) after a second-century martyr from Antioch, a city not far from Lebanon. He then studied, was ordained a priest in 1859, and returned to his monastery to live as a strictly observant monk practicing austere mortifications. In 1875 he was granted the privilege to live as a hermit in a chapel under his monastery’s supervision and care.
And there he stayed—alone, isolated, mortified, poor, reflective, and silent—for the next twenty-three years in Christian “solitary confinement,” willingly separating himself from the world so he could more easily attach himself to Christ. He died of a stroke at the age of seventy while saying the Divine Liturgy. He slumped to the floor with the Holy Eucharist still in his hands! Saint Charbel lived the model life of an Eastern hermit-monk in the ancient tradition of Saint Anthony of the Desert. Western monasticism is focused on community life and liturgy, common meals and spiritual reading, farming, schools, chant, and hospitality. The Eastern monastic tradition has less engagement with the world, and the monks have less contact with each other. Eastern monasteries are often perched on remote mountaintops. They are inaccessible, unadvertised, and imposing. Their monks are like eagles, proud and alone, dwelling in the heights. Western monasteries, on the contrary, are easily found, open their doors to every visitor, and often flower into schools and universities. Some Benedictine monasteries are even embedded within bustling campuses. The different modes of life, rules, and apostolates of Eastern and Western monasticism are stark.
Although little known during his life, miracles were attributed to the intercession of Saint Charbel soon after his death. His body was exhumed and for many decades was found to be incorrupt, although it eventually decomposed. Father Charbel was never photographed during his lifetime, and only a few monks ever saw him after he entered the monastery. But in May 1950 some Maronite monks from the U.S. visited Fr. Charbel’s grave on his birthday and took a photo. When the film was developed a mysterious hooded figure with a white beard appeared among them. When shown the photo, some elderly monks from the monastery had no doubt. It was Charbel. All images of the hermit Charbel are based on this photo.
Saint Charbel was beatified by Pope Paul VI in 1965 at a Mass at the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council. And in 1977 he became the first Eastern Christian to be canonized in modern times. Various Lebanese government officials attended the Canonization Mass, along with members of Saint Charbel’s family. At the time, a proud Lebanese-American bishop described the new saint as the “Perfume of Lebanon” and as proof that the Maronite Church “is a living branch of the Catholic Church and is intimately connected with the trunk, who is Christ…” Devotion to Saint Charbel is widespread in Eastern Christianity. In an unusual but beautiful proof of the universality of the Church, devotion to Saint Charbel was also brought by Lebanese immigrants to Mexico, where images of the pensive, hooded, mysterious looking saint are ubiquitous, and his intercession constantly sought.
Saint Charbel, may your serene example of prayer, fasting, and mortification be an inspiration for all who do battle in the spiritual desert, for all who struggle with the sins and temptations offered by the world, the flesh, and the devil. Help us to follow your unique path of holiness.
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