One of the great gifts I experienced when we returned from England to the USA was the great diversity in the American Catholic Church. I had never been a Catholic in the United States so I had to learn about the Catholic history. So I met the saints: St John Neumann, St Elizabeth Ann Seton, the Jesuit martyrs and more.
Another part of that diversity was the presence of the Eastern Rite churches. We have a Maronite congregation in Greenville and their priest, Fr Bart Leon has become a good friend. He introduced me to the Maronite liturgy and I learned about two of their modern saints-St Rafka and St Charbel Makhlouf whose feast day is today.
St Charbel was born Youssef Antoun Makhlouf in Lebanon in 1828. His father was a mule driver who died when Youssef was only three. Two of the boy’s uncles were hermits and Youssef wanted to follow their example. As a boy he tended the family’s flock of sheep and goats and would spend the day praying at a small grotto where he had installed an icon of the Blessed Virgin.
He became a monk and took the name Charbel after a second century martyr. He made his final profession as a monk in 1853 and in 1875 he was given permission to live as a hermit. He spent the next twenty three years living the solitary life. He died on Christmas Eve 1898 and was interred in the monastery chapel the next day.
That’s when the miracles started:
One story claims: “A few months after his death, a bright light was seen surrounding his tomb and the superiors opened it to find his body still intact. After that day, a blood-like liquid flowed from his body. Experts and doctors were unable to give medical explanations for the incorruptibility and flexibility.” In the years 1950 and 1952, his tomb was opened and his body supposedly still had the appearance of a living one. The official site mentions: In this century his grave has been opened four times, the last time being in 1955, and each time “it has been noticed that his bleeding body still has its flexibility as if it were alive”; no mentioning of later openings . The Catholic Tradition website says: Father Joseph Mahfouz, the postulator of the cause, certified that in 1965 the body of Saint Charbel was still preserved intact with no alteration. In 1976 he again witnessed the opening of the grave; this time the body was completely decomposed. Only the skeleton remained.
The incorruptibility of his body is one of the best attested in modern times along with that of St Bernadette. As usual with these cases, the incorruptibility is not the only thing that in inexplicable. In Charbel’s case the miracle was accompanied by supernatural lights and a miraculous blood-like fragrant oil that flowed from the corpse which had healing qualities. You can read the full story of Charbel’s incorruptible remains and the miracles that surrounded them here.
A large number of miracles have been attributed to Saint Charbel since his death in 1898–many of them very recent. Some say the number is as high as 26,000 accounts of healing. This website chronicles some of them with video witnesses. One of the most astounding is that of of Nohad El Shami, a 55-year-old woman who was healed from a partial paralysis.
She witnesses that on the night of January 22, 1993, she saw in her dream two Maronite monks standing next to her bed. One of them put his hands on her neck and operated on her, relieving her from her pain while the other held a pillow behind her back. When she woke she discovered two wounds in her neck, one on each side. She was completely healed and recovered her ability to walk. She believed that it was Saint Charbel who healed her but did not recognize the other monk. Next night, she again saw Saint Charbel in her dream. He said to her: “I did the surgery to let people see and return to faith. I ask you to visit the hermitage on the 22nd of every month, and attend Mass regularly for the rest of your life”.
What to make of such prodigies? The cynic would dismiss them as so much fantasy and fairy tales. Never mind the evidence. The open minded unbeliever would shrug and say, “There are more things in heaven and earth Horatio than our science can dream of.” I guess we don’t have any answers. The believer accepts the miracles as a great gift and realizes the anomalies like the fact that Charbel’s remains did eventually decompose are part of the greater mystery of it all.
Me? I’d rather be guilty of believing too much than too little. When I get to see the Lord face to face I’d rather confess to being gullible than cynical. With Therese I want to say, “I will have it all!”
Give me the miracles, the incorrupt bodies, the healings and I’ll even give the other weird stuff the benefit of the doubt. You saw Mother Teresa’s face in a bagel or the Blessed Virgin Mary in a rose garden? Well why not?
Reality is rubbery. Things are not what they seem. The physical world is not so concrete as we think it is, and stories like the miracles of St Charbel remind us that there are far greater powers at work in the world than our puny plans can ever imagine.
St Charbel Makhlouf.
Pray for us.
UPDATE: from a reader:
In the mid 1970’s, my wife and I lived in Jerusalem for two years as missionaries with the Southern Baptist Convention. One day we were at College des Freres high school when school was letting out. I was moderating the photo club so I was around the school a couple of times a week. Mary came over and we were going to walk around the Old City where the school is located. The headmaster Frere Noel saw my brother Ed, another friend and Mary and me and asked us to come into his office. It was probably January as he’d recently gone home to Lebanon for Christmas. He said that something special had happened shortly before he went home in a nearby village. A young crippled boy went to daily Mass with his mother. The father was no longer living. After every Mass, she would stay inside to pray and the boy would roll outside (a wheelchair or some device) and sit on the church steps with a cup for money. A man came up to him and asked him what tithe he and his mother had given that month. The boy told him that they had been unable to give anything. The man told him to stand up and go around the side of the church and get his tithe. The boy explained the obvious, that he couldn’t get up. The man insisted and the boy managed to stand and take a step and another until, much to his surprise he was walking. He went around the church, not knowing what he was looking for when he saw a hill of construction sand. The church was building something but I don’t remember that detail. He grabbed a handful of the sand and got back to the front of the church just as the pastor and his mother were coming out. (The man was gone.) Of course they were shocked and were all rejoicing as the boy quickly told what had happened. The boy then opened his hand and the priest asked him where he’d gotten a handful of incense. The boy took them around the church and the entire hill of builders sand was incense. The story spread and people came from all around to get a baggie of incense. At this point Frere Noel opened his top left drawer and took out a baggie, got a pinch of incense and put it in his ashtray and lit it for us to smell. He told us on another occasion (At least I think it was later but not sure) that the mother and the boy were going to a family friend’s house and when they passed through the foyer the boy got very excited when he saw a picture on the wall. It was a picture of Saint Sharbel and the boy told his mother that was the man who’d told him to walk and where to get their tithe. Over the years, I’ve told this story to thousands of students at Bishop England High School.