Around 1828, a baby boy entered this world. Throughout the land of his birth,
the people suffered under the oppression of longtime invaders and greedy
governors. His mountain village, often blessed by the airborne fragrance of
God's cedars, was nestled in the sacred mountains of Lebanon at such a height
that it appeared to reach the heavens.
Yussef Antoun Makhloof --later and forever after known as Sharbel-- was of humble birth. This is confirmed by the mud-packed walls of the house in which he was born and his simple monk’s burial without a coffin in the monastery catacombs 70 years later. These externals seem appropriate for one whose wealth, nobility and heroic achievements were spiritual.
In 1998, one hundred years after Sharbel's death, his hometown of Bekaa-Kafra, his hermitage in 'Annaya, his beloved bride the Maronite Church, and his blessed land of Lebanon are celebrating his centennial. Yet Sharbel belongs to more than his village, monastery, church or country. He belongs to the Universal Church and all Christians. When he was beatified on December 5, 1965, His Holiness Pope Paul VI announced that Saint Sharbel is "a new, eminent member of monastic sanctity [who] through his example and his intercession is enriching the entire Christian people."
Not much documentation on his life has been handed down to us. There have been searches for his birth certificate and anything in his handwriting, but what has been found must still be authenticated. There is only one authenticated document in the official records of the Monastery of Saint Maron and it is the entry announcing Sharbel's death.
When Sharbel died, Father Antonios Mishmeshani, the Superior of the Monastery was away at the Patriarchate because Patriarch John Peter el-Hage was dying. When the Superior returned to find that Sharbel had died, he wrote prophetically about him. This is the literal translation of the paragraph from the Monastery's official Death Record:
"On this day, the 24th of December 1898, Father Sharbel of Bekaa-Kafra, the Hermit, died of a stroke in the mercy of God after receiving the Sacraments of the Church. He was buried in the graveyard of the monastery at 68 years of age when Father Antonios Mishmeshani was the Superior. Because of what he [Sharbel] is going to accomplish after his death, I excuse myself from giving details of his life, especially in regard to the extent to which he kept his vows so that we can say his obedience was angelic and not human."
The Lineage And Childhood Of Yussef, The Future Sharbel
Yussef, who later took the name Sharbel, was the youngest of five children born to Antoun Zaarour Makhlouf and Brigitta Elias al-Shediyaq. His siblings were Hanna, Beshara, Koun and Warde (Sfeir 1995: 15). His father died when he was three years old. Like many of the Christians from the Lebanese Mountain, his father had been taken away from his family [by the Turks] and forced into hard labor. Antoun was required to transport the harvest on his donkey to the Emir (Prince). On his way back to his hometown, he developed a high fever and subsequently died. Because Antoun was buried in Gherfeen, near Byblos, where he had fallen ill, his family was unable to pay its last respects.
With his father's premature death, his mother became responsible for the welfare of her five children during another brutal period. She was a pious woman of strong character. In Bekaa-Kafra, Brigitta was renowned for daily fasting and praying the rosary. She was engaged in silk weaving like many other women of the village.
Upon the death of their father and in accordance with the custom of the times, Youssef and his siblings were placed under the guardianship of their paternal uncle, Tanious Zaarour Makhlouf. Two years later, the widowed Brigitta married Deacon Lahoud, son of Girgis Ibrahim Makhlouf, who later became a priest under the name of Abdel-Ahad. She had two more children, Noah and Tannous.
Father Abdel-Ahad, Brigitta and the children lived together as a devout Christian family. Brigitta continued to raise her children with love, faith and piety. The future saint and his siblings were used to prayer, fasting and attending Mass every day. Under the care of his stepfather, Yussef grew spiritually as he assisted him at Mass and in serving the community.
Yussef studied at the parish school and tended the family cow. He spent a great deal of time outdoors in the fields and pastures near his village and he meditated amid the inspiring views of boundless valleys and proud mountains. Outdoor work suited him perfectly because it allowed him to pray and meditate. He spent many hours in prayer at a grotto near the pastures. Around 1845, the village people named it "the Grotto of the Saint" even before he had decided to become a monk.
Yussef had several good role models within his family. In addition to his pious parents and his stepfather, his maternal uncles Augustin and Daniel al-Shediyaq were hermits at the monastery of Saint Anthony of Qozhaya in the Qadisha Valley, also called the Valley of Saints. He would visit them, follow their example and accept their guidance. He was so impressed by his uncles' devotion that his uncle Tanious and his mother were worried he would follow in their footsteps. Often, he said that he wanted to become a monk, but his uncle and mother were completely opposed and tried to change his mind.
Yussef Becomes Brother Sharbel
From early childhood, Yussef showed that he loved prayer and solitude. In 1851, without informing anyone, he left home. Tanious, his uncle and guardian, wanted Yussef to continue working with him. His mother wanted him to marry the young woman who loved him.
When Yussef became Brother Sharbel, he was filled with determination and walked all the way to his new home, "the monastery," his new family, "the Lebanese Maronite Order," and his new bride, "the Church." He followed in the footsteps of his maternal uncles, who were already hermits at the hermitage of Mar Boula (Saint Paul) in the Holy Valley of Qadisha, across from the Monastery of Our Lady of Qannobine.
The Lebanese Maronite Order of monks is the embodiment of the ancient eastern monasticism, which since early Christian times existed and thrived within widely dispersed, independent monasteries. In 1695, Lebanese Maronite monasticism was united under one order by the monk, 'Abdallah al-Qaraali, and his fellows. During Saint Sharbel's time, the Lebanese Maronite Order had over 1,000 monks out of a total Maronite population of about 300,000.
In 1853, two years after his novitiate, begun at Our Lady of Mayfouq and completed at the Monastery of Saint Maron in 'Annaya, the monastery council under the patronage of its Superior met to consider his request to become a monk. He was accepted and therefore would take the monastic vows.
At Mass on November 1, 1853 and in the presence of the superior, the novice master and the monks of the monastery, Sharbel took the monastic vows. Neither the monk's family nor the public were allowed to attend this solemn occasion. Only the monastic family was present.
During Mass, the Superior questioned the novice about his readiness to observe all his vows. After giving affirmative replies, Yussef then pronounced his monastic oath: "I, Brother Sharbel, promise God Almighty, in the presence of my Most Reverend Father General, to commit myself to obedience, chastity and voluntary poverty until death, according to our Rule and Order."
After pronouncing his vows, his hair was cut to show his dedication. He was then dressed in the black monastic habit, the angelic cowl [hood], the belt of the Order, the tassel and the habit. Each of these has its own special meaning and is an important symbol in the novitiate's transition to monkhood.
Black represents dying to the world. The black garb means that the monk has withdrawn from the world and all things worldly. By wearing the habit --the cloth of the poor-- the monk proclaims his poverty. The angelic cowl is what the angel gave to Saint Anthony the Great. It symbolizes the purity of the monk, who has forsaken the world and renounced his desire for marriage and children. By wearing the cowl, the monk proclaims his chastity and celibacy --his total commitment to the will of God. The belt symbolizes the monk's fidelity and chastity. The black tassel reminds us of the whip used to scourge Jesus. Every time the monk touches the tassel, he says "With your pain, O Jesus Christ." The robe symbolizes the plea to God to protect the monk. It means that the monk is in God’s care.
After being vested, Sharbel carried a cross in his left hand in response to Christ's call to "take up your cross and follow me" and a candle in his right hand to symbolize Christ, "the light of the world". He was then led in a procession to the church to show the community's joy that it had a new member.
Yussef was now Father Sharbel, a name he took in honor of an earlier Saint Sharbel, a martyr of the Antiochian Church. In wearing the monastic habit, cowl and belt, he was no longer part of the world or his family. Now he belonged to God and his community of monks.
For formation and education, Sharbel was transferred to the Monastery of Saints Yostina and Keprianos in Kfifan, the most important school of theology in Lebanon. He stayed there for six years, from 1853 to 1859, for studies in philosophy and theology. At Kfifan, he met two holy monks who were his teachers. They were Namatallah al-Kafri and Namatallah al-Hardini. The latter was a renowned and pious reformer whose imprint on the Order remains even today. Al-Hardini will be beatified by His Holiness John Paul II in Rome this coming May.
Father al-Hardini became Sharbel's spiritual mentor. As such, al-Hardini gave him a spiritual education and nurtured his deep love for holy monasticism. Father al-Hardini had a great influence upon Sharbel.
Sharbel was ordained a priest at the Maronite Patriarchate in Bkerke in 1859. His monastery was under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchal Vicar who resided in Bkerke at the time.
After his ordination, Father Sharbel returned to the Monastery of St. Maron. During his 19 years there, Sharbel performed his priestly ministry and monastic duties in an edifying way. He dedicated himself totally to Christ to live, work and pray in silence. Sharbel had said to his superior, "If you judge me worthy, give me the heaviest and most humiliating work."
As he had done at Kfifan, Sharbel tilled, planted and harvested the crops of the community’s land in Annaya. Indeed, working the land and engaging in manual labor formed the second element in monastic life after prayer: Ora et Labora. Until just a few decades ago, the Maronite Patriarch himself did farm work. Working the land in the Maronite tradition --the temporal and the sacred-- embodies a level of mysticism best illustrated by Father Michel Hayek. "A Maronite," said Hayek, "works, builds, plants as if he is celebrating the liturgy. His whole economy has a sacramental taste and a liturgical savoring --the vine and the wheat for the bread and the wine of the Eucharist; the olive tree to make the holy oils; the mulberry plant to weave the altar cloth and the vestments for benediction. All of which are signs of the hereafter."
Sharbel The Hermit
As he worked the land and performed manual labor at the monastery, he continued a life of purity, obedience and humility that has yet to be surpassed. In 1875, because he showed "supernatural power," he was granted permission to live as a hermit at the Hermitage of Saints Peter and Paul, which is near the monastery. This foreshadowed the true significance of 'Annaya which is a Syriac word meaning "hermit" or "anchorite".
The Hermitage of Saints Peter and Paul was built as a monastery in 1798 and became a hermitage in 1829 when the Order decided to build the Monastery of Saint Maron on a nearby property. The first monk to live as a hermit in this newly established hermitage was Father Alisha' al-Hardini, the brother of Namatallah al-Hardini who was Sharbel's teacher and mentor at Kfifan. He was followed by Fathers Yohanna al-'Akoury, Yowakim al-Zouki, Libaous al-Ramati and Sharbel Bekaa-Kafra.
At the hermitage, Saint Sharbel's companions were the Son of God, as encountered in the Scriptures and in the Eucharist, and the Blessed Mother. The Eucharist became the center of his life. Though this hermit did not have a place in the world, the world had a great place in his heart. Through prayer and penance he offered himself as a sacrifice so that the world would return to God.
It was in this secluded sanctuary that the monk Sharbel spent the remaining twenty-three years of his life practicing severe mortification. It is recorded by his companions that he wore a hair shirt, practiced corporal punishment, chained himself, slept on the hard ground and ate only one meal a day – the leftovers from his companions' meals.
His pillow was a piece of wood covered with an old cloth, a remnant from an old habit. His bed was made of goat hair and laid directly on the floor. Although a hermit, he was not exempt from the supervision and orders of his superiors. He was to follow strict religious practices and carry out a severe ascetic way of life. His day would start with adoration of the Eucharist, prayers and celebration of the Holy Mystery, followed by manual labor, fasting, penance, continuous prayer, little sleep, and mortification of the body…all of which Sharbel practiced with utmost humility and love.
Father Sharbel suffered a stroke on December 16, 1898 while he was reciting the prayer of the Holy Liturgy: "Father of Truth, behold Your Son, a sacrifice pleasing to You. Accept this offering of Him who died for me..."As he fell to the floor, he kept his hands clasped around the Holy Eucharist. His companion, Father Makarios Al-Mishmeshani the Hermit, and some other monks helped him to his cell. Eight days later, on Christmas Eve, he died while murmuring the names of Jesus, His Blessed Mother and Saint Joseph. This marked 23 years of solitude lived in total abandonment to God.
The body of the Saint was then laid out in the Church of the hermitage. The monks knelt near the body all night, praying and contemplating the life of their pious monk. On the morning of Christmas Day, a small cortege of monks and people from neighboring villages left the hermitage. The procession set out towards the Monastery of Saint Maron of 'Annaya for the burial ceremony, proceeding solemnly in prayer down the hill through the snow. The blessed body, clothed in the monk's habit, was laid on a stretcher made of three wooden planks. As the procession moved toward the monastery, a priest incensed the saint's body, while the mourners chanted in Syriac the psalms of the burial service.
As the cortege drew near the monastery, the tolling of the bells could be heard more clearly. Despite the glacial weather, the men and women villagers who had heard about the Saint's death came to pay their respects and obtain the blessing of the holy man. All the monks from the monastery were waiting outside, reciting the rosary and chanting in Syriac "Open your doors, O Celestial Jerusalem!" The ceremony continued and the body was laid upon a catafalque draped with a pall in the nave of Saint Maron's Church. In keeping with custom, the monks and the people came forward one by one and kissed the hands of the monk. As the crowd and the assembly of monks left, the body was left alone in the church illuminated by candlelight.
Sharbel's First Miracle After His Death
An unusual occurrence took place that night when, according to custom, Brother Elie Mehrini came to visit the Blessed Sacrament at midnight. As he knelt in prayer and adoration facing the tabernacle, a great light issued forth from the tabernacle and caressed the face of the deceased. Astonished, Brother Elie ran to his superior to inform him of his vision. The superior dismissed him and asked him to ring the bell for recital of the Office of the Second Day of Christmas.
Early the next morning, the body was carried to the grave located outside the monastery and adjacent to the wall of the church. After the Funeral Service was recited, a wooden board was placed in the large pit which contained the bones of other monks. Then Father Sharbel’s body was lowered into the grave without a casket, covered only by his monk’s habit and hood with a cross-clasped in his hands. Water was dripping into the pit and mud covered its floor. Seeing the miserable condition of the grave, some monks and villagers asked that the body be buried in a private tomb or put in a coffin. However, the monk in charge explained that there was no exception to the rule. Father Sharbel was to be buried just like his brothers in the order. The grave was subsequently covered with a stone, sealed with concrete and then sprinkled with holy water.
In the death records of the Monastery of Saint Maron, Sharbel's superior wrote that because of what Sharbel would accomplish after his death, he had no need to write about his life but was satisfied with stating that Sharbel had kept his vows like an angel and not like a human.
Starting on the night of his death, Sharbel's tomb emanated a bright light. This aroused the suspicion of the Ottoman Army which came searching for people who might be conspiring against the Empire. After getting permission from the Church authorities, the superior opened the tomb for the first time on April 15, 1899, four months after Sharbel's death. The body was found to be intact and as of that day exuded a blood-like moisture for the next 67 years. Between 1950 and 1975, his tomb was opened eight times and was examined by medical doctors in the presence of the Protector of the Faith and representatives of the Maronite Patriarch and of the Vatican, who found that his body still resembled a living one. Experts and doctors were unable to give any medical explanation for the incorruptibility and flexibility of the saint's body.
His tomb has been a site for pilgrimages ever since the day he died. Hundreds of miracles were performed through the intercession of Saint Sharbel in 'Annaya, Lebanon, and throughout the world. By 1977, 'Annaya had received 135,000 letters which are kept in an archive. They have come from 95 countries that wish to share with Sharbel's community the news of miracles, cures and wonders. (Two of the cures were considered miracles by Church authorities --namely, the healing of Sister Maria Abel Kamari S.S.C.C., who suffered from pain caused by an ulcer, and the healing of Mr. Alessandro Obeid who had been blinded in his right eye following an accident. Both cures were instrumental in the beatification of Sharbel on December 5, 1965 and in his canonization on October 9, 1977.
At the closing of the Second Vatican Council, on December 5, 1965, Sharbel was beatified by Pope Paul VI who said: "Great is the gladness in heaven and earth today for the beatification of Sharbel Makhlouf, monk and hermit of the Lebanese Maronite Order. Great is the joy of the East and West for this son of Lebanon, admirable flower of sanctity blooming on the stem of the ancient monastic traditions of the East, and venerated today by the Church of Rome.... The holy monk of Annaya is presented as one who reminds us of the indispensable role of prayer, hidden virtues and penance.... A hermit from the Lebanese Mountain is enrolled among the blessed...a new, eminent member of monastic sanctity is enriching the entire Christian people by his example and his intercession.... In a world largely fascinated with riches and comfort, he helps us understand the paramount value of poverty, penance, and asceticism to liberate the soul in its ascent to God...."
Sharbel Is A Phenomenon In This Age
In 1965, just before his beatification in Rome, a high-ranking Roman prelate with the Sacred Congregation for the Causes of Saints said to Bishop Francis Zayek, head of the diocese of Saint Maron in the United States of America: "Reading about the holy hermits who lived in the desert, we used to consider many reported facts as mere fables. In the life of Blessed Sharbel, however, we notice that these facts are authentic and true. Blessed Sharbel is another Saint Anthony of the Desert, or Saint Pachomius or Saint Paul the Anchorite. It is marvelous to observe how your [Maronite] Rite was able to preserve the same spirituality of the fathers of the desert throughout the centuries, and at the end of the 19th century, 1500 years later, produced a Sharbel for the Church."