Over the next few Sundays the gospel readings are taken from the sixth chapter of St John, which is usually known as the Eucharistic Discourse. This means that for the next few weeks every priest in the land will have to preach about the Holy Eucharist and allied topics, and as I myself contemplated this task I thought of all the saints who, in various ways, have deepened our understanding of the Eucharistic miracle.
The first that came to mind was, paradoxically, for he is not very well known in England, Saint Charbel (sometimes spelled Sharbel) Makhluf. I first came across devotion to saint Charbel in Lebanon, his native land. Wherever you go in the Christian parts of Lebanon, there you see Saint Charbel’s picture. The iconography is unmistakeable: he is wearing his monk’s habit, and his eyes are cast down.
Charbel was a monk in a Maronite monastery in Jbeil, Lebanon; he was famous for his devotion to prayer, and for the last decades of his life he lived as a hermit, giving himself entirely over to contemplation. It is said of him that he never looked at his fellow human beings, but only looked at the tabernacle, so rapt was he in contemplating the miracle of the real presence.
This idea of never casting a glance at your fellow human beings does strike one as distinctly odd by today’s standards, but it is worth remembering that the saints are meant to be counter-cultural, they are meant to make us think and readjust our worldly perspectives. We look at so many different things these days, but one thing alone, surely, is necessary. When we reach eternity, we shall, we hope, gaze on God forever, and never look away from that beatific vision. Why not start to look at him now, under the form of the Eucharistic speicies?
Charbel died on Christmas Eve, 1898, and he was beatified during the closing days of the Vatican Council, in 1965; he was canonised by Pope Paul VI in 1976. His cult is very strong wherever there are Lebanese communities, and remarkably strong in Mexico. Charbel is revered for his miracle-working reputation, but should chiefly be remembered as an example of prayer, I think. There is a picture of him in the church of Our Lady of Consolation, West Grinstead . But nowhere else have I seen one in this country. His feast is on the 24th July, and has recently been made a universal, though optional, memorial.
Perhaps one reason that led Pope Paul to canonise Saint Charbel was the desire to remind Catholics of the long history of the Maronite Church, and of the continuing devotion of the Lebanese to Christ the Saviour. He may also have wished to correct the erroneous notion that Catholicism is somehow a purely Western phenomenon. Sadly, the Maronite community in Lebanon has been much reduced in numbers in recent years, and there are now more Maronites outside Lebanon than in it. A similar fate may be awaiting the Christians of nearby Syria. These communities, along with other Christian communities of the Middle East are the subject of an outstanding book by William Dalrymple, From the Holy Mountain, which if you have not read yet, you should get hold of at once. We often wonder what we can do to help our Christian brethren in the Middle East. At the very least we can pray for them, and the invocation of Saint Charbel may be a good way to start.