As the Apostles went forth to preach the Gospel to all nations, each land they united to the Church built up its own customs and exterior practices surrounding the fundamentals of the Faith. The language used, the style of art, and the variations in non-essential prayers of the Mass give us many ancient rites — or liturgies — in the Church. The unifying factor among all Catholics, no matter what their particular rite, is the oneness in the Faith, the Sacraments, and the leadership of a single, visible head on earth, the Pope.
As a result of the false ecumenism pervading the Church today, many Roman Rite Catholics could expound on how “close” our Holy Religion is to that of the Orthodox, the Anglicans, the Lutherans, etc. Yet relatively few even know what a Melkite or a Malankar Catholic is, much less are they able to explain the differences in their customs. Until only recently, there has been a palpable prejudice among American Catholics against anything Eastern, because it is an unfamiliar spiritual realm.
Though the largest of the Eastern rites is the Byzantine, the aim of this article is to introduce our readers to the one closest to our Latin Rite, that of the Maronites, along with a brief overview of its history, liturgy, saints, and customs.
History and Tradition
It is universally admitted that if a doctrine is defended by both the Western (Latin) Fathers of the Church — e.g., St. Hilary of Poitiers, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, St. Jerome, etc. — and the Greek Fathers — e.g., St. John Chrysostom, St. Athanasius, St. Gregory Nazianzen, St. Basil the Great, etc. — it is part of the Deposit of Faith. 1 This is the “Tradition” which Catholics put on an equal footing with Scripture. In the last 200 years, another source of tradition has come to be recognized more than ever before. Due primarily to the work of members of the Assemani family (who will be discussed later), the Syriac tradition, based mainly on the writings of St. Ephrem the Syrian, Doctor of the Church (d. 373), and of James of Sarug, Bishop of Batnan (+521), has been introduced to the Western world. In a language distinct from both Greek and Latin, this tradition presents a new study of the apostolicity of the Church and a confirmation of her universality.
An example is the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. “No matter in what century the Fathers of the Church lived, among his predecessors or contemporaries, St. Ephrem has written more abundantly regarding the Blessed Mary. It is evident that no other Church, neither Greek nor Latin, has expressed the Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception more clearly and explicitly than the Syrian Antiochian Church.” 2 Here, for instance, is one passage from St. Ephrem: “Thou, my Jesus, and Thy Mother, are the only Ones who are beautiful in all aspects, because in Thee, O Lord, there is no deformation, and in Thy Mother there is no stain.” 3
St. Ephrem is honored as “Harp of the Holy Ghost” for his beautiful doctrinal writings, primarily sermons and exhortations in verse. He is also called “Sun of the Syrians” and “Column of the Church.” Little is known about his family or childhood, spent in Nisibis along the river Tigris in Mesopotamia, other than that his father was a pagan priest. His mother having consecrated him to God in his infancy (c. 300), Ephrem converted to the Faith and was baptized when eighteen years old, after having been instructed by St. James of Nisibis. St. Basil the Great, another Doctor of the Church (+379), ordained him a deacon, 4 and as such he could preach. This he did vigorously, against the heretical sects arising at the time.
Young Maronite monks recite the Divine Office while an older monk attends to spiritual reading. Maronite Monks, like all Monks, spend their time in work and prayer.
Amidst persecution, many Christians constantly were having to move from place to place. St. Ephrem went with them, sojourning in the towns of Beit, Garbaya, Amid, and finally Edessa, where he spent the last ten years of his life as a hermit. During that time, as his manual labor, he made sails for ships. St. Ephrem was of a naturally choleric temperament, but with God’s grace he so mastered it that he became famous for his meekness, as well as for his humility and purity. Writing about Ephrem’s gift of tears, St. Gregory of Nyssa says, “Compunction of the heart [the gift of tears] is the sister of sincere humility and patience.” St. Ephrem wrote numerous works, including commentaries on all of Holy Scripture, and his love for Our Lady is manifest in all his writings. He founded the Christian Persian School [Schola Persarum ], and the Church celebrates his feast day on July 9th.
Less information is available about James of Sarug (sometimes spelled “Sarugh”). Born in 451, apparently of Catholic parents, he became a priest and eventually Bishop of Batnan. He is most famous for his sermons in verse, only about half of which survive today. While some have claimed he was a Monophysite (the heresy of the time that denied the two natures in Our Lord), his orthodoxy has been sufficiently defended. He is called the “flute of the Holy Spirit and the harp of the believing [C]hurch,” 5 and his works contribute to the Syrian tradition. James of Sarug is exemplary in his devotion to Our Lady, calling her, among other titles, “Mother of the Lord of Kings,” “Mother, who gave birth to Life among mortals,” and “Immaculate Mother.” In one of his sermons, he says, “Through Her, reconciliation was established between Heaven and earth and Peace settles among those who were in anger. . . . Through Her, the closed path to Heaven was leveled, the serpent fled and mankind converted to God. . . . The great Sun of Justice arose from Her and the splendid Light which dissipates darkness shone from her.” 6
The Maronites are members of this Syrian tradition. Theirs is the only rite named after a saint, the only Eastern rite that has always been faithful to Rome, 7 and the only one that does not have a schismatical counterpart among the so-called Orthodox churches. Its peoples are descendants of the Phoenicians, although the bloodlines are no longer pure, especially since the Arab conquest. Since Our Lord several times visited that part of the Syrian world now known as Lebanon, their conversion dates from the time of the Gospels. Hence, Lebanon today is the center of the Maronite Rite.
St. Maron (Mar Maroun ), from whom the rite derives its name, appears on the scene in the middle of the fourth century amidst a milieu of hermits and ascetics who were the precursors of later monastic communities. He was the disciple of the hermit Zebinas, “who was known for his assiduousness in prayer, spending day and night at it.” Under his influence, St. Maron likewise chose to follow the eremitic life. Finding a pagan temple occupying the mountain on which he sought his solitude, he destroyed its idols and consecrated it as a church to the True God.
His holiness and mortification made Maron an instrument through which God worked numerous miracles, such that his fame spread throughout the surrounding area. Regarding his mortifications, one deserves especial mention here: He lived entirely in the open air, unsheltered from the elements. And as for cures, “He cured not only infirmities of the body, but applied suitable treatment to soul as well, healing this man’s greed and that man’s anger, to this man supplying teaching in self-control and to that supplying lessons in justice, correcting this man’s intemperance and shaking up another man’s sloth.” 8
Many men and women became his disciples, and “by cultivating that spiritual field, he raised up in it many wonderful plants in the realm of virtues, cultivating and offering to God this marvelous garden.” 9 Among these disciples may be mentioned Sts. Limnaeus, Cyra, Marana, Domnina, as well as James of Cyrrhus and Abraham (St. Maron’s first disciple, first a hermit and later a bishop, called the “Apostle of Lebanon”). Evidence of St. Maron’s holy fame is a letter written to him, around the year 406, by no less than the great St. John Chrysostom, Doctor of the Church (d. 407). St. John is writing from his exile in Armenia to “Maron, priest and solitary, [being] joined to [him] in the bonds of charity and affection,” asking for his prayers, and being comforted by the news of his holy life.
The general opinion is that St. Maron dates from 350 to 410, although some place his death as late as 423. The village that obtained St. Maron’s holy remains built in his honor a church thought to have been in Syria, near Antioch, along the banks of the Orontes River. A monastery was established nearby not long afterwards. Called the Monastery of Beit Maroun (“House of Maron”), it grew quickly. In 445, it had over 400 monks and came to be the principal monastery among a whole group founded in that province. The monks of Beit Maroun were responsible for the education, spiritual and temporal, of the people of the surrounding areas. From this developed a close spiritual community following the example and teaching of St. Maron, and thus they came to be called Maronites .
After the Council of Chalcedon, which condemned the Monophysite heresy, defining that Our Lord had a real human nature united to His Divinity, several schisms arose in the East. Christians in Egypt (Copts), Ethiopia, and Antioch (Jacobites, named for their leader, Jacob Baradai) persisted in holding Monophysitism and broke from the See of Peter. The Maronites (as well as their Syrian brothers, the Melkites) staunchly defended the decrees of Chalcedon, and for this they were bitterly persecuted. “The monks describe their activity in a memorandum sent by the priest Alexander, who was head of the Monastery, to the bishops of the region. This memorandum was inserted in the acts of the Fifth Ecumenical Council of Constantinople [Constantinople II] in 553.” 10 A letter to Pope Hormisdas, in 517, from the monks of St. Maron describes their sufferings and the attacks they are undergoing: An army, sent by the schismatic Emperor Anastasius, closed monasteries and expelled the monks, treating them cruelly. Three hundred fifty were martyred when they tried to go to St. Simon Stylites for protection. Pope Hormisdas replied with a letter consoling the Maronites in their persecution and reminding them of their eternal reward.
Because of the Moslem conquest (632) and the alliances forged with the Moslems by the schismatics, many of the Maronites fled into the impenetrable mountains of Lebanon. There is an interesting architectural note to be made here. The Moslems had a habit of launching surprise persecutions on horseback. They would ride right into the houses, killing and pillaging. When the Maronites took refuge in the local church, the Mohammedans would just burn the whole structure down. For this reason, houses were built with very low doorways, so that no one could enter without bending over. Also, churches still to be seen throughout Lebanon were built long and low like a shoe box, with defensive low doorways, of course, and with four-foot-thick stone walls. In this way the Moslems could not ride in, much less burn them down! Though appearing odd externally for their stunted height, these churches are magnificent on the inside, with double and triple stone arches, paintings, candles, etc.
The first Maronite patriarch was St. John Maron, at the end of the seventh century. Formerly the Bishop of Batroun, he established himself in Kfarhai, Lebanon, when he became the Patriarch of Antioch. Several persecutions caused him to flee for his life before his death (c. 707). “Patriarch Douaihi 11 tells us that, due to persecution, the patriarchal see was changed fourteen times from its beginning in 685 until it was finally settled in Qannoubin (“the Valley of the Saints”) in 1440 by Patriarch John al-Jaji.” 12
Under Mohammedan rule, the Sultan was not just a king, but a king of kings. The conqueror of Constantinople, Mohammed II, initiated the policy of treating every religious denomination as a separate entity, making the spiritual head of each also the temporal ruler, subject only to the Sultan. Because of this, the patriarch became the temporal as well as spiritual ruler of his people. This arrangement gave rise to the misconception of the Maronites being a “nation.” Until the Crusades in the eleventh century, the Maronites “lived and thought on a provincial level. Their major concerns were to defend themselves against local heretics (a struggle based not only on the religious plane, but also on ethnic and cultural levels), and to attempt to establish a modus vivendi (way of life) with the Arab rulers.” 13
With the coming of the Crusaders to Lebanon in 1098 — and the Crusaders were delighted to find fellow Catholics willing to help — Maronite ties with the West were strengthened. The Maronites supplied a fighting force of 40,000 men, described by a Franciscan priest as being “astute and prone to fighting and battling. They are good archers using the Italian style of cross-bowing.” Associations with religious from Latin Rite orders, who served as chaplains (with plans for missionary work upon the conquest of the Holy Land), encouraged the Maronites to adopt certain Latin practices at this time, such as the use of bells, unleavened bread, and certain religious articles. It was also at this time that the Western ring, miter, and cross began being used by Maronite prelates. But, as Chorbishop Beggiani remarks, “It should also be noted that most of the Latinizations dealt with externals, and the essence of the Maronite tradition remained unaffected.”
It has been observed that some Oriental Rite Catholics think of themselves first as Easterners and then as Catholics. The reverse has always been true of the Maronites. They have the eagerness and simplicity of children when it comes to obeying the Holy Father, a necessary Catholic attitude as long as the obedience is true . This historic docility to the Apostolic See was strengthened with the establishment of a Maronite College at Rome in 1581. It was founded for the purpose of teaching theology to Maronite seminarians, but it was also a lesson on the East for Europe. By the eighteenth century, the College could boast of thirteen bishops and four patriarchs among its graduates. Probably the most famous graduates were members of the Assemani family in the 1700s. Joseph Simon is the most famous, but also to be mentioned are his uncle, Elias; his two nephews, Stephen Awad (who converted the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria and the Nestorian Patriarch of Babylon) and Joseph Louis; and his great-nephew, Simon. All were tremendous scholars and of incalculable assistance to Rome and the Maronites. Joseph Simon Assemani is said to have known thirty languages, and the latter part of his life was spent translating valuable manuscripts into Latin from Syriac, Ethiopic, Armenian, Persian, Hebrew, and Greek. Among other titles, he bore those of Papal Legate to the Synod of Mount Lebanon (in 1736), 14 Prefect of the Vatican Library, Titular Archbishop of Tyre, Canon of the Basilica of St. Peter, Consultor to the Holy Office, and member of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith.
While having to pass over many points of Maronite history in this brief account, mention must be made of the massacres of 1860.
As noted above, religious denominations were treated by the Sultans as separate “parties” (called “millats”), with their own leaders. Thus, there were the Maronite Millat, the Melkite Millat, the Sunite Millat (the strict Moslems), the Shi’ite Millat, the Druze 15 Millat, etc. As could be expected, there was continuous contention between the various millats, especially between those of the Christians and the Moslems. In the mid-1800’s the situation became extremely tense, primarily in the south, with its towns of Christian and Druze mixes. There were constant skirmishes; Lebanon again became a “theater of intrigues, revolts, and battles.” Then, in 1860, from April to July, the Druzes, with the help of other Moslem factions, led a series of massacres. In Lebanon, 12,000 Christians were killed, 360 villages destroyed, 500 churches torn down, 23 schools demolished, and 42 monasteries burned. That same year also saw an uprising in Damascus, Syria, in which 10,000 more Christians were put to death. 16 Clearly, these were religious persecutions and not mere civil actions, for the majority of the Christians were given a choice: apostasy or death. 17 A few examples, taken from the account of an eyewitness, will illustrate this point.
“The grand sheik Abdallah-al-Halebi sent two Moslems to Francis [Mussabki], a wealthy Christian. Two months before, [the latter] had loaned one hundred and sixty thousand francs to Abdallah. The two assassins demanded from the venerable old man either apostasy or death. `Let Abdallah keep my money,’ he replied, `but leave me my Faith. I cannot deny God. From Him I have learned not to fear those who can kill my body, but rather him who can kill my soul.’ Then he fell on his knees and began a prayer. He ended it in heaven, for a blow of the sword struck off his head.
“An old man of eighty was commanded to become a Mussulman. Like St. Polycarp, he answered, `I have served Jesus Christ for eighty years. At the end of my life I will not desert Him.’ These noble words were his last on earth. . . .
“A mother, hard pressed by the persecutors, tried to escape with her five children in the general tumult. They caught her and asked if she would apostatize with her children. `We are and we will remain Christians,’ was her answer. They compelled the unfortunate mother to sit down and used her knee as a block for the beheading of her children. Streaming with the blood of her little ones and fainting with pain, she sank unconscious to the ground. The brutes revived her with cold water and again asked her to apostatize. She shook her head and her last child was destroyed before her eyes. Then she herself received the saving blow . . . God alone knows how many during those days sealed their faith with their blood.” 18 “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” Let us pray that this seed grows, blossoms and brings forth abundant fruit so that her light, shining from Mount Lebanon, may shine to all men.
The Divine Liturgy (the Mass) was originally said in Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic which was spoken by Our Lord. At some point, probably around the time of the Arab conquest, the language for all the parts of the liturgy, with the exception of the Consecration, changed to classical Arabic. Since classical Arabic is a dead language (i.e., unchanging), its use in the liturgy may be likened to the use of Latin in the Roman Rite.
The Maronites’ faithfulness to Rome also had less desirable implications in the wake of Vatican II. Although it took them thirty years, they adopted modern liturgical “reforms,” and the Synod of Lebanon in 1992 implemented a modified liturgy. Partisans of change claim that they only dropped the “Latinizations,” but, except for vestments, this is not evident. The changes seem to be simply a shortened, re-worded form, with some minor additions from the Novus Ordo — the “New Mass,” or hacked up version of the Roman Rite implemented by Pope Paul VI. But it must be said that, even with this modernized version, the Liturgy is beautiful. It is always chanted (even “Low Mass” has chanting and incense), and there is a great deal of silence and majesty — at least that is how it was celebrated at the monastery which was visited during research for this article. One can only imagine how inspiring must have been the original liturgy! The new one, which still retains some of the hymns composed by St. Ephrem, maintains a version of the solemn “farewell” to the altar that was said at the end of the “Mysteries”: “Remain in peace, O altar of God, and I hope to return to you in peace. May the sacrifice which I have offered upon you forgive my sins, help me to avoid my faults, and prepare me to stand blameless before the throne of Christ. I know not whether I will be able to return to you again to offer sacrifice. Guard me, O Lord, and protect Thy Holy Church so that She may remain the Way of Salvation and the Light of the World.”
The people of the Middle East enjoy a culture remarkably different from that which we are used to here in the United States. Theirs is a much simpler, more “natural” life. It is beautiful to hear how the families would rise in the mornings and attend Mass together, then head back to house or vineyards for the day’s work. In the evening, large groups or even an entire village would attend Ramsho (Vespers). 19 With the monastery at the heart of the lay community, the Faith was the center and focus of their lives.
Some practices which Latin Rite Catholics would find interesting include: a profound bow (touching the floor with one’s fingertips and then making the sign of the cross) in place of our genuflection; the small hand-held crucifix used for giving a blessing; and a special chant, similar to Gregorian, but with an Eastern flavor.
In the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, Maronites use unleavened bread for the Consecration, but Holy Communion is given by intinction — communicants receive the Host dipped in the Precious Blood.
Just to give a very quick overview of the Maronite hierarchy, the present Maronite patriarch is His Beatitude Nazrallah Sfeir, Patriarch of Antioch and of all the East. Outside this region, Maronite bishops are under the Patriarchate of the West. They are subject to an Apostolic Delegate, therefore, and not to the Patriarch, except in matters liturgical. Thus, when the Patriarch ordered that altars be restored to their original position (facing East and away from the people), he could have imposed this mandate on Maronite bishops outside his patriarchate. However, he declined to exercise his authority, leaving it to the bishops themselves to decide. Consequently, the Maronite bishops in this country have refused requests to conform to the Patriarch’s mandate.
In Lebanon, there are sixteen eparchies (dioceses) with 25 bishops, some of whom reside with the Patriarch. Outside Lebanon, there is one eparchy for each of the following territories: Cyprus, Egypt, Syria, Canada, Australia, Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil. In the United States, there are two. Bishop Stephen Hector Doueihi (the eighteenth prelate in his family) heads the Eparchy of St. Maron of Brooklyn, which administers to half of the country. The remaining half comes under the Eparchy of Our Lady of Lebanon, centered in Los Angeles, under the auspices of Bishop John Chedid.
In the last century, the Maronites of Lebanon produced several saints and blesseds. Among these are “Three Lights from the East”: St. Sharbel, Blessed Nematallah Hardini, and Blessed Rafka Er-Ryiess. While the story of each is unique, common threads that tie them all together are: the manner in which each followed his or her vocation, a common faithfulness to Maronite tradition, devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and to Our Lady; and a shared yearning for the salvation of souls.
The Church holds up many saints for our edification and imitation — men and women who are proven to have practiced all virtues to a heroic degree. However, those virtues of theirs to be imitated by us must be in accordance with our own personal state in life, and with the calling God gives each of us. The saints who practiced such severe penances are not to be exactly imitated without similar inspiration from the Holy Ghost and under the direction of a prudent priest. However, even if we cannot imitate the particular ascetic practices of a saint, we can imitate his spirit: the desire to do God’s most holy and adorable Will, which desire entails detachment from the things of the world.
The following sketches are of monastics, two monks and one nun, who fulfilled God’s Will by giving every bit of their lives to Him, living apart from the world so they might live with Him forever. 20 Each of these practiced heroic virtues and set tremendous examples for all of us, not just those called to religious life.
The Maronites grew out of a monastic community and this monastic spirit has affected the whole of Lebanon. This has been, and, we believe, will only be continued so long as the people practice monastic virtues according to their state in life. We are all called to be saints. Like bees gathering nectar, let’s draw what spiritual nourishment we can from these three saints “seated upon a mountain.”
Blessed Rafka Er-Ryiess
Blessed Rafka is universally known as the “Blind Mystic of Lebanon.” An only child, born June 29, 1832, in Himlaya, a small, northerly village, her parents were Marad Sadar, a descendant of the Reyes family — from whence comes the “Er-Ryeiss” — and Rafka (Rebecca) Gemayel, both pious Maronite Catholics. They had their daughter baptized eight days after her birth, giving her the name Petronilla after St. Peter, Prince of the Apostles, on whose feast day she was born.
We learn from her biographers that this beata , because of her mother’s good nurturing, learned many of her prayers by the age of three. This was providential for little Petronilla, since her mother died when she was seven. Her father, a hardworking, patient man, felt the loss of his wife greatly. The year was 1839, and war had broken out in the East, with Lebanon as the battleground. The Turkish army, supposedly fighting the Egyptians, burned Lebanese villages leaving their inhabitants homeless. No jobs were to be had, and food shortages were everywhere. However, Divine Providence watched over the Reyes family, and when Petronilla was ten years old, the war subsided.
At this time, Petronilla went to work for a good, honest, well-to-do gentleman, Assad-El-Badway, in Damascus, Syria. Assad, his wife Helen, and their children were originally from the same area as the Reyeses. Though officially a servant (whose wages were of considerable help to her father), Petronilla was treated as one of the family. She spent four years in this Catholic household as a model of faithfulness, piety, and purity.
At age fourteen, she returned to her father’s house in Himlaya to find he had remarried, and two more little ones had been sent by God. Petronilla helped her stepmother cheerfully with all the household chores. The woman her father had married was a widow, named Kafa, who had a brother just older than the saint. Being beautiful both physically and in soul, as well as because of her training in the city, Petronilla’s hand was much sought after by the young men, and her father wanted her to marry. Her stepmother thought she would make the perfect wife for her brother. This caused much trouble for Petronilla, who preferred to spend her free time in church before the Blessed Sacrament. She went often to visit her spiritual director, Father Joseph Gimayel, at the Church of Our Lady of Deliverance in Bikfaya. Father Gimayel, who called her the “Lily of Himlaya,” recognized in Petronilla’s angelic purity, her devotion for Our Lady, her detachment from the world, and, in her other virtues, the signs of a religious vocation. It was under his guidance that her devotion to Our Lady was nourished; and under the title of Our Lady of Deliverance, Petronilla found a Mother to replace the one she had lost.
Father Gemayel had recently founded the Congregation of the Mariamait named after Our Lady. It was based on the women’s teaching orders of the West and, under the direction and administration of the Jesuits, was the only active (not cloistered) order of sisters in Lebanon. The primary work of these sisters was the education of Lebanese youth, especially girls. Petronilla felt called to the contemplative life and wished to join a convent run by members of her mother’s family. However, her spiritual director felt her training was more conducive to serving with the Mariamaits, and her motives there would be more pure for not having family ties. How, Petronilla pondered, was she to know what God wanted her to do?
Several years passed, and the saint grew more confident of her religious vocation. Suddenly, around her eighteenth year, matters came to a head. She overheard a heated argument between her stepmother and an aunt, each of whom had her own marital designs for the young maiden, with no consideration for either Petronilla’s feelings or God’s Will. Here is the saint’s account, given some thirty years later.
“[T]he wife of my father wanted me to marry her brother, and my aunt, my mother’s sister, wanted me to marry her son. They argued and quarreled about me. They hated each other. One day I was carrying water [from the well] and returning to the house when I heard [them] fighting and exchanging insults on my account, each one wanting me to marry her way. I was distressed and sad. I sat down and asked God to save me from this predicament. And at once, I thought of joining the Jesuit nuns 21 in Bikfaya.
“On the way I met three girls and told them, `I am on my way to the convent of Our Lady of Deliverance to become a nun. Would you join me?’ Two of them accepted, but the third said, `Let me see first if you persevere, then I’ll follow you.’ Three of us went to the convent. When I entered the church, I felt an interior joy and happiness.
“As I was looking at the image of Our Lady, I heard a voice coming from her, resounding in my conscience, saying, `You will be a nun.’ After that I requested to see the Mother Superior to let her know of my desire to enter the Congregation. She came, and I asked her to accept me into the convent and the other two girls as well. The Superior said to me, `Welcome!’ She took me by the hand without asking any more questions . . . I was amazed at the way the Superior accepted me without any delay. I attributed this to the icon of Our Lady of Deliverance which I had seen in the church, and whose voice I heard.
“When my father knew that I had left the house and had entered the convent, he came to see me with his wife. He requested to take me back home . . . I begged the Mistress of Novices to excuse me from meeting them, and [once the situation was explained] she accepted my request. They went away. Since then, I haven’t seen them for all of my religious life!”
Incidentally, the two girls Petronilla had brought with her did enter later, but of the third girl no mention is made. In his book on Bl. Rafka, Bishop Zayek, the recently retired bishop of St. Maron’s, points out that a religious vocation, once refused, may never be offered again. Thanks be to God that Petronilla followed hers!
It is interesting to note similarities between the call of Petronilla and her future patroness: Rebecca of the Old Testament (Genesis 24:15-21). Both received their vocations as young virgins, while carrying water from a well. Rebecca married Isaac, who is a figure of Our Lord, Whose bride Petronilla became. Isaac became blind in his old age, but since Our Lord is the Light of the world and cannot Himself be blinded, Petronilla herself was later given this cross to bear.
Both Blessed Rafka, as we now know her, and her fellow countryman, St. Sharbel, entered religious life around the same time. After her postulancy, Sister Petronilla 22 was transferred to the convent of Gahzir, where she made her profession. She was assigned to cook in the monastery of the Jesuit Fathers, which at the time still included a seminary, so there was much work to be done. In her own words:
“After I made my religious vows at the convent of Gahzir, I was assigned to serve in the kitchen. I used to cook for the students and it was tiresome . . . I served seven years [there] . . . After work, I would learn [classical] Arabic, penmanship, and arithmetic.”
In 1860, Sister Petronilla was transferred to Deir-El-Amar to teach catechism and to serve the Jesuit Fathers of that town. This, recall, is the same year of the notorious slaughter of the Christians by the Moslems mentioned earlier. Sister Petronilla wrote:
“While I was traveling to town, I saw some soldiers chasing a little boy to catch and kill him. When he saw me, he ran to me for protection. I covered him with my habit and saved him from their brutality . . . [Following the massacre] I was sent to Jbeil; I taught the girls there for one year. After that, the late Antone Eissa [a wealthy gentleman] requested [through her superiors] that I go [with another sister] to his town to instruct the girls of Maad. Permission was granted, and I spent seven years there. Sixty girls were enrolled in my school.”
Sister Petronilla was well known and well liked by all who knew her. We quote two of her confreres:
Sister Helen Sfeir remembered, “She was pious, good, and praised by all for the excellent performance of her religious duties and as a teacher.”
Sister Afrazia Moussa Mohanna “knew her as a humble, pious nun, adhering to the convent rules. I noticed nothing in her that would cause the nuns to dislike her. On the contrary, they all loved and respected her.”
And one of her students, Nesreen Faris Akel, testified, “She was pious, very honorable and a good example for everyone . . . She taught us catechism and made us attend all prayers, all ceremonies, and all benedictions. She used to kneel straight before our eyes and urged us to be modest in church. She never condoned any little action or movement in church that would be considered disrespectful . . . She would encourage us to go to confession . . . She taught us how to prepare ourselves properly to receive the Eucharist with fervor.
“She visited only the sick, especially if they were the parents of her students. Other than this, she never socialized with people. Her time was spent teaching us, educating us, and instructing us in catechism. We learned from her angelic example more than we learned from her words . . . I never heard her laugh loudly. She was always calm, gentle and reserved, with a kindly smile . . . [With her students] she always used the ways of gentleness and conviction. That was exactly what made us love her so much, to the degree that we did not want to leave her. We used to wait for the morning to come in order to see her again . . . She brought me up with tenderness, meekness and love, as she did many others. She taught the love of God, the love of Church, and other pious attitudes . . . Nobody opposed her; they all respected her as a nun adorned with the mark of monastic perfection, silence, purity, reverence, calm, gentleness, affection and zeal . . . When she left Maad to join the Lebanese Order, people cried. Her departure was a great loss to them.”
When the Congregation of the Mariamaits was merged under the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts, in 1871, Sister Petronilla was suddenly confronted with a decision to make: Join the unified Congregation, or join a contemplative order, as had been her original inclination.
“I was puzzled, uneasy and perplexed. I entered the Church of St. George at Maad, where I prayed, crying, asking God for guidance. I cried so much that I felt drowsy. I leaned my head upon my hands and slept. All of a sudden, I felt an unseen hand on my shoulder, and heard a voice telling me, `You will be a nun!’ I woke up, and looked around, in and out of the church, and found nobody . . .
“The evening of that same day, I saw three men in a dream, a monk with a white beard and a staff in his hand, a second man dressed like a soldier, and the third an elderly man. The monk approached me and tapped me with his staff, and said, `Join the Baladite Order.’ He took a few steps and came back and struck me with his staff for the second time, and said, `Join the Baladite Order.’ I woke up delighted [and] happy.”
The monk was St. Anthony of Kozahay (of the desert), whose rule the Baladites followed; the soldier was St. George, patron of the church she was in; and the old man was St. Simon, for whom the Baladite monastery in the area was named. With this heavenly guidance, Sister Petronilla had her answer. She arrived at the Monastery of St. Simon when she was 39 years old; and even after twenty years of religious life, she was not too proud to start over in the novitiate. She took the name of “her deceased mother, Rebecca [Rafka in Arabic] to show that as her mother died in the world, she too, Petronilla, would die to the world . . .” 23 On August 25, 1873, Sister Rafka took her solemn vows.
As already seen, Sister Petronilla had been an exemplary religious in the Congregation of the Mariamaits. Now, as Sister Rafka, she still does not disappoint us. Remaining unaffected by her past reputation, she proves herself so humble and gentle as to make those virtues appear to have come naturally. We have the testimony of Sister Dominica (of Shabteen), who lived with Sister Rafka in the Monastery of St. Simon, on how the latter lived her new life:
“During my stay with her, she was a strict, loyal nun . . . simple-hearted, happy in every situation; she had no temper . . . was never angry or disturbed. Nor did anyone become angry with her. We all agree she became a saint because of her good-heartedness . . .
“Her observance of her religious vows was strict to the degree of heroism. During the eighteen years we spent with her, none of us observed anything she did or said that violated her vows. She remained steadfast until the day she died. Her famous saying was, `The hand of the Lord is with the superiors.’ Never did she criticize a superior; she never asked to be exempted from anything; she did not request to be assigned to a special office. At the sound of the bell, she would stop what she was doing to answer the call of obedience. If a superior called when she would be eating, she would stop and respond immediately. Neither did she presume to do anything unless she was ordered to do so . . .
“No one would hear her voice when the rules called for silence. When allowed to speak, she would speak only of spiritual and necessary things. Her voice was always low; we could hardly hear it. Yet she had a soft and delightful voice . . .
“Her words, like her clothing, were indicative of her modesty. She had a special devotion to the Blessed Mother and to St. Joseph, a sign of her love for the angelic virtues . . . She would recite the entire rosary and visit the Blessed Sacrament three times over and above the visits prescribed. She did this in honor of the purity of Mary . . .”
True followers of Christ understand the value of suffering. Our Lord sends trials as a means of purifying those He loves. The greater His love, the greater are the trials He sends. Sister Rafka was praying in the chapel on the Sunday of the Holy Rosary, 1885, when she began thinking on how, for all her 53 years, she had been spared of any infirmities:
“Realizing I was in good health and had never been sick all my life, I asked the Lord, saying, `My Lord, why are you far from me? Why are You neglecting me?’ . . . That night, when I went to bed, I felt an extremely severe pain in my head. The pain extended to my eyes, continuing for a long time, until I ended up . . . blind and crippled. And because I, myself, had voluntarily asked God to send afflictions to me, I have no right to complain or grumble.”
The saint never did complain, or look for sympathy, or make herself singular in any way. And so, very few had any idea how unspeakable was her pain, which she bore cheerfully for thirty years.
Mother Ursula, who would later become Blessed Rafka’s superior, had entered the convent as a novice shortly after the beata’s severe headaches began. She wrote of Sister Rafka’s condition: “The right eye was reddened, swollen and protruding from her face. The other eye was swollen . . . [She] was suffering . . . especially from the right eye, and was in unbearable pain. She could not endure light at all because that would increase the pain in her eyes. For this reason, she used to stay in a room with the door and window closed, never grumbling nor murmuring. She was patient, always giving thanks to God, invoking His Holy Name, repeating these words when the pain became more severe: `For the glory of God. In union with the suffering of Christ. In union with the crown of thorns on Your Head, my Lord.’ When her suffering would abate a little, she would do some work in the convent . . .”
Several medical remedies were tried, to no avail. She would not ask for treatment herself, but when ordered to go, she would submit humbly. At one point, a priest named Father Stephen suggested that she let a visiting American doctor check her eyes. The doctor insisted that an operation was necessary. This is how Sister Rafka describes it:
“I agreed to have it done because that was what Father Stephen wanted. When the doctor pulled out my eye, I saw it with my other eye; I saw it quiver and shake. I felt a spark fly out of it and a pain I cannot describe. I felt as if the earth were spinning around me!”
In her simplicity and humility, the saint does not tell the whole story. Father Stephen’s account is more detailed, but rather gruesomely so. Such that for the sake of our readers’ sensitivities, we quote from it only selectively here:
“Deceived by what the doctor said, and his assurance to me that she would be cured if the operation was performed . . . I agreed [to permit it]. But I asked him to anesthetize her . . . before surgery, so she would not feel pain.” Sister Rafka, however refused anesthesia. Consequently, she was fully conscious and sitting upright as her eye was removed and severed from its muscles and optical nerve. The procedure was performed so crudely, in fact, that Father Stephen narrated how the plucked orb actually “fell on the floor in front of her and quivered a little. She said: `In union with the suffering of Christ. Thank you. May God reward you.’ And immediately the blood flowed abundantly from the cavity of the eye. God alone knows the severity of the pain she felt then. Nonetheless, she did not moan, nor did she tremble. She said nothing but these tender words. She remained quiet, calm and peaceful, as though nothing had happened.”
Father Stephen, upon seeing this, became furious with the doctor, who left hurriedly. He continues: “As for Sister Rafka, she stayed at the monastery that night, restless, uneasy, sleepless, her hand on the cavity of her eye, trying to stop the flow of blood. When she saw me, she asked, `Did you pay the doctor?’ And saying this, she took her purse from her pocket and said to me. `Take, and give him his fee.’ The money was given to her by the Superior when [she] went to be treated. I became angry and said to her, `Do you want to pay him because he pulled out your eye?”
She was taken to Beirut, where doctors there stopped the bleeding. They attempted to alleviate the pain as well, only to find it immediately transferred to the other eye. Sister Rafka’s response was: “Thank God, for pain purifies the soul like fire purifies gold. I thank Him, because He gave me what is best for the salvation of my soul.” The sight in her left eye grew continually weaker, until she became totally blind.
In 1897, permission was given some of the sisters to start a new monastery in Maad, on the seacoast at a much better elevation than the monastery of St. Simon, which had snow six months of the year. Mother Ursula and six other nuns, including Sister Rafka, arrived at St. Joseph’s on November 3rd . Sister Rafka was chosen because “we loved her so much, as a mother, and because we wished success and prosperity for our convent through her prayers and good example, and to help the nuns attain perfection.” Her blindness did not prevent her from taking part in daily activities. Sister Rafka memorized how to bake bread, and also joined the sisters for the Divine Office. Her whole life was devoted to prayer, work, and suffering.
Her patience and cooperation with grace in carrying the cross of blindness was very pleasing to God. She merited more suffering, sicknesses, and afflictions, so that she was in constant torment. According to Mother Ursula, Sister Rafka became so weak and thin that only skin and bones remained. As a result of constant nosebleeds, she lost up to six pounds of blood a week. After the move to St. Joseph’s, her toes and feet were invaded by pain so severe that she couldn’t stand. The pain spread to her knees, then to all her joints. She was eventually confined to bed, and for no apparent reason, all her joints became completely dislocated except for her hands. Sister Rafka continually gave thanks to God for leaving her hands usable up to the wrist, so she could at least knit socks for the sisters.
Sister Marina, who shared her room in order to care for her, says, “For three years prior to her death, she remained that way. We were all concerned at how she could live in this state . . . In spite of her condition that made us tremble, she did not complain nor did she moan and groan. A heavenly smile was always on her face. She smiled saying her prayers, singing hymns and psalms, conversing on spiritual matters, as if she were in good health and not feeling any pain. Another amazing fact was that her odor was sweet and not that of the chronically ill. Believe me, had I not slept in the same room with her for 27 years, I wouldn’t believe all this if someone else told it to me . . . Never did she complain, never was she impatient.”
The body of St. Sharbel, whom we shall soon meet, was miraculously incorrupt for 67 years, appearing to possess life even in death. But Blessed Rafka’s body appeared dead even while she lived. She remained in bed in one position for over nine years. Only enough of a frail remnant of her body remained to house her soul until God called her to Himself. Mother Ursula, seeing this, and knowing of her admirable life, said, “If this nun is not a saint, and does not perform miracles after she dies, I don’t know what holiness is.”
Three days before she breathed her last, it became difficult for Sister Rafka to speak. When asked if she was afraid of death, with a weak smile she replied, “No, I am not afraid to die. I have been waiting for a long time for death. May God help me to love death.”
When death appeared so imminent that she was not expected to survive the night, her confessor administered the last rites. However, she had already received Holy Communion that morning, and since she hadn’t been fasting, she refused to ask for special permission to receive again, saying that she could receive the following day. Which she did, to the surprise of all, thus closing her life as she had lived it: simply and without exception. Sister Rafka requested the sisters to read to her from St. Alphonsus Maria De Ligouri’s The Glories of Mary and Preparation for Death . After receiving absolution and Holy Viaticum (Holy Eucharist, as it is referred to when it is given to the dying), her last words were: “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I give you my heart and my soul. Receive my spirit.” On March 23rd, 1914, at the age of 81, the soul of Sister Rafka was called to eternal bliss. All who viewed her in death remarked that she appeared simply to be sleeping peacefully. Mother Ursula said, “Our love for her is indescribable, like our sorrow for having lost her. Her virtues and gentleness made us love her. By her death we lost an earthly angel. We cried like children when they lose a mother. True, she is dead, but she still lives in our convent by her virtues.”
Sister Rafka lost no time in showing her sisters that she was still theirs, even in heaven. Four days after her funeral, loud knocking on the door in the middle of the night awakened Mother Ursula, who had been suffering from a growth on her throat that prevented her from swallowing even milk. A voice instructed Mother Ursula to go to the tomb of Sister Rafka, get some of the soil, and apply it to her throat. Thinking that it was one of the sisters, the Superior asked to be left alone until morning, and fell back asleep. Again knocking awakened her, and again a voice told her to get the dirt and apply it to her throat. She replied, “Why do you wake me so early? I’ll get some in the morning.”
Come morning, she questioned the sisters about the knocking. All amazed, they insisted that none of them was responsible. Hence, though still incredulous, Mother Ursula got some of the dirt from the grave, thinned it with water and applied it to the affected area. Later, the sister in charge of the sick gave her a glass of milk, which the Superior drank without any difficulty. When asked how her throat felt, Mother Ursula reached to touch the growth, and to her astonishment, found it was entirely gone.
Soon after, a girl in the village dying of typhoid fever was cured after drinking some water containing dirt from Blessed Rafka’s tomb. Likewise, a woman was cured of shoulder trouble by rubbing the miraculous soil on the area. And so it continued: All manner of alleviated suffering and cured diseases are found in the records of her miracles. In eleven years, her fame had spread throughout all of Lebanon. Between her death in 1914 and 1952, 2,781 miracles were recorded. Pope John Paul II beatified Blessed Rafka Er-Ryeiss in 1979.
Blessed Nematallah Hardini
On May 10th , 1998, Pope John Paul II beatified this holy monk. He was born in 1808, in Hardin, Lebanon, and baptized Joseph. The son of George and Mariam Kassab, he was educated in the house of a relative, a venerable priest, Father Joseph Jacob. Even as a boy, he was quiet and retiring, attending Mass and learning to love the monastic life and the priesthood. As he grew older, he earned his living as a farmer working with his father.
When twenty years old, he left everything to join the monks at the Monastery of St. Anthony at Kozhya, where he took the name Nematallah. He loved to visit the Blessed Sacrament, sometimes spending nights in the church, until his superiors discovered this and ordered him to bed. He received the habit in 1830, after two years of study. Sent to the monastery of St. Cyprian at Kfeefan to prepare for the priesthood, Brother Nematallah attacked his studies with such enthusiasm that he wore himself out. To recover from his exhaustion, he was sent to the Monastery of Mar Musa al-Habashi (St. Moses the Ethiopian) and while there, learned the art of tailoring. (Later in his life, he would also work at bookbinding.) The Blessed recovered quickly, and so was able to finish his studies, and to be ordained a priest at age 25.
For the next 25 years of his life, his daily routine was this: In the morning, he would prepare for Mass, by first going to confession, and then by spiritual reading, meditation, and visits to the Blessed Sacrament. (Father Nematallah always said his Mass last, after the other monks were finished.) He recited the Liturgy with such reverence and devotion that it lasted an hour. He then would make his thanksgiving and recite all fifteen decades of the Rosary before going to a cold lunch (the others had eaten two hours earlier). His afternoons were spent in manual labor and other activities prescribed by the Rule.
Though afflicted with poor health, Father Hardini, because of the respect and affection he had earned, was twice appointed Master of Novices and served several terms as an assistant to the Abbot General. In these offices he was a wonderful example of meekness. For the last six years of his life, he was in charge of the students, among whom was a young religious named Brother Sharbel, who was to pass him in the race to canonization.
As one author points out, because the life of a monk is not bound to be eventful, Father Hardini’s biographer, in depicting the saint’s life, presented only “a picture that one would expect to be more or less true of any ordinarily good and observant religious.” 24 In that manner, the virtues ascribed to him are his humility, his meticulous observance of his vows and the Rule, his patience — continually submitting to the Will of God — his continual prayer, and his devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and Our Lady.
Concerning this last, Nematallah’s “fiery” 25 love for the Queen of Heaven manifested itself in many ways. We have already mentioned his devotion to the Rosary. He also promoted the Brown Scapular and the confraternities of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Sacred Heart of Mary. With Our Lady’s picture in his room, he would always recite the Hail Mary upon entering or leaving. During her special month of May, he always fasted in her honor. The Immaculate Conception was Father Hardini’s great devotion. His favorite prayer (which he repeated even when delirious from the fever at the end of his life) was “Blessed be the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary,” and his favorite book was St. Alphonsus’ The Glories of Mary .
Nematallah El-Hardini died at the age of fifty, from pleurisy contracted after exposure to the winter cold. His death occurred at midnight on December 14, 1858, while he was invoking the holy name of Mary, after having received the Last Sacraments. He was buried in a plain, rough coffin; but a year later, when superiors ordered that his remains be transferred to a special coffin so they would not be confused with those of other monks, his body was found to be incorrupt.
Further testimony to his holiness is given by miracles worked through his intercession. From the Patriarch’s decree, in 1927, to record all Father Hardini’s miracles, until 1952, 226 miracles were recorded. But Father Awad, who was cured as a boy through the saint’s intercession, estimates this is only ten percent of the miracles and favors actually received. The blind, paralytics, epileptics, all have been cured. Children have been given to the barren; even a dead baby was raised to life. The resting-place of Blessed Nematallah has been a place of pilgrimage for over a hundred years.
There is far more information given about St. Sharbel after his death, than there is about his life. Born in the village of Bka’Kafra, in northern Lebanon, on May 8, 1828, he was the youngest of five children given to Antoon and Brigita Makhlouf. They had him baptized Joseph, so, providentially, he bore the same baptismal name as did his teacher, Blessed Nematallah Hardini. His father died when he was only three, and uncles helped his mother to raise the family.
Joseph’s holiness showed itself while he was still a boy. People called him either “the dreamer” in derision, or “the saint” in admiration. He built a shrine to Our Lady in a little cave where he could often be found. Joseph, you see, was already preparing to live the life of a hermit. His mother strenuously opposed her youngest son’s vocation for, despite her piety, she thought she knew better what was best for her son. The future monk bided his time, his love of God and Our Lady continually growing, while he did his part caring for the animals and working in the family fields and vineyards. Finally, at the age of 23, he slipped away early one morning without telling anyone. Walking to the Baladite monastery of Our Lady of Mayfouk, he requested and received admission, and soon after was transferred to the monastery of St. Maron at Annaya, which enjoyed greater seclusion.
When his mother and uncles finally tracked him down, they came to bring him home, armed with all the persuasive weapons of sentimental attachment and material dependency. To their surprise, even after threats and tears, Joseph stood firm in his resolve to follow God’s call. His mother, realizing his earnestness, finally gave in. She did not know it then, but that would be the last time she would see her son in this life.
Joseph took the name Sharbel (sometimes spelled “Charbel,” but always pronounced Shárble ) after an early martyr of Antioch. He professed his vows on November 1, 1853, and was sent to St. Cyprian’s monastery, at Kfeefan, for six years of preparation for the priesthood. It was at St. Cyprian’s that Brother Sharbel came under the guidance of Blessed Father Nematallah El-Hardini. He became “Father” Sharbel on July 23, 1859, a year after the death of his holy teacher. The saint’s mother came all the way from Bka’Kafra to see her son after his ordination, but he followed the strict rules of the desert fathers and refused to see her. His superior had given him an optional exemption, but Father Sharbel spoke to his mother, out of sight, telling her: “God willing, we’ll meet in Heaven where we can see each other for all eternity.” Now a priest, he returned to Annaya and the monastery of St. Maron.
The Maronite monks of the Baladite Order are responsible for a number of parishes. They also perform manual labor to feed themselves and support the monastery; say the Divine Office; offer the Divine Liturgy (if they are priests, or attending Mass if they are not); and live a penitential life for the salvation of souls. Provision is also made for a few specially called by God to live the more penitential life of a hermit, usually in the company of one or two other hermits. All the monks practice austerity, but the hermits eat less, and, only being allowed five hours of sleep, spend more time in prayer, and observe a stricter silence. It was to this eremitical life that Father Sharbel felt called, but it would be many years before his superiors permitted him to practice it. In the meantime, he dedicated himself simply to live the rules to perfection.
His whole life was one of interior recollection and perpetual silence. His voice was heard only at Mass, at common prayers, when spoken to, or when asking permission for necessities. One week, Father Sharbel was assigned to help workers who were building a bakery for the monastery. The only utterance he made that whole week was to ask the foreman, “What do you need?”
So great was his modesty that the saint was known to raise his continually downcast eyes only on visits to the Blessed Sacrament. He strictly avoided the company of women, refusing even to hear their confessions unless ordered by superiors to do so. He allowed them to hear Mass, since they had nowhere else to go, but he had them remain out of view in the antechamber. One can only imagine his difficulty when it was time to give them Holy Communion, for he would never permit himself to look a woman in the face! Whenever Father Sharbel was sent on some spiritual mission, he would request that any women where he took shelter be asked to reside elsewhere for the duration of his visit.
Just as his actions mirrored his purity and modesty, he was also an example of obedience. Father Sharbel never did anything without permission, and when he was finally allowed to go to the hermitage, he always put himself under obedience to any other hermit with whom he lived.
In this holy monk, the vow of poverty was also scrupulously preserved. He refused to accept alms directly, always sending donors to the superior instead. Once, when a particularly insistent man forced Father Sharbel to accept a stipend, the saint, without even looking at the offering, immediately sought out his superior and divested himself of the money. Poverty was reflected as well by his well worn, much mended, and badly tattered habit and cloak.
But penitential purposes were also suited by his attire, including as it did a hairshirt and an iron belt worn against the flesh. The saint ate once a day, and only bread and vegetables. However, if anyone praised him for such holy practices, he would become impatient and annoyed. For in his view, he was merely living his vocation as he felt he was supposed to, after Our Lord’s example. Indeed, his favorite book was the Imitation of Christ , and the fact that he is now a canonized saint shows how well he lived it.
Such a life of genuine holiness did not escape notice — certainly not that of the devil, who physically attacked the holy monk. To survive the attacks, Father Sharbel resorted to increased prayer and penance.
God, Who certainly is not outdone by the devil in responding to such holiness, favored Sharbel with the grace of working miracles. During his lifetime, he cured at least six people of illnesses, some of whom had been pronounced incurable. Two madmen regained their reason when Father Sharbel read Holy Scripture over them. Through his prayers an eight-year-old boy regained speech. Goats, essential to the monastery for their milk and hair, were saved from an epidemic when Father Sharbel, under an order by his superior, sprinkled them with holy water. In a like manner, he saved the monastery fields from locusts. Once, when pranksters had filled Sharbel’s little lamp with water instead of oil, the lamp burned normally after the unknowing saint ignited it.
The 47 years of St. Sharbel’s monastic life are evenly divided between the monastery proper and the hermitage. He had been in the Monastery of St. Maron 23-1/2 years when, in 1875, he was given permission to live as a hermit. He then went to live in the Hermitage of Sts. Peter and Paul at some distance from the monastery, though still connected with it, and here he spent the remaining 23-1/2 years of his life.
On December 16, 1898, while saying Mass, he was struck with paralysis in the middle of a prayer just after the Consecration. His companion hermit, Father Makarius, and other monks who were present helped him to his cell, which he was never to leave again until death, and he was given the last rites. Father Sharbel kept repeating the Holy Names, “Jesus, Mary, Joseph,” and the prayer he had been saying at Mass before his collapse: “O Father of Truth, look upon Thy Son, a Sacrifice offering satisfaction to Thee. Accept it, because He died for me and by Him I shall be made clean. Behold the Offering! Accept It . . .” His death struggle lasted eight days, and then on Christmas Eve, his saintly soul quietly passed to God.
For 23 years, it had been Father Sharbel’s custom to spend the night in the chapel, in prayer and adoration. This holiest of nights, too, he spent again in chapel; only this time he was not kneeling, but reposed in death. All the monks keeping vigil with him wondered how they were going to bury him on the morrow, for it was snowing, and already there were drifts higher than eight feet. But more than this, they pondered the deceased monk’s life. As they knelt shivering, they marveled among themselves, “How could he have stood the cold, day after day, when we cannot stand it for one night?” All agreed that only St. Sharbel’s love of God could have sustained him, for his health had seemed only to strengthen under all his penances.
The next day, Christmas, the monks of the hermitage were met by a group of men who had braved the storm for the privilege of carrying the relics of a saint to the monastery. Nailing three boards together for a rough, one-sided coffin, and covering it with a mat of hair, they laid Father Sharbel’s body on it, lifted it to their shoulders, and bravely set out. They had not gone far, when the wind and snow stopped, the sky cleared, and the sun shone. All present glorified God for manifesting the holiness of His hermit.
Despite all hardships, men from all of the surrounding towns poured into the monastery to bid farewell to their saint; 26 and even before St. Sharbel was interred, miracles and cures began occurring. 27
The superior being away at the time, it was decided, over some protest, that the saint be buried as are all other monks, with a plain wooden coffin, in a tomb-like grave — one that was, in fact, dripping wet — commonly used at the monastery. As the tomb was sealed, none expected to see the face of Father Sharbel again until eternity; but such was not God’s plan. A bright light shone over the tomb every night, from the time of the burial until the saint’s body was disinterred by order of the patriarch, in April of 1899, and discovered to be completely incorrupt. What a sign for unbelievers! An unembalmed body, partially immersed in water and mud for three months, is removed without either the vestments or the body showing any sign of corruption! The body is pliable and the muscles soft, as if death had come to it only moments ago. On the other hand, the wooden handle of a shovel, left in the tomb when St. Sharbel was buried, had completely disintegrated.
The monks washed the holy remains, let them dry in the sun, clothed them in fresh vestments, then placed them in a lidless, wooden coffin in one of the walls of the church, completely inaccessible to visitors. After this, they moved the coffin several different times: first, to allow visitors to see it; second, so that it was buried in a more proper manner; third, to eliminate the distraction caused by fluid flowing from it. For, not only was the body intact, but it miraculously also exuded a blood-like perspiration. Some monks, wanting to dry the body out, for months on end rubbed it with alcohol and exposed it to warm air. One of the examining doctors placed it in caustic lime, assured to make a body decompose. And other extreme methods were tried — all without permission. Nothing worked. The body remained incorrupt, soft and flexible, and continued to exude the miraculous fluid, which flowed so consistently and in such quantity that one doctor observed: “Let us suppose that the liquid never weighed more, on the average, than three grams a day. That amounts to about seventy-two kilograms in [the past] sixty-six years. But that quantity amounts to more than the entire weight of the hermit’s thin body. The lesser cannot give the greater!” 28
On April 22, 1950, the tomb of Father Sharbel again was opened — this time with permission. And the body was found still completely incorrupt and flexible, although the chasuble in which it was vested had partially deteriorated, and the zinc tube containing the official documents was covered with corrosion. This phenomenon continued until the saint’s canonization.
His beatification took place at the closing of the Second Vatican Council, on December 5, 1965, during the pontificate of Paul VI. At the next exhumation, the body was found to have complied with the laws of nature. Only the bones remained, which were of a curious reddish color they have maintained now for over thirty years. Likewise, the miraculous fluid also ceased to flow, but enough was gathered prior to the beatification that small quantities are still distributed.
After the 1950 exhumation, the monks kept official records of miracles and cures worked through the intercession of St. Sharbel. (Remarkably, none had been kept earlier.) In just two years, they had over 1200 reports! Miracles are still occurring to this day. God raised up this holy religious in seclusion, but his holiness is for the people .
The two miracles accepted for beatification occurred in 1950. The first was the cure of Sister Maria Abel Kawary, S.S.C.C., who for fourteen years had had a gastric ulcer that no medicine or operation could relieve. The second was the restoration of sight to Mr. Alessandro Obeid. He had been blinded when a tree branch tore out his retina. His sight was completely restored, and he was even given the grace of seeing St. Sharbel in a vision.
Why does God work through the saints? Why do such stupendous miracles result from the prayers said before one’s mortal remains, no matter how holy the person might have been? St. John Damascene, Doctor of the Church (d. 747) answers:
“Christ gives us the relics of saints as health-giving springs through which flow blessings and healing. This should not be doubted. For if at God’s word water gushed from a hard rock in the wilderness — yes, and from an ass’s jawbone when Samson was thirsty — why should it seem incredible that healing medicine should distill from the relics of the saints?”
These were the words of Brigita Makhlouf when her son entered the monastery: “If you were not to be a good religious, I would say to you: Come back home. But I know now that Our Lord wants you in His service. And, resigned in my sorrow at being separated from you, I say to Him: May He bless you, my child, and make you a saint.” Her prayer was answered, for on October 9th, 1977, Pope Paul VI declared Father Sharbel Makhlouf a saint of the universal Church. In the words of that Supreme Pontiff: “Praise be to the Holy Trinity, Which has given us the joy of proclaiming the Lebanese monk, Sharbel Makhlouf, a saint, in confirmation of the perennial, inexhaustible holiness of the Church!” 29
Let us ask these three “cedars of Lebanon,” St. Sharbel, Blessed Nematallah Hardini, and Blessed Rafka Er-Ryiess, to help us become saints, so we will fulfill our two-fold purpose: glorifying God, and saving our souls.
1 A “Father of the Church” is one whose writings serve as witness to traditions coming from the Apostles and to the beliefs of the early Christians.
2 G. Ricciotti, S. Efrem , pp.169-170.
3 From St. Ephrem’s hymns of Nisibis (Leipzig, 1866). These hymns were translated by G. Bickel into Latin in 1862. Bickel says: “I kept feeling . . . that if I ever found in these poems some conclusive proof of the Immaculate Conception, I would accept it as such and agree that the Roman Catholic Church is the True Church . . . I did, in fact, receive the decisive proof I was looking for.” (Rosenthal, Konvertitenbilder , III, 2, p. 415)
4 Saint Ephrem went to visit Saint Basil and was miraculously able to speak and understand Greek. Saint Basil wanted to ordain him a priest, but was able only to persuade St. Ephrem to accept the diaconate!
5 Catholic Encyclopedia , 1913, vol. VIII, p. 278.
6 “On the Blessed Virgin, the Mother of God,” verses 470-485 (Vona, pp.132-133).
7 Many today dispute this. Most modern reference books claim the Maronites had been heretics (Monothelites, denying the two wills in Our Lord, human and divine), until converting in the twelfth century. This event could have been a public profession of faith, however, rather than an abjuration of heresy. All such scholars base their claim on statements of William of Tyre. Chorbishop Seely Beggiani refutes the accusation: “To be guilty of formal heresy in the Catholic Church, one must be officially condemned by the Church and persist in the teaching once condemned. There is no indication that the Maronite Church as a church ever taught monothelitism. . . . Furthermore, the Council of Constantinople in condemning monothelitism listed by name those who had spread this heresy. The Maronite Church is not mentioned and there is no Maronite name in the list . . . . It is unfortunate that various encyclopedias have perpetuated this unsubstantiated charge and not consulted the officials of the Maronite Church. On the other hand, for the last nine hundred years the Popes, in official declarations, have consistently praised the Maronites for their perpetual union with Rome.” (Aspects of Maronite History , Part Three, http://www.stmaron.org )
8 Religious History of Syriac Asceticism , Theodoret, Bishop of Cyrrhus (393-466 A.D.), translated by R. M. Price.
10 Aspects of Maronite History , Chorbishop Seely Beggini.
11 Partiarch Stephen Doueihi was one of the most noteworthy of the Maronite Patriarchs. He lived from 1630-1704. During his pontificate as patriarch (1670-1704) he stabilized the liturgy, founded a free seminary for poor Maronite students, wrote a history of his people, and founded the Order of Saint Anthony (which later split into the Allepine and Baladite Orders). He suffered many persecutions, having to flee for his life several times. It is said that miracles occurred during his life and after his death, but as yet his cause has not been introduced.
12 Aspects of Maronite History
14 This Synod was of great importance to the Maronites (as the Council of Trent is to the Latin Rite), for it was responsible for the Maronite Code of Canon Law approved by Pope Benedict XIV. The Synod also established eparchies (dioceses) with resident bishops, clarified the rites to be used for the sacraments, and reaffirmed issues of faith (such as the Filioque in the Creed and the use of the Gregorian calendar). The powers and privileges of the various prelates ranking below a bishop were clearly defined. (The minor orders are Cantor, Lector, and Subdeacon. The major orders are Deacon, Priest and Bishop. A “Chorbishop” was originally a “country bishop,” but now the title is an honorary one, like that of “Monsignor.”) Until this century, with its liberal liturgical reformations, the decrees of this Synod were the norm for the Maronites.
15 The Druzes (or Druses) are a small, secretive sect that separated from the Mohammedan Arabs in the 9th century.
16 These figures are taken from Aspects of Maronite History.
17 Several Franciscans as well as the three Massabki brothers (Francis, Abdul-Moti, and Raphael) who were martyred on July 10, 1860, are now “Blessed” (October 10, 1926, Pope Pius XI).
18 Holiness of the Church in the Nineteenth Century, Rev. Constantine Kempf, S.J., Benziger Brothers, 1916. (Die. Kath. Missionem , 1889, 82, 99.)
19 Again, even through the awkwardness of a clumsy, faulty, modern translation, the beauty of this monastic office shines through in the readings, rituals, and the Eastern chant.
20 All three belonged to the Lebanese Order, following the rule of Saint Anthony of the desert, as confirmed by Pope Clement XII in 1732. When a monastery in Aleppo (a town in Syria) began to act independently, they called themselves Aleppines. The rest of the order was called the Baladites (the name is taken from the adjective for “country”). The same distinction exists among some of the Basilians of the Melkite Rite. All of the monastics written about in this article were Baladites.
21 There really is no such thing as “Jesuit nuns.” Petronilla is here referring to the Mariamaits, whose constitution was Jesuit-influenced. Their founder, as mentioned above, had placed the spiritual and temporal direction of these sisters in the care of the Jesuits.
22 There is some confusion as to whether or not she kept her own name. Father Awad, in Three Lights from the East , says she did; Bishop Zayek, in Rafka , says she took the name of Agnes; and three other references omit the point completely. To reduce the confusion of a constantly changing name, we have followed the testimony of Fr. Awad.
23 Three Lights from the East, p.137.
24 Donald Attwater, Golden Book of Eastern Saints , 1938, p.160
25 The term used by Abbot Nematallah El-Kafry, biographer and namesake of Bl. Hardini [Three Lights from the East ].
26 Women were not allowed in the monastery without incurring excommunication. The patriarch lifted this restriction after the miracle of April 22, 1950, so that all pilgrims could visit the tomb of the Saint.
27 An arthritic, unable to sleep for pain, a mute boy, and a cripple were all cured before Saint Sharbel’s burial [Three Lights from the East , pp. 87-88].
28 Doctor George Shecrallah, an eminent Lebanese physician who examined the body 31 different times over the course of seventeen years.
29 St. Sharbel’s feast day is July 23rd. A plenary indulgence is given to all who visit a Maronite Church on that day.